Marupakkam is one of those rare films in Indian cinema that examine the human mind - in this case the guilt complex that causes a tremendous shock to the central character rendering him practically an invalid. The film came out at 1990 even as the New Indian Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s was starting to flounder due to lack of audiences and being dismissed as arty and boring but nevertheless is a fine effort.
The film is based on a novella by Indira Parthasarthy and one has to commend director Sethu Madhavan's adaptation on both the screenplay and filming level. The film has a nice local flavour of the small temple town where it is based while the screenplay effortlessly goes back and forth in both, time and space, as we figure out what has led to Vembu Iyer becoming what he is today. Layered within the main story are various issues, small and big, dealing with the temple town be it the plight of widows, the orthodox attitude towards music and dance not befitting decent people etc.
Made in Tamil by a filmmaker essentially known for his fine work in Malayalam cinema, Marupakkam's biggest strength is that director KS Sethu Madhavan keeps it more layered, relatively more subtle than conventional Tamil cinema and as visual as he can. Marupakkam is that rare Indian film, which is not verbose, and he makes extremely judicious use of dialogue. In particular, the climax is a masterstroke as he handles the entire sequence with just two short dialogues where the doctor asks Ambi if Sweetie is his better half and he says yes. The rest of the 5-6 minute sequence is simply done with all the various characters exchanging looks or gestures with each other as per their individual equations with each other and coming to terms with their respective feelings. It's rare seeing such sequences in Indian cinema and you cannot help but admire the director's effort here.
On the flip side, there are the odd glitches. In terms of treatment and style, there are times you feel it is one of the typical NFDC films of its time and the film does betray its low budget at times. The English dialogues do sound a trifle stilted and the flashback sequences of Sivakumar and Radha have a touch of the filmi to them, a little out of tone with the rest of the film. L Vaidyanathan's music works well for the songs but is overbearing when it comes to the background score and, in fact, hampers the film at times, particularly in the brilliantly conceived climax, as the music unsuccessfully tries to hammer in the emotions already present. This reduces the emotional wallop the climax should have had. It still works well enough but... And I'm not sure I agree with Sweetie ultimately having to be the good Hindu wife rather than be herself to make herself acceptable to the traditional and ailing old man.
The two central performances of Sivakumar and Jayabharathi are exemplary and hold the film together. Sivakumar, in particular, is simply superb, especially in his older avatar. Marupakkam is arguably the finest performance of his long and distinguished career, Annakili (1976), Bhadrakali (1976) and Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) notwithstanding. See his control of each facial muscle as he emotes with just a look or a twitch with the camera on him in tight close up or his body language throughout the film. He shows you a good actor doesn't need the help of dialogue to show what he is thinking or going through. In fact, the couple of places where his voice over has been used to help the audience wonder what he is going through feels unnecessary as his look more than aptly conveys what he is meant to be thinking. It is hard to believe that this performance lost out to Amitabh Bachchan's more populist one in Agneepath (1990) at the National Awards. With due respect to Mr Bachchan, it doesn't quite hold up to Sivakumar's fine work in this film.
Jayabharathi supports him perfectly. Though his is the author-backed role, she more than leaves her mark in the more difficult role in the film. Her face is an astonishing myriad of emotions as Sweetie and then Avayam come at the finale to see Vembu Iyer. Radha is a trifle filmi in her younger scenes but carries herself in her older avatar perfectly. Sekar is so-so as the son, Ambi. The rest of the supporting cast is adequate.
Marupakkam went on to win the Golden Lotus or Best Film at the National Awards with Director Sethu Madhavan winning for best Screenplay as well. Jayabharathi's performance also got a special mention from the Awards jury.
All in all, a rewarding enough watch.