A few days back I was laughing at a ‘corona’ meme on social distancing — the social distancing practised by Visu in Samsaram Athu Minsaram. It was that epic scene in which Godavari crossed the ‘veetukku naduvula kodu’ (line in the middle of the house). This is the level of influence Visu’s cult movies have had in the collective minds of Tamil cinema audience.
I was shocked to hear of Visu sir’s demise yesterday. If you were in TN in the 80s or 90s, you would have spent many Sunday evenings watching his movies on Doordarshan, like I did.
His movies were set in a house that was usually as small as mine and the comedy was such that my grandmother, mother and I could laugh together. Typically the lead character would be sitting on an easy chair and reading the newspaper on his front porch. This man was a diabetic craving sweets and snacks on special occasions. It totally reminded me of my grandfather. My father would say, “Oh! People are standing next to doors, pillars and window panes and talking. It must be a Visu movie.”
There was a movie made with someone like my grandfather and in a place somewhat like my own home. My sister would quote dialogues in our conversations for a few days after a Visu movie came on TV. I was more than thrilled watching them, because I could relate to them.
Later, when I became a screenwriter, I truly understood what his movies meant. And people standing and talking near doors and pillars? How he made every day places and conversations interesting is a masterclass in staging and direction. He would sometimes even set a nail-biting climax or intense interval point in a living room. He was able to achieve wonderful things with very little space. A skill that everyone who wants to make films should aspire to imbibe.
What made people from three different generations laugh for a Visu joke? His humour was clean and relatable (which is a rarity these days). He could take something as simple as making kesari, and turn it into an interesting scene. His dialogues were like choreography with words. His magic was evident in myriad settings such as the heated argument in Samsaram Athu Minsaram or the interview scene from Thillu Mullu which has the audience in splits decades after the movie first released.
Why did I feel like my grandfather was playing the leading role in his films? Visu’s characters were ordinary men and women. The on screen equivalent of RK Lakshman’s “common man”. No wonder common people felt represented. He explored themes that were never explored before, themes that were deemed too simple, such as problems created by an old man who never worked a day in his life (Kudumbam Oru Kadambam) . The balancing act of a father, the head of a joint family (Samsaram Adu Minsaram). A guardian who tries to find a bride for a man who has an unreasonable set of conditions (Manal Kayiru). These were everyday issues but were novel and fascinating on screen. He showcased the day-to-day life of middle class families. Like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, Visu created a middle class motormouth as his iconic character. Almost all his films were blockbusters. Many of them were among the top five grossing films of their respective years.
Since we didn’t have a cable connection, I watched his famous ‘Arattai’ Arangam during summer holidays when I went to my maternal grandparents’ house. The tone and delivery of his speeches were unique. The show became an integral part of Tamil popular culture.
A few years ago, when I watched his interviews on Youtube, he sounded very different. My colleague and friend Rajmohan told me that Visu sir was operated upon for throat cancer, which was why his voice sounded strained. When I met him in person, he was undergoing dialysis three days a week. I clearly remember, he said “I’m going to think there are only four days in a week and I’m going to be active for those remaining days”. What an inspiration! A writer, actor, director, theater artist, orator, TV show host. What an exceptional career he had!
After almost 30 years, his films inspire many creators to make clean family movies. ‘Visu Padam’ is a genre of its own in Tamil cinema. He has left giant footprints in the Tamil film industry. In the age of social media where nuance has lost meaning, where flamboyance is the way of life, we have a thing or two to learn from his work. Rest in Peace, Visu sir.
Bala Kumaran is a screen writer and a stand up comedian.