25 years of Shankar, the master of big budget entertainment in Tamil cinema

Shankar always has the pulse of the audience and knows how to bring them to the theatres.
25 years of Shankar, the master of big budget entertainment in Tamil cinema
25 years of Shankar, the master of big budget entertainment in Tamil cinema
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July 30 is a special day for Shankar fans. It was on that day that he stormed into the Tamil cinema scene with Gentleman, 25 years ago. The striking success of that film ensured Shankar’s place among Tamil cinema greats. Now, he is on the cusp of releasing 2.0,the biggest challenge of his career. The film is set to be released on November 29, 2018, but has been delayed several times already.

I have never met film director Shankar in person. Impressions gathered from TV interviews and seeing him from a distance as he delivered a speech about Nanban (2012) at a Harris Jayaraj concert in Coimbatore a few years ago, will have to do. Shankar’s previous movie before Nanban was Enthiran (2010) and people were confounded by his decision to remake Three Idiots (2009) in Tamil. I thought of Nanban as an exercise in lowering people’s expectations after the movie with the superstar. A follow-up act would have been really tough on Shankar, but yet, he had another hit with the Vijay-starrer.

Let’s go back to the time the blockbuster Jeans (1998) was released. I watched an interview with Shankar on TV and he came across, much against his reputation, as dull and completely unimaginative. Was this the man who really delivered Indian (1996), Kadhalan (1994) and Gentleman (1993)? Was he being humble or was I seeing a carefully cultivated facade meant for his TV audience?

It appears that it is through his movies that he expresses himself. Though Shankar is highly successful, his films are fatally flawed because his imagination isn’t rooted in reality. Like a character in This Is Spinal Tap, Shankar just amps up the volume to an improbable 11.

Most people would not think of Shankar as an auteur. He has admitted frankly to having put himself in the shoes of the audience every time a sequence is conceived and that’s not something that auteurs do. Shankar wants to be recognised as an entertainer, albeit a very expensive one.

His films are famous for their grandeur and special effects, but not really for anything special when it comes to characterisation or cleverness of plotting. Every locale is visually exploited, but it is like watching a moving painting. Nothing really hits home. Often enough, it seems like Shankar is perfecting his technique for some future outing every time he puts out a movie.

Do we go to a Shankar film to see more than 200 people take part in a song sequence? Many have sarcastically remarked that this is his single biggest contribution -- not letting people take a break during the song sequence. Much of what the darlings of the New Wave Tamil cinema do eludes Shankar; he is just not attuned to any of the stuff that directors like Karthik Subbaraj, Balaji Sakthivel (Shankar did produce Kadhal though) and Bala take on in their movies.

But Shankar’s films break the box-office. He has the pulse of the audience at all times. By some sleight of hand, he knows how to bring them to the theatre. Technically, he is always superb. His team manages to bring their A-game to the show every single time. It was he, in the end, who took the masala Tamil movie to a whole new level.

Shankar has made at least two kinds of movies. Right after making a vigilante film in Gentleman, he made Kadhalan, a romantic comedy with strong elements of a thriller. Later, he made Boys (2003) that scandalised a whole of people even as it sought to highlight the angst of teenagers. Starring the attractive lead pair of Siddarth and Genelia, the movie centres on six characters, who after experiencing many pitfalls of people in their late teens, find solace and redemption in music. Boys is the first feature film in India to use the technique of time slice.

It must be hard to be Shankar. If one movie sinks, we may not hear of him anymore. But it was he who showed us how to make perfectly crafted big-budget entertainment. And he has done that for 25 years now. However, the onus is on the craft; it is hard to believe that this is what the art of movies is, given the thriving state of independent Tamil cinema.

Shankar has never been averse to being “inspired” by famous movies. In Anniyan, a stunt sequence, which was inspired by The Matrix, was shot against all odds. In I, it is obvious that the water-treading sequence during a duet is inspired by another well-known foreign film. In Indian, the ‘Akkada’ song was designed like an MTV video even as the lyrics openly challenged the style adopted by the channel. By doing this sort of thing, Shankar has constantly undermined himself before discerning audiences. The justification is that he is bringing cinema from the world-over into Tamil.

When Shankar is releasing a movie, it is a bit like Virat Kohli coming out to bat, you are only sure that he will hit a ton every time. Many of Shankar’s films are on the vigilante theme. Some have argued that Shankar has been remaking his first film the whole time. Despite the message he weaves into many movies, his films cannot be subjected to an intellectual discourse. His movies are too unabashedly populist for that. Two of Shankar’s films, Jeans and Indian, have been sent to the Academy of Motion Pictures to be nominated for the coveted Oscar but did not make the cut.

Shankar’s films have never been inexpensive to make or market. He seems to be caught in that trap as director. Good films have never been made just because a director has the capacity for delivering the big-budget masala movie. 

The ace director has helmed 11 projects in Tamil, all of them massive successes. As a producer, Shankar has guided projects like KadhalVeyil and the horror classic Eeram, all of them to critical acclaim and box-office success. He even produced the side-splitting comedy Imsai Arasan with Vadivelu in twin roles. It seemed like Shankar was egging on New Wave directors even as he studiously avoided any influence of the movement in his own films.

I can’t help thinking of the possibilities for Tamil cinema if Shankar was liberated from his own image trap. His next films 2.0 and, if it goes according to schedule, Indian 2, are so important for his career that he cannot afford to falter. It is clear that Shankar doesn’t stumble, but for the greater common good, that’s just what he might need to do.

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