Confession time: I have a list of scenes that I occasionally revisit when I feel like I can use a good cry. (I used to think this was pretty unusual but realized it’s way more mainstream than I thought). And one scene that dominates this list, one that never fails to pump tears out of my system – the OG tear-jerker – is the pre-climax conversation between Vishnu (Mohanlal) and the Jail Superintendent (MG Soman) in Chithram.
Despite being sentenced to death for an accidental crime, Vishnu does not even try to defend himself in court, as he has lost his will to live, owing to his wife Revathy’s (Lissy) demise. He escapes prison and accepts Kalyani’s conning assignment to secure some money for his daughter’s surgery. Yet, all this while he is nonchalant about his imminent death at the hands of the Law. But as the days progress, he begins to develop a fondness for Kalyani, who reciprocates this feeling. It is too late, though – the jail superintendent has located him, and the police are on their way to take him away for the execution. On the last night of his stay at the mansion, he goes to the superintendent’s room and says, “Jeevikaan ippo oru moham thonnunu. Athu kondu choikkya… Enne kollathirikkan pattuo?”
Now, the situation is pretty poignant – A man feeling helpless about his life ending just as he begins to like his life again. And this emotion is accentuated on screen, thanks to every department making a solid contribution: the dialogues, the way Priyadarshan blocks this scene, Johnson’s poignant score, Mohanlal’s (and MG Soman’s) superlative performance et al. Yet, I’m going to talk about the one aspect that, I believe, elevates this scene like nothing else does: Mohanlal’s approach to playing this situation out.
I recently came across a reel (excerpt of an interview I couldn’t find later) where veteran actor Ashutosh Rana gives his two cents on acting in emotional scenes. He says that it is when the actor performs with restraint – in simpler terms, holds back their tears – that the audience resonates with the performance, and in a virtual flow of energies, the viewer empathises with and cries on behalf of the character. Instead, if the character cries out loud in the scene, the viewer would think – “He’s already crying enough; why should I?” (An interesting take, don’t you think?)
I believe this is a major reason why Lalettan’s performance hits us like a brick in Chithram.
With hours left before he is taken away to the noose, Vishnu is (figuratively) bleeding inside as he walks into the Superintendent’s room. You’d expect him to run to the man and fall at his feet, crying profusely, desperately and repeatedly pleading to be freed.
But…a misty-eyed Vishnu stands by the Superintendent’s bed, looks the officer in the eye, and asks him once if there’s any chance he can get out of this situation alive. And this is done in the subtlest, most composed manner possible. He even tries to put on a hopeful smile as he utters the words, “Enne kollathirikkan pattumo?” The superintendent is visibly moved. Lost for words and unable to face this man, he looks away. Vishnu understands the gesture as a rejection and, accepting his fate smiles and says “Saaramilla” and walks away.
Every inch of Mohanlal’s body exercises restraint in this nearly 1-minute scene. He is hesitant yet expressive; his body language is hopeless, yet his eyes are hopeful. This beautifully executed dichotomy instantly connects with the viewer, who feels genuine remorse for the man. I have watched this scene at least 50 times and have cried each time.
I was also curious to see how this scene panned out in the remakes (Chithram has been remade four times!). The Kannada version, Rayaru Bandaru Mavana Manege, and the Telugu version, Alludugaaru, have similar beats for the confrontation. They have a similar restrained acting effort by the leads and similar melancholic scores. They’re all good, but… they just don’t hit as hard.
I watched and rewatched these scenes to find the hidden X-factor in the OG version. And my best guess is that Priyadarshan’s mise-en-scene changes the tone of the confrontation. In the remade versions, the Superintendent is sitting in an armchair, and the protagonist (let’s call him Vishnu gaaru) comes up from behind the chair, causing the superintendent to stand up and have a face-to-face conversation with him.
In Chithram though, the Superintendent is lying on a bed. Vishnu enters the room, and the Superintendent gets up in anticipation of a threat or an outburst.
But Vishnu stands at the opposite leg of his bed, and he makes his request while holding onto the bed frame. Holding onto the bed adds vulnerability/dependency to the character, and the distance between the characters (on opposite sides of the bed) adds to the drama of the confrontation.
This analysis (like any other) is open to discussion. So rewatch the scene in Chithram and let us know what other elements elevate it to the melancholic crest it is!