Film Review

“Payasam”: Vasanth S. Sai’s sensitive retelling of a Thi. Janakiraman short story

Print edition : December 31, 2021

A still from the short film “Payasam” directed by Vasanth S. Sai, based on Thi. Janakiraman’s short story. Photo: By special arrangement

Valambal (Rohini) and Samanadhu (Delhi Ganesh) look back on their life together. Photo: By special arrangement

In his film adaptation of Thi. Janakiraman’s Tamil short story “Payasam”, film-maker Vasanth S. Sai succeeds in bringing alive the spirit of this fabled author on the screen.

In the 1970s, the United States Information Service (USIS), Chennai, organised a festival of films based on the writer Ernest Hemingway’s works. The film The Old Man and the Sea and the way the novella had been visualised made a big impact on me. I wondered if I would ever see films of such standard based on Tamil stories.

Recently, when I watched on Netflix the short film “Payasam”, one of the nine in the anthology film Navarasa, that USIS film festival floated by my mind. This film is based on a Tamil short story by Thi. Janakiraman. Set in 1965 in Kumbakonam, the story is told against the backdrop of a marriage in a family. With his minute observations, Janakiraman captures the features of the life of the Brahmin community in that town. In this film adaptation of the eponymous story, film-maker Vasanth S. Sai succeeds in bringing alive the spirit of this fabled author on the screen.

In addition to a sensitivity to literature, a film-maker has to be familiar with the possibilities of cinema, its language, its grammar and syntax to be able to effectively adapt a literary work. The camera should be to the film-maker what the pen is to the writer. He is not illustrating the story but creating a new work of art, and he does this on the basis of an already completed work of art, the novel or a short story.

The film opens with a drone shot of the Cauvery, and then moves on to Samanadhu, the main protagonist, worshipping Ganesa under a peepal tree by the tank. The expanse is bathed in the golden light of the early morning sun, even as a nagaswaram plays the raga Bhairavi in the background. Then we are taken straight away into the ambience of the marriage house; the excitement, the rituals and the colour are all captured imaginatively. Each frame is filled with people and movement, and when the film-maker wants to draw your attention to something, he resorts to a close-up. The brisk tempo is kept up until the denouement.

Samanadhu, who had lost his wife a few years back, is indifferent to the marriage taking place in the family. He is particularly envious of Subbu, his nephew, who is acting as the major-domo of that event. Samanadhu looks back on his own life, the way his daughter lost her husband three months after her marriage and the death of his own wife. He seethes with resentment. Delhi Ganesh gives a riveting performance as the crabby old man. In the way he looks at Subbu, he brings out the envy that he is possessed with.

Also read: Thi. Janakiraman: A classical radical

The crucial factor in such adaptations is screenplay. This literary device enables the transition from story to film, the metamorphosis of print to visuals. Often a different writer is employed to conceive the screenplay. For instance, the playwright Harold Pinter was hired to create the screenplay for the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) adapted from a novel by John Fowles. Here Vasanth S. Sai himself has handled that work quite imaginatively.

Valambal (played by Rohini), the late wife of Samanadhu, appears on the screen instead of being a mere voice as in the story. I think this is an imaginative stroke by the film-maker. Her screen appearance is natural and convincing as if she were a living character, which she is not. She is only an apparition. But there is no trick shot here. She walks out of the frame calmly.

In the case of adaptation, the film-maker gets a dramatic structure provided by the writer to build on. He already has a beautiful creation to work from. Some of the greatest films are adaptations from novels. Eighty per cent of the movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture are based on literary works. Using the flexibility of the screen, the film-maker should be able to present in images what the writer tries to do in words and sentences. A good example from Indian cinema would be Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore.

The evocative power of the visuals, used with the other cinematic devices, such as lighting and symbols, can enhance the points touched upon by the writer. Towards this purpose, the film-maker will take liberties with the original novel. He can create characters for the film, do away with some characters of the story. “Payasam”, the film, is the result of such a creative interaction.

The interface between literature and cinema has been superficial in Tamil cinema; meaningful adaptations are rare, barring a few. One such was Ezhai padum paadu/Plight of the poor (1952) by T.R. Ramnoth, based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The other adaptation that comes to mind is Jayakanthan’s film, based on his story Yarukkaaga azhuthaan/ For whom did he cry (1966). This is one of the rare instances where the writer himself made a film based on his own literary work. In neighbouring Kerala, M.T. Vasudevan Nair did it when he made Nirmalyam (1973).

While adapting a literary work, the film-maker creates a piece of cinema, with its own integrity, based on the literary work. He uses the camera to interpret the story creatively using the distinctive qualities of cinema. So it is unfair to compare the film to the literary original. They are creations of two media that differ in nature basically. This is what Vasanth S. Sai has achieved with “Payasam”, and it will remain in our memory for a long time.