The scratchy black and white frame opens to a distant shot of a bullock cart rolling past fields of paddy. The hero manning the reins of the cart is Tamil cinema’s cultural icon, MGR, who merrily breaks into song.
‘Neelavaana pandhalin keezhe, nilamadandhai madiyin mele Kaladevan arasangam nadakudhada,’ ('Under the blue skies and amidst the seas of the earth, the people are under the reign of the Lord of time) he sings. It’s an oddly on-point song, for a film more than half a century old that is ahead of its time in being one of the first examples of Tamil science fiction.
While Tamil cinema today has come leagues ahead with films about zombie apocalypses, or time-travel and cloning, it was given its first experience of space travel and aliens 53 years ago by the MGR-Nambiar starrer "Kalaiarasi". William Berke brought science fiction filmmaking into Tamil cinema back in 1952 with "Kaadu", a Tamil-American film also featuring Nambiar. But "Kalaiarasi" was the first Tamil film to have played with the notion of extra-terrestrial life.
Our hero MGR is Mohan, an educated farmer living in a tiny village in Tamil Nadu. With a sister (Kumari Sachu) and mother to look out for, Mohan struggles to eke out a living, but does so with heroic optimism. While on one of his strolls among the meadows, he comes across Vani (P Bhanumathi), who he gradually falls for. Vani is a gem in the rough, with a staggering talent for art, drama and singing.
Parallelly, on a planet far far away, a stoic MN Nambiar is seen instructing his inferior, to chart out a course for what looks like a spaceship. “Endha mandalathuku pogarom?” (Which planet are we going to?), asks his timid sidekick. “Poo mandalathuku,” Nambiar declares grandiloquently, referring to Boomandalam or Earth. And in that very moment, Tamil cinema gets its first aliens.
Clad in shiny tight shorts paired with metal boots, the duo drives their saucer-shaped vehicle past Saturn and Jupiter. Accompanied by delightful sequences of shaky camera movements (indicating the vehicle’s other-worldly movement) and exciting sound effects outer-space comes to life.
But why do these aliens steer towards the Boomandalam, you wonder? To abduct a gifted artist, back to their scientifically endowed yet artistically backward planet, Nambiar explains. And that artist happens to be Vani. The rest of the plot revolves around Mohan’s rescue of the damsel in distress from the alien world.
The surreal elements of the film, even if more than half a century old, still come off as an amusing surprise. Be it the Taser like fire-spitting pistol, which the aliens use on a wild bear or the black screened monitor that Nambiar uses to spy the earth, the images are nothing short of fascinating.
However, the best part of the film comes an hour into the story, when Mohan meets his alien doppelganger, who gives him a pair of boots to overcome the meagre gravitational force on the alien world! Anti-gravity boots in a Tamil film from half a century ago! Scenes like these are what make this film, endearing even to this day.
“It might be a figment of our imagination, but this certainly is going to happen in the future,” Mohan clarifies to Vani’s father, in the climax. That line could be read in many ways. But certainly it seems almost prophetically about a genre that kicked off with the terrible flop of that film to finally open up to the slicker attempts of today. Mohan was right indeed.