What was Tamil cinema like 25 years ago and how have these films aged?

From Gentleman to Amaravathi Revisiting popular films which released 25 years ago
Flix Kollywood Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 16:09

I was in Plus One and my finals had ended that day. We were standing outside Raja Theatre in Nagercoil, my hometown. There were more than 65 government school students -- all of them from my batch -- standing outside, many of us still in uniform.

I had never been to the movies with so many people and was very excited. My friends and I were there to watch Gentleman, the newest rage in town. One of my friends was holding on to a sack. I peered inside and found it to be full of lottery tickets. Another friend explained that they were to be used for throwing in the way of the light cast by the projector. Celebrating in this way is still the norm in many theatres across the country.

It’s been more than 25 years and times have changed. Raja Theatre, which stood adjacent to the famous Nagaraja Temple, is no longer there. And, no movie will run for the 100 days that Gentleman did any more. In the streaming era of Amazon Prime and the like, films today run for about 35 days in the theatre before being shown elsewhere.

Gentleman, arguably the most famous film of 1993, launched the career of director S Shankar. The songs were trendy and became hit, and thus began the famous collaboration between Shankar and composer AR Rahman. The explosive choreography by Prabhu Deva created quite a buzz, with ‘Chikku Bukku Raile’ becoming a chartbuster.

Arjun plays the lead Krishnamoorthy alias Kitcha in Gentleman and he stages multiple heists even as the police are hot on his heels. Kitcha, who has a dark and tragic past, plans to build a medical college for poor students. The film has tedious scenes involving the famous comedy duo - Goundamani and Senthil, who engage in frivolous games with Sugandi, played by Subhashri. Susheela, played by Madhubala, is the main woman lead.

None of us knew it then, but the satellite TV revolution in Tamil Nadu proved to be a game-changer for movie-goers. Sun TV had just been launched with much fanfare and we would never treat the cinemas the same way again. Many of the films from 1993 are outdated and campy. Even the blockbusters released that year are not an exception. There are but a few gems that have held up well despite the ravages of time.

Here, we take a look at some movies that have completed 25 years since they were first released in theatres. Nostalgia is a potent potion and many movies from 1993 bring a flood of memories with them.

Take for instance, the completely inane Chinna Mapillai starring Prabhu, Sukanya, Visu and Radha Ravi. With side-splitting comedy, the movie had dialogues by Crazy Mohan and was helmed by Santhana Bharathi. With a particularly raunchy performance from actor Sivaranjani (who was briefly famous for such roles in Tamil cinema), the movie was later remade as Coolie No 1 with Govinda in the lead.

Nuggets like that remind us of a time gone by when cinema was radically different from what it is today. Not all of the films from this era have endured. You may not dare to watch many films from this year on DVD. But the presence of classics like Mahanadhi and Marupadiyum more than redeem the pervading mediocrity that plagued Tamil cinema during this year.

This symptom was shared by many films from the 1990s. In the January of 1993, the who’s who of Kollywood released movies. On Pongal (January 14) that year, an array of movies including Captain Magal (Dir. Bharathiraja), Jathi Malli (K Balachander), Kovil Kalai (Gangai Amaran), Marupadiyum (Balu Mahendra) and Walter Vetrivel (P Vasu) hit theatres.

None of the films had their legendary directors at their best. In Captain Magal, actor Raja (a Bharathiraja favourite in those days) plays a music composer who is shot and injured when an attack is made on the life of the prime minister. To recover, he and his wife Kavitha (Kushboo in top form) move to a secluded house in the hills where bizzare happenings just don’t end. It’s a thriller that can get your teeth chattering, but none in the audience was too impressed and the film bombed. You may, however, remember the song ‘Entha Pennilum Illatha Ondru’, which became a huge hit.

Jathi Malli which brought together the unlikely lead pair of Kushboo and Malayalam actor Mukesh too didn’t do well at the box office. Kushboo plays a Ghazal singer Sivaranjani, who moves to Ooty, after her mother is killed by terrorists. She finds in Kesavan (Mukesh) an unlikely source of solace, but will their hesitant courtship fructify? The late Balachander may have wanted his message of love triumphing terror to reach the masses, but no one was willing to listen.

Kovil Kalai must be the most puzzling entry to notch up 25 years since release. Directed by Gangai Amaran, the film must have been regressive even for its times, but is positively bizzare by today’s standards. Made just four years after Amaran’s Karakattakaran, which stuck box office gold, Kovil Kalai, starring Vijayakanth and Kanaka, did reasonably well.at the box office.

P Vasu is one of those directors who asks us to digest his films with dollops of sentiment. Best known for movies like Chinna Thambi, Vasu’s take on a cop’s life, Walter Vetrivel, may leave you cold today, but was a massive hit upon release. Sathyaraj's performance as Vetrivel brought audiences in droves to the theatre. The film just appropriated the popularity of former Tamil Nadu director general of police Walter Devaram and had no references to the life of the cop. In the title sequence of the movie, Sathyaraj delivers a line which might be a bit strange today. He says that if rowdies are allowed to roam freely, they would divide and sell the state in 25 years. Thank god, that hasn’t happened! 

Balu Mahendra’s film, Marupadiyum, starring Revathi, is the only one among the aforementioned movies to have dated gracefully. With his remake of Arth, Mahendra managed to deliver a film that both critics and audiences liked.

Rajinikanth was pretty active in 1993. He appeared in three Tamil movies -- Uzhaippali, Yejaman and Valli. The films were box office successes, but may not figure among Rajini’s best.

Kamal Haasan had a mixed year. Both Kalaignan and Maharasan were but blips in his career, but Mahanadi was a definite indication of how good a writer the actor was. The National Award winning movie was a tearjerker directed by Santhana Bharathi with whom Kamal would frequently collaborate. The late Malayalam actor, Cochin Haneefa, played the antagonist and his contribution as the sleazy child trafficker cannot be taken lightly.

Puthiya Mugam, starring Revathi and her husband Suresh Menon, was an unforgettable movie experience for me. The thriller with its novel and imaginative use of plastic surgery had a couple of moments that were bone-chilling. The soundtrack from Rahman continues to remain among his best. The album also showed lyricist Vairamuthu in superb form.

Bharathiraja made another movie that year and it was Kizhakku Cheemayile. I have always thought that Bharathiraja handled sentiment the best in Tamil cinema and that opinion was validated by this movie starring Vijayakumar and Radhika as inseparable siblings. Rahman’s score for this film remains popular even today.

Sathyaraj returned to woo audiences with Malayalam director Joshi’s Airport, which rarely for Tamil cinema, had no songs. Though acclaimed by critics, the film didn’t do too well at the box office.

Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda was one of the better movies released that year. Featuring Prasanth, Anand, Heera and Anu Aggarwal, the movie traces the fate of Rs 1000 crore stolen from the government. With superb camerawork from PC Sreeram, which infused in it a spirit of adventure, the movie was welcomed by audiences and critics. However, I feel that the film is today among the most underrated of Ratnam’s flicks.

Prathap was written, directed and produced by actor Arjun. Though Arjun’s film never quite made it into the big league, films like Prathap kept the actor in the market for biggies like Mudhalvan

 In 1993, KS Ravikumar directed three films -- Bandmaster (Sarath Kumar), Suriya Chandran (Anand Babu) and Purusha Lakshanam (Jayaram). We might never guess it, but Ravi Kumar went on to direct both Haasan and Rajini in many movies.

It is hard to find common ground among the movies released in 1993. Many films featured songs with rain on the sets. Shots focussing on the leading lady’s navel or the cleavage were mandatory. The loss of the story in Tamil cinema was a complaint that was often heard. My friends often told me that line 'You can watch the movie once'. Naturally, word of mouth made a huge difference in making a movie a success.

This was also the year that Ajith Kumar debuted with his movie, Amaravathi. For many of the actor’s fans, this would have been a really special moment. Despite all this, many of the movies from 1993 were so far removed from reality that we can now easily see what frustrated audiences. So when artificiality was replaced by the raw realism of New Cinema, movie-goers made sure they welcomed it whole-heartedly.

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