When I decided to watch Raja Paarvai, I went out of my way to find out a bit of its history before doing so, because sometimes knowing the backstory of a film’s production goes a long way in adding to its enigma. It was the first Kamal production under his home banner, then named Haazan Brothers, later Rajkamal International. Looking at his filmography, one can also deduce that it was one of his first experimental films where he played outside the rules of conventional Tamil cinema. In this regard, my mom told me that at the time he was asked to add traditional masala elements to make sure the film appeals to a wider audience, but he refused saying it would dilute the emotional core that makes up the film.

This has since become a defining aspect of Kamal’s career where he has chosen artistic integrity over box-office success every time he has been forced to make a choice. Indeed, you can see why the film might not have appealed to a large number of viewers: the romance that makes up the film isn’t what you would expect from a Tamil film; much of the film is taken up by two people talking; it has two songs neither of which is there to stuff the film’s running time. Even now, two decades after it was released, I am sat here wondering whether a film like Raja Paarvai could possibly work in today’s climate, then you can imagine how far ahead of its time it was in 1981. That, simply put, is the singular reason to watch this film. Raja Paarvai is, in essence, a depiction of the tender love that develops between a blind man and an author who has chosen him as the muse for her next story. The first meeting between Raghu (Kamal) and Nancy (Madhavi) isn’t exactly what one would call a meet-cute; she accuses him of misbehavior without realizing that he is blind. Then, a few days later, after witnessing one of his violin performances, she goes to apologize to him, and thus begins a relationship that blossoms into friendship, and later, a full-blown romance.

I know poetry in motion is one of the oft-overused clichés in cinema, but if it isn’t applicable to the first hour and half of Raja Paarvai, then I don’t know what is. Right from their respective professions – she is an author and artist whereas he is a musician – there is something inherently poetic about their relationship. Not surprisingly, it is also devoid of any clichés. No sweet-nothings, no overt display of love; for the most part, it is just two people talking and getting to know each other. I felt that the scene where they both profess their love was absolutely brilliant and heartfelt. There are a number of other effective scenes as well like her first visit to his apartment where the power goes off and he jokingly welcomes her to his world. It is one of those scenes where the director could’ve easily overdone the emotions, but he plays it out just right. A lot of what makes up their romance is shot in similar fashion.

Unfortunately, not everything in the film works as well as it should. Besides the lead couple and Nancy’s light-hearted grandfather, the rest of the characters are, for the most part, bland caricatures seen so often in Tamil cinema. From Raghu’s cruel stepmother to Nancy’s egoistic, rich, and controlling father to Raghu’s humorous friend Seenu, none of them make any sort of impression. This isn’t that much of an issue in the first three-quarters of the film where the focus is on the romance. However, the final quarter is when all of them come together to undermine the film’s effectiveness. From Seenu getting Raghu drunk to the latter’s stepmother collaborating with Nancy’s father to stop them seeing each other, the final half hour single-handedly almost derails the film. I say ‘almost’ because despite the director’s best efforts, it really is hard to overlook the brilliance of the romance that makes up the rest of the film.

Throughout much of the film’s running time, I was keenly trying to observe what was so different about this Kamal Haasan when compared to his other films from the same era. On a superficial level, I literally couldn’t spot any in comparison with something like Kakki Chattai for example, where he sports a similar look. The only exception would have to be the blank stare he has in his eyes. Yet, he somehow makes us believe he is blind. No accelerated blinking of the eyelids; no white lens to hammer the thought into the audience’s heads like numerous films before or since. There is a beautiful scene in the film where he stands alongside other kids in a blind school, some of whom are blind in reality. It is a testament to his genius as an actor that he never looks out of place for even a single moment. Kamal’s attention to detail is evident in almost every frame as he never goes out-of-character even towards the climax when lots of things are happening around him. In hindsight, one might say this is what we would expect from Kamal, but still watching an actor fumble around for the back seat of a scooter in what is almost the final frame of the film is something else altogether.

Madhavi, sans any make-up, has what can be counted as the most deglamorized role in her career. She is a competent enough actress and serves as the perfect foil but is in Kamal’s shadow for the most part. The rest of the cast is made up of Kamal regulars. Y.G. Mahendran as Seenu provides most of the laughs. ‘Delhi’ Ganesh as Nancy’s brother George can be considered to have been cast against type for a change. L.V. Prasad is delightful as Nancy’s grandfather who gets to have the last word.

In keeping with the experimental theme, the film has only two songs to speak of, but, oh, what songs they are. Ilaiyaraja and Kamal have always shared a unique rapport that is all their own, and the collaboration of both their geniuses has resulted in some of Tamil cinema’s seminal masterpieces. Andhi Mazhai… would easily rank as one of them. Very few songs can lay a claim to be perfect in all aspects, but from Vairamuthu’s imaginative wordplay to Ilaiyaraja’s haunting music to S.P.B’s unique rendition ably supported by S.P. Shylaja to the picturization which follows Kamal and Madhavi playing around against some spectacular backdrops, there isn’t a fault that can be leveled against this song. Azhagae Azhagu… isn’t as well known as the former, but the soothing melody rendered mellifluously by Yesudas along with Kannadasan’s descriptive lyrics of female beauty makes sure it is just as effective and unforgettable. The violin pieces heard throughout the film and the background music are just added reasons to praise Ilaiyaraja’s genius.

Watching Raja Paarvai yesterday, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I won’t be an outcast in any Kamal conversation from now onwards. But that is not as important as me getting to watch what is easily one of the best romances in Tamil cinema. In spite of the long, overwrought and uninspired climax, I still want to see the film countless times more just to watch the beautiful, understated romance between Kamal and Madhavi. Raja Paarvai may have just fallen short of being considered as an undisputed classic, but it is easily one of the best unconventional films Kamal has given us in a career that has seen him make a name out of doing out-of-the-ordinary films.