How Pa Pandi Helped Me See the Old Woman In The Image

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Are younger people really able to see the world from the perspective of seniors? An outing to watch the Tamil movie Pa Pandi with her mother in law, leaves Meera Rajagopalan with some thoughts…

Even before we entered Screen 7 at the Palazzo, for the screening of the Tamil movie Pa Pandi, the feeling of discomfiture had begun. It wasn’t that the movie had bad reviews: it was more personal. For, the movie, while being touted as the hit of the summer, dealt with something we were still coming to terms with: our parents’ expression of their wish to not move in with us, as we looked to move outside the city to the outskirts.

Pa Pandi is the directorial debut of actor and Rajnikanth son-in-law Dhanush, and is dedicated to his parents. It tells the story of 65-year-old Power Pandi, a former stunt master who now lives with his son and his family. It is the story of the clash of expectations of generations and of Pandi’s search, through a road trip by bike, for “something for himself” (which happens to be his first girlfriend), and the eventual, seemingly inevitable return home.

Cut to our situation: we’re trying to convince our parents-in-law to move closer to or with us as we move to the outskirts, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. As might be expected, they are resisting, and we are pushing, each of us fighting, apparently, for our own peace of mind. All around us, we hear these stories: my dad, a close friend’s mother-in-law, a cousin’s in-laws. If history were any indication, we tell each other, we would not ill-treat them. “Then what’s the issue? Why can’t they just come live with us?” we exclaim, exasperated and secure in the vindication of our stand simply by virtue of the number of us who face the same “problem.” As the movie Pa Pandi proceeds along predictable lines — the son not quite understanding the father, the grandchildren doting on Pandi and vice versa, Pandi only reveals his true feeling of being trapped to the young man next door. After a particularly cathartic (and emetic) night, he decides to leave his son’s house, leaving just a letter behind, where he says, “… a cage, even if golden, is still a cage.”

I looked to my right and saw my mother-in-law nodding sagely. The interval lights came on.

I looked forward to Pandi’s search for himself—I thought his experiences on the road would help him along, in realising his inner self. At a local dhaba, he meets a few men who have similarly left home. A long flashback ensues, where we learn about Pandi’s ex-girlfriend (“first love” in the movie) Poonthendral and Pandi concludes that all he wants to do is meet her. After Pandi relates his failed love, they all console him, “Who marries their first love anyway, Mr. Pandi?” and the entire theatre burst into laughter. The gravitas of youth was instantly lightened by the lens of perspective that came with experience.

The old men create a Facebook page, and Pandi locates her in Hyderabad, where they meet and reminisce and sparks fly. The scene where Poonthendral throws the phone away, scared of Pandi’s message, “Am I still in your heart?” is so real that I went, “Hmm… there’s so much about both sets of parents I know nothing about.” Ultimately, Pandi’s son locates him and they return home, Pandi by bike, the metaphor for his independence. The possibility of getting back together with Poonthendral seems inevitable at this point and the credits roll on.

As we walk back to the car, I wondered whether the father-son knot was unravelled too easily; whether there could have been more than just a threat=realization equation for the son’s change of heart; whether Pandi could have had more than a relationship that he wanted to go to.

However, what Power Pandi does really, is give seniors a sense of agency. That ability to do something of one’s own will, denied to most Indian children at some level. In a duty-bound society like ours, that tends to switch sides, like a tennis match, so that elders are often denied that agency in their silver years. As we, in our 30s and 40s, realize that we can break out of the shackles of expectations, we are now aghast that elders might want to live life on their own terms as well. And that it might not come in a neatly packaged retirement community option is unfathomable.

It is eerily like parents unable to lose control over their children, like parents telling their children who wanted to be pilots and writers and navy officers: “But engineering is good for you. We know.” It was the same logic, now turned around to face them. “You will surely miss your grandchildren. You will be bored by yourselves. The move will be good for you. We know.”

The old woman in the image

The old woman in the image

Ultimately, with its flaws, Pa Pandi too succeeds in turning the perspective around, so that, like that famous perceptual illusion where the brain switches between seeing an old woman and a young woman in the same image, we are finally able to really “see” the world from the perspective of the seniors.

Eventually, warts and all, what Pa Pandi has succeeded in doing is letting me and my husband realize that seniors, like everyone, are entitled to lives that veer away from a pre-determined script written ages ago. We can now imagine a future where we live in the outskirts and my parents-in-law in the city, each of us at peace with our situation.

About Author

Meera Rajagopalan

Meera Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based writer whose work veers around the theme of identity. Her work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in anthologies, The Madras Mag and Arts Illustrated, among others.