The Tamil-language film Azhagi (2002) was adapted by acclaimed cinematographer Thankar Bachan from his own short story "Kalvettu." Perhaps Bachan was too close to the material, because to me it felt that as a writer and director he sometimes got in the way of his excellent cast. The film is compelling, but some miscalculations and inconsistencies make it less powerful than it might have been. (Image from thankarbachan.com.)
As schoolchildren, Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi are friends and allies against the cruelties of adults and other children; and as they grow older, they begin to feel the stirrings of an unspoken love. But they are separated when Dhanalakshmi is forced to marry her abusive, alcoholic brother-in-law, while Shanmugam goes off to veterinary college.
Years later Shanmugam (Parthiban) accidentally encounters the widowed Dhanalakshmi (the always superb Nandita Das) and her young son, now impoverished and living on the streets. He decides to bring them home and give Dhanalakshmi a job as a household servant to help his wife Valarmati (Devayani) with their two children.
But no good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and Dhanalakshmi's presence in Shanmugam's household is soon exciting nasty insinuations from the townspeople and inflaming suspicions in his wife. And her suspicions aren't entirely unjustified. It's clear that Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi's powerful feelings for one another haven't been extinguished, although--with mixed success--they both try to avoid overstepping the bounds of their new relationship. Shanmugam's mother-in-law is outraged by what she sees as Dhanalakshmi's too-familiar manner, while his wife Valarmarti's initial sympathy begins to wear thin as her awareness of her husband's past (and present) emotional connection to the beautiful Dhanalakshmi grows.
The cast is uniformly excellent, including the child actors who play Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi at various stages of childhood and adolescence (the credits are in Tamil only, so I couldn't identify who they are). Nandita Das' performance as the adult Dhanalakshmi is especially affecting. And the wistful songs by Ilaiyaraaja enhance the melancholy mood. All of these elements come together at the moment that Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi first encounter one another again in "Un Kuthama" (vocals by Ilaiyaraaja):
But unfortunately Azhagi also includes supposedly comic episodes (featuring the petty corruption of Shanmugam's colleagues) which for me only served to disrupt the delicately established mood. There's also a gratuitous and implausible fight scene where Shanmugam defends Dhanalakshmi's honor (and his own) against a group of insulting men. Bachan may have felt that he had to include these masala elements in order to insure the film's commercial success, but for me they were jarring interruptions that seemed to belong to another film entirely.
At least the comedy and fight scenes can be hastened through using the fast-forward button. More problematic is the character of Valarmati, who swings wildly between the extremes of sympathetic understanding and bitter anger. Bachan needed to add a bit more nuance to her character, although the lovely Devayani does what she can to make Valarmati's reactions seem credible.
I've got a major weakness for stories of impossible loves: characters whose yearning for one another is so held in check by social convention and by their concern for hurting others that they can never bring themselves to act on their feelings. If you share my susceptibility to stories of thwarted passion (or my admiration for Nandita Das) you'll find a good deal to enjoy in Azhagi, despite its flaws.