Filmy Ripples – Rise & fall of vamps (Part 1)

By P.V. Gopalakrishnan

The early Tamil cinema was either associated with period of pre-independence or the post republic decades that succeeded. Then, the life in India, was relatively simple, with down to earth values and without much complications. There was less room for negative vibrations, cynicism or self doubt. This was replicated on the silver screen in its social subject movies. As such, the social movies were largely family subjects with love & romance, with only a loner villain who was usually a male character constantly raising his eye brows & gritting his teeth, in scheming an evil plan against the hero & his clan or against the society at large.

But, the negative characters are part of human evolution and are handed down from times of Epic, such as Ravana in Ramayanam or Duryodhan/ Sakuni in Mahabharatham. So the ‘villains’ became integral part of story lines in films too. In carrying the legacy of negative characters, there was a battery of this genre in Tamil screen, to name a few like M.N.Nambiar, P.S.Veerappa, R.S.Manohar, M.R.Radha, S.Ramdas, O.A.K. Thevar, T.S.Baliah, T.K.Ramachandran, Kallapart Natarajan, playing dastardly villains with raucous laughs, each with their own individual hall mark. Of course, some of them became character or comedy actors later as they had the dexterity to emote in such roles too. Such instances repeated later too with villains like Nasser & Satyaraj even transcribing into hero roles. There was also the reverse, as a hero like Jayashankar later came to shine in villain roles. Occasionally a well-accepted frontline hero such as Sivaji Ganesan or Kamal Hassan too appeared in negative roles. What about Nagesh in a negative role in Thillana Mohanambal where he excelled with a tinge of comedy?

Sigappu Rojakkal

A working still from the Film Sigappu rojakkal in which Kamal Hassan Played a negative role. PC: From the Archives of TCRC

Kanavane Kankanda Deivam

A working still from the Film KANAVANE KANKANDA DEIVAM of M.N. Nambiyar.
PC: From the Archives of TCRC

Soon, the female equivalent of a villain, colloquially called ‘villi’, also started appearing in films. This could be construed as an organic transition in the anthology of Tamil Screen as it evolved & got rediscovered with times. If there could be a negative character why would it be restricted to one gender alone? The logic worked!

To slightly digress, talking of evolution of cinemas, internationally, it was in early thirties that larger than life legendary characters like Superman & Batman were conceptualized more as an ‘escape into fantasy’ when the world was reeling under the world war.

Likewise, it was time for Tamil Screen too to have ‘villi’s in their shopping list! After all, even in Epics we have had villi like ‘Manthara’ aka ‘Kooni’! And the Tamil Screen has had villi like Sundari Bai, M.S.S Pakkiyam, C.K.Saraswathi, and M.N.Rajam. Their equivalents in Hindi were Nadira, Lalitha Pawar, Shashikala Leela Mishra & the like.

CK Saraswathi

The picture above is of C.K.Saraswathi as she appeared in ‘Thillana Mohanambal’, in the ever-watchful ‘madam’ character of ‘Vadivambal’ with whom T.S.Baliah, in his Percussionist role, used to display amorous overtures in the film.

Soon, the ‘terminology’ (if I may call it so), “Item Number’ came to be coined by Bollywood, in reference to songs made up of lyrics, so sleazy. Whereas they were traditionally synonymous with what was known as ‘club dances’ in Tamil screen in the past. M.S.S.Pakkiyam, who had done several villi roles, besides others, had done an ‘item number’ as early as 1947 in the film ‘Rajakumari’, as seen in the video below.

 

 

 

 

A sequence featuring Kumari Kamala as an ‘item number’ girl was in the popular song “Oh Rasikkum seemane vaa” from the film ‘Parasakthi’ (1952).

 

 

M.N.Rajam was always ‘the other girl’ in movies with a tinge of villainy. But here she features as a vamp in “Ratha Kanneer” (1954) in the popular song and dance sequence “aalai aalai parkkiraar”.

 

 

 

The following video shows Rajamani in a vamp role in the film ‘Paasa valai’ (1956), music by MSV-TKR.

 

(to be continued)

Taking Off – An interview with editor – director Mahesh Narayan

With his debut film Take Off Mahesh Narayan has proved to be a writer- director to watch out for. But cinema is not a new arena for this talented film maker. Having edited over 70 films,spanning over 10 years and across many languages, Mahesh Narayan is an established name in the Indian film Industry.

In the middle of his research work for his next project the writer-director-editor takes time to interact with Adithya Iyyappan.

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Stanley Kubrick was quoted as saying “I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.Do you agree with his views on film editing? How has been your progression from an Editor to Director?

For me, I was always fascinated to watch a story being narrated on screen. Editing for me is an art of story telling.  I believe that the final draft of a screenplay is always written along with the editor. As an editor, I will assemble the story with the materials I have.  That’s never considered as a limitation. But when I am getting an opportunity in forming my own story, deciding the way how it should be told and then finally shaping it in the editing table has extended my creative boundaries. So in a way this progression from an editor to a director has given me more responsibilities to face challenges in the complete film making process.

Do you feel that your job as a director has been easy since you were already an editor?

That depends upon the aesthetic sensibility and way of approach on the kind of movie you are going to make. Being an editor, actually gives me a freedom to decide on what I require at a much earlier stage. Also it adds conviction to my technical and performing crew. But that has got certain disadvantages too. You will start restricting things in a desired pace, where you always lose the organic flow. So I think, there should be a common midpoint where, the director should never always think as an editor on location.  Also when you are making a film in a really tight budget, it’s always a blessing when you use the editor’s brain. That saves a lot of cost, when we plan on filming only what is needed.

Tell us about your journey into cinema, your early inspirations and how you started as an editor?

I am a graduate in Film Editing from Adayar Film Institute. Before joining the institute I was not very keen into Film Editing. All my curiosity was on the story telling part. Then I understood the value of the editing table, where we get to see a lot of information in detail. I grew up in Trivandrum, a town that has a definite impact on a lot of budding filmmakers. We had screenings mostly on all days a week by various film societies. Most of the classics by Orson Welles , Vittorio De Sica , Bergman etc were shown frequently. Later when I started working, I got a chance to work on a lot of documentaries from senior directors. My first independent feature film as an editor was “Rathrimazha” (2005, Malayalam), again by a senior award winning director Lenin Rajendran.

The Malayali nurse is someone who should be as celebrated as our software engineers, what made you choose the rescue of Malayali nurses from Iraq in 2014 as the subject for your debut movie?

For me this movie is about survival. Survival also has got a lot of inner meanings. It’s not about the survival from a war torn country, but it’s about a survival for existence. Initially this film was only about a divorced lady and her challenges when she gets pregnant with her second husband. Much later after this 2014 incident, I happened to meet Mareena Jose , a survivor who came from Iraq after the 23 day long hostage crisis. Most of them were small town women who went to Iraq in search of greener pastures, without realizing the gravity of the situation, only to be caught in a nightmare in the middle of a civil war. She told us about how straight away, almost as soon as they reached their workplaces, they had to patch up bullet and bomb injuries and not the usual fever and stomach aches that they were used to dealing with back home; of how ill-equipped they were to help patients; of how they were barred from even stepping out of the hospital; of how distant explosions and gun fire were a constant through day and night.This struck a new idea into the story, which actually blended well with the original concept. So it’s basically placing all fictional characters around a real life incident, which people could relate and connect well.

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Take Off which you wrote and directed and Milli which was written by you are both  women centeric stories. This has been a conscious decision by you?

No. Never. But I believe, there are more stories to be told about women.

How much of your personal life has influenced your cinema? Who are you inspirations in film making?

Inspirations keep on changing time to time. It’s about revisiting your favorite films again and again. Every time you get a different interpretation, which really adds to your perception on knowing the art.

What are your views on sub titling of Malayalam movies and them reaching a pan India audience in the recent times?

I think this is a great period for Malayalam cinema. People are enjoying all kinds of movies. There is good space for experimenting with challenging concepts. English subtitles have added a lot of advantage for new age filmmakers who are attempting on subjects that can acquire a wide spectrum of audience irrespective of language barriers. This revenue generated, really gives a motivation for more producers to happily fund such films with conviction.

What is your next project? Do you plan to continue your editing work along with direction?

Editing is my heart and soul. It’s my driving force, people know me for it and I have no plans to give it up. Now I am editing Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam2.

Thank you for talking with TCRC . Before we sign off  please let us know your opinion about the importance of preserving and archiving cinema heritage.
During film institute days, it was always a blessing to watch some brilliant classic films on 35mm print. We even had a film club at the institute, which collected 16mm versions of certain films too. Thus we came to know about the National Film Archive of India, Pune, from where those prints were reaching us. Works of P.K Nair will always be remembered, because of his lifelong dedication towards the preservation of films in India. And now with this new digital leap, even when we say it’s easy to preserve content, it needs immense passion and dedication in analysing and archiving films for future studies.

 

 

RARE: Original LP cover of Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal” (Tamil, 1989)

In May 1989, Kamal Hassan’s “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” which featured the actor in the roles of a police officer, a mechanic and a dwarf clown, was released amidst much fanfare. Directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and produced by Kamal Hassan himself, the film’s cast included Gouthami, Srividya, Delhi Ganesh, Jaishankar, Nassar, Nagesh, Janakaraj and many others. The film was a blockbuster hit and is said to have completed a 200-day run at the box office, a record run in Tamil cinema then (the record was broken six years later by superstar Rajnikanth’s “Baasha”). The film’s screenplay was penned by Kamal Hassan and the dialogues were written by Crazy Mohan. “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was Crazy Mohan’s debut film as dialogue writer.

The musical score of “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was composed by Ilaiyaraaja and its songs went on to become cult classics, with tracks such as “Raaja Kaiya Vecha” receiving airplay on radio and TV channels even today. And today, we bring to you from the TCRC archives the cover of the original LP record of the film:

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (front) | Tamil | 1989

"Aboorva Sagodharargal" | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

“Aboorva Sagodharargal” | LP record cover (back) | Tamil | 1989

The film was dubbed into Telugu as “Vichithra Sodarulu” and into Hindi as “Appu Raja,” a year later. Both the dubbed versions enjoyed a successful run at the box office, with Kamal receiving unanimous praise for his portrayal of the dwarf clown Appu. In the movie, the episode where Appu falls in love with the daughter of the circus owner (the daughter played by Rupini and the father played by Mouli) is said to be a tribute to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus,” which was a silent film released in 1928. In “Aboorva Sagodharargal,” Appu goes through a Chaplinesque heartbreak in romance that is very similar to what transpires in “The Circus.”

The title “Aboorva Sagodharargal” itself is a hat tip to SS Vasan’s 1949-released feature film of the same name. That “Aboorva Sagodharargal” featured actors MK Radha and Bhanumathi in titular roles and was produced in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi simultaneously. Directed by Acharya and written by Kothamangalam Subbu, the old “Aboorva Sagodharargal” was an adaptation of the novella “The Corsican Brothers” by Alexander Dumas. The idea of brothers coming together to avenge the death of their father is the common thread running between both the old and the new “Aboorva Sagodharargal.”

25 Greatest Acting Performances in Indian Cinema: The Forbes List!

The Forbes India magazine recently put out a list of the 25 greatest acting performances in Indian cinema, 8 of which are performances in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil films.  Now, here at TCRC, we are always a little wary of lists such as these, fully aware that it’s incredibly hard to pick just 8 or 10 performances from over thousands of films made in the southern part of the country across the span of almost a century. But since this list is a part of their ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ set of features, we felt compelled to share this. Given below is an excerpt from the piece (click here to check out the entire list):

JV Somayajulu 
in Sankarabharanam (The Ornament of Shankara), 1980 
JV Somayajulu, an IAS officer in his 50s, plays a Carnatic musician, misunderstood for supporting the daughter of a prostitute, ignored by a society where classical music is in decline, and is being overtaken by pop music. It was a surprise hit. It opened to empty seats, gathered speed and, today, enjoys a cult status. Somayajulu played his part with such dignity and intensity that you can’t listen to any of its hugely popular songs without imagining him performing them as his sadhana.

JV Somayajulu in "Sankarabharanam" (Telugu, 1980). Photo Courtesy: Forbes India.

JV Somayajulu in “Sankarabharanam” (Telugu, 1980). Photo Courtesy: Forbes India.

“Sankarabharanam” turned out to be a cult film as far as Telugu cinema was concerned, after getting off to a slow start in the box office. Directed by K Vishwanath, the film is remembered for its music, scored by KV Mahadevan. The film was shot by cinematographer-turned-director Balu Mahendra, who later made “Moondram Pirai” with Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (“Sadma” in Hindi). The director of “Sankarabharanam,” K Vishwanath, went on to narrate yet another story revolving around an art form (classical dance) in “Saagara Sangamam” (“Salangai Oli” in Tamil). The film featured Kamal Hassan and Jayaprada in career-defining roles and like “Sankarabharanam,” it is said to be a musical success, with tunes composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

Kamal Hassan, The Singer: “Paneer Pushpangale” in “Aval Appadithan” (Tamil, 1978)

We at TCRC have a large number of still photographs shot during the production of various films that have been made by Tamil filmmakers across the years. We are in the process of digitizing, sorting and cataloguing them. One of the films for which most of this work has been completed is C Rudhraiya’s “Aval Appadithan” starring Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth, Sripriya and Saritha. In fact, the header image that you see at the top of this page is a production photograph from “Aval Appadithan,” which was released in 1978.

The movie, praised by many for being far ahead of its times in terms of both treatment and technique, had numerous English dialogues and frequently employed jump cuts (two or more shots taken from only slightly different angles being placed sequentially, so as to communicate the passing of time in an abrupt manner). Shot in black and white, “Aval Appadithan” had only three songs, all of which were composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

One of the songs, titled “Paneer Pushpangale,” was written by Gangai Amaren and was sung by Kamal Hassan himself. Now, we’re used to Kamal singing his own songs. But it’s quite refreshing to hear Kamal croon a ‘Raaja Sir’ (as Ilaiyaraaja is known in the Tamil film industry) number from that era. In fact, when we heard the song for first time, we couldn’t even identify Kamal’s voice. Check it for yourself. Here is “Paneer Pushpangale” from “Aval Appadithan”: