Cinema
The actor, whose centenary is being observed this year, worked in 162 films, 109 in Telugu and 53 in Tamil, in a career spanning nearly 3 decades.
  • Sunday, August 05, 2018 - 15:11
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A towering personality with an electrifying screen presence, SV Ranga Rao who acted mostly in Telugu and Tamil films was ranked on par with the superstars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s such as NT Rama Rao, Nageswara Rao, MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan.

The actor, whose centenary is being observed this year, worked in a total of 162 films, 109 in his mother tongue Telugu and 53 in Tamil, in a career spanning nearly three decades before his untimely demise at the age of 56.

Ranga Rao was the only actor apart from the legendary NT Rama Rao who remained an automatic choice for Telugu filmmakers for mythologicals which were a rage in those times. But even NTR was no match for Ranga Rao in terms of the sheer range of characters that he portrayed on the screen.

NTR, of course, was the ultimate actor when it came to playing Lord Krishna as films like the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Karnan would testify. But Ranga Rao played Akbar, Bhishma, Duryodhana, Yama, Ravana, Ghatotkacha, Kamsa and Keechaka, and what really propped him up as an actor par excellence was that he performed all these roles with effortless ease. For one, his height and physique suited all these larger-than-life roles and when it came to voice modulation, Ranga Rao was peerless. Even though some of these characters had to be essayed in a loud, over-the-top manner, the audience never got an inkling that he was going overboard with his acting.

Ranga Rao had landed a job after completing his education but also had a penchant for acting. His first outing Varoodhini, however, tanked and this took a toll on the actor’s morale. But the film Mana Desam where he acted with NTR with the legendary singer composer Ghantasala scoring the music convinced him that with a little patience he could still make the grade.

It was the role of the scheming tantric Nepala Manthrudu in Patala Bhairavi that brought Ranga Rao to the centre stage and proved to be the launchpad for his career. The film turned out to be a runaway hit and Rao’s performance was acclaimed though NTR as the hero hogged most of the frames. But the film that fetched him laurels, that too at an Afro-Asian Festival held in Indonesia, was Narthanasala. Ranga Rao was cast in the role of Keechaka and the actor used his deep, bass voice to great advantage while delivering the lengthy dialogues, bowling the award jury over.

The role of the glutton Ghatotkacha in the film Maya Bazaar also endeared him to children and the song ‘Kalyana Samayal Sadham’ sung in the Tamil version by Tiruchi Loganathan became one of the biggest hits of the year. When the epic Ramayana was made on celluloid as Sampoorna Ramayanam, Ranga Rao was the ideal choice for the role of Ravana, the antagonist in the film. One of the highlights of the film was a lengthy monologue by Ravana and Rao’s baritone voice and his style of dialogue delivery were to the fore.

Rao was also impressive as Duryodhana in the film Pandava Vanavasam as well. Two other memorable characters that the thespian enacted that charmed audiences were those of Yama in Sati Savithri and Hirankyakashipu in Bhakta Prahlada.

Ranga Rao was also prolific in social dramas that came alive on the screen. Unlike the fiery characters that he portrayed in mythologicals he was much more sober in films in various other genres. The eternal do-gooder, the village elder, the compassionate, long suffering family patriarch, a doting elder brother, a caring father-in-law were all characters that he played with consummate ease.

Tamil cinema exploited his histrionic talent to the optimum by utilising him in films like Missiamma, Annai, Naanum Oru Penn, Karpagam, Kai Kodutha Deivam, Vidivelli, Parthiban Kanavu, Padikkatha Medhai, Thaikku Thalaimagan, Enga Veetu Pillai and others. He always had well-defined roles in films where the two titans of Tamil cinema, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, played the hero. One of his rare appearances as villain was in MGR’s Nam Naadu.

In Telugu too Ranga Rao starred in many memorable films, including Aathma Bandhuvu, where he played a rich landlord, and Thatha Manavadu, in which he was cast as a daily wage labourer. A frothy comedy with an illustrious contemporary Nagabhushan, Andaru Dongale (remake of the Hindi laugh riot Victoria No. 203 starring Ashok Kumar and Pran) amply proved that Ranga Rao could sparkle in humorous roles as well. Rao later turned producer and director with films like Chadarangam and Bandhavyalu.

Ranga Rao was one of the earliest to be hailed as a ‘method’ actor and a substandard performance from him was simply out of the question. Rated as one of the most dignified and cooperative stars, he was held in high regard by the acting fraternity. He was one of the earliest stars to feature in commercials and his ad for a popular cigarette brand of a foregone era, Berkeley, was extremely popular.

A self-taught actor who rose to great heights, Ranga Rao was always an endearing presence on the silver screen. He was conferred the title ‘Viswa Nata Chakravarthy’ in recognition of his versatile acting talent.

Also read: From 'Godavari' to 'Chi La Sow': Telugu rom-coms you should not miss

Mollywood
These stars have made handsome contributions but have remained unrecognised throughout their careers.
  • Tuesday, July 03, 2018 - 14:42

In the Malayalam film industry, only the so-called upper crust of actors have always remained in the limelight. Also, the industry has always adopted different yardsticks for its male and women actors. Over the years, however, there is a long list of unsung stars who have made handsome contributions but have remained unrecognised right through their careers.

Chemmeen, directed by Ramu Kariat, won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Film in 1965 at the National Awards. The film could qualify as one of the earliest multi-starrers with most industry folk landing roles in it thanks to its wide canvas. Two characters in this epic novel by Jnanpith Award winning writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai were those of Chemban Kunju and his wife Chakki Marakkaiyi. Kariat chose veterans Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair and Adoor Bhavani for the roles and they turned in superlative performances. But the portrayals by these two actors remained unheralded. Incidentally Sreedharan Nair’s son Saikumar remains one of the most popular villains in Malayalam cinema and also excels in character roles.

One of Mollywood’s mainstays where story and scriptwriting is concerned has been another Jnanpith awardee MT Vasudevan Nair, who has also directed well-known films such as Nirmalyam (1973) and Oru Chiru Punchiri (2000). In Nirmalyam, theatre artiste PJ Anthony, from whom the late Thilakan picked up his craft, was cast in the main role of a velichapad (oracle). The most riveting sequence in the film was the climax.

Sword in hand, the character approaches the idol of the goddess who had failed him and his family. With great deliberation he draws the sword across his forehead and begins to bleed profusely. Gathering spittle in his mouth he spews it in a blob mingled with his blood at the deity, collapses in a heap and dies. One wonders whether a scene like this can get past the censors in today’s India. Antony won the National Award for Best Actor that year. He revealed his angst at the raw deal that he had been receiving at the hands of the industry in his acceptance speech.

Another actor who could have been utilised much better was the late Premji, who enacted the role of Professor Eachera Warrier, the grief-stricken father of student Rajan, a victim of the Emergency in Piravi (1989). The directorial debut of cinematographer Shaji N Karun, it fetched Premji a National Award but the publicity remained low-key.

One actor whose long career witnessed several highs and lows was undoubtedly Thilakan, who had to serve an unofficial ban after some industry bigwigs took offence at some remarks he made. There was a time when Thilakan, who began with small, insignificant roles in films, had become indispensable. And rightly so, for very few of his contemporaries could hold a candle to him where portrayals of diverse characters were concerned.

Can one imagine films like Rithubhedam, Mookilla Rajyathu or Spadikam without Thilakan? Directors like Vinayan who too had to face the industry’s wrath on various occasions ensured that Thilakan remained a part of all his films. Director Ranjith, who cast Thilakan as Dulquer Salmaan’s grandfather in his film Ustad Hotel, when questioned on opting for the actor reportedly stood up to the actor’s detractors and demanded that they produce a better actor than Thilakan for the role he had in mind.

Thilakan’s contemporaries including the likes of the late Narendra Prasad, no mean actor himself, had the highest regard for him. Thilakan’s departure from the scene has left a void that is yet to be filled.

Among underrated actors in Malayalam cinema, the comedians deserve a notable mention. One of the most successful comedians was Jagathy Sreekumar, who was seriously injured in a car accident in 2012 and still remains out of action eight years later. Jagathy was always a delight to watch on screen and, in tandem with actors like Innocent, could bring the roof down with their antics. The laugh riot Kabooliwala, which featured the duo, still remains green in memory.

Two comedians who nailed the lie that comics in Malayalam films were good only at slapstick and buffoonery were Salim Kumar and Suraj Venjaramoodu, both National Award winners. Salim won his award for Adaminte Makan Abu, a moving film about a poor man who yearns to go on the Haj against heavy odds. His role in Achanurangatha Veedu as an anguished father whose daughter is trafficked and raped was no less memorable. Suraj proved that he could deliver in serious roles with the Dr Biju directed Perariyathavar, which fetched him several awards including the National Award. Cast as a municipal sweeper, Suraj simply lived the role. In more recent times he did a wonderful job in Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. Such roles have, however, been few and far in between and with the films failing to cut ice with the masses it is back to square one for these fine actors.

Siddique (not to be mistaken for the reputed director of the same name) is another actor who has been around for over three decades but is yet to make it to the top bracket. There is hardly any kind of role that Siddique has not done; in some films he has even donned multiple disguises. Like another star who now does character roles after playing the hero for decades, Nedumudi Venu who remains an inevitable part of most films, Siddique too has never had a dearth of assignments. But where star ratings are concerned, Siddique has never been able to rise to the heights of his contemporaries like Mammootty or Mohanlal though he has been an integral part of most of their films.

Script and screenplay specialist, actor, director and producer Sreenivasan is another star performer who has given the industry several hits in all capacities. Although his forte has remained the comedy genre, Sreenivasan has also played the hero with aplomb. Films like Sandesham and Mazhayethum Munpe fetched him state awards for Best Screenplay. Sreeni’s son Vineet has now established himself as a singer, actor and director as well and his other son Dhyaan too has followed in his father and brother’s footsteps.

It is only in recent times that heroine oriented films have caught on in Mollywood thanks largely to the ability of actors like Manju Warrier, Rima Kallingal and Parvathi Thiruvoth to carry a film on their shoulders. Sharada, a brilliant two-time National Award winning actor, remained in the shadow of superstars like Sathyan and Prem Nazir. It was the late cinematographer-director Vincent who cast her in a woman-oriented film, Thulabharam.

Sukumari, a gifted dancer and actor, cousin of the famous Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, and director Bharathan’s wife, and KPAC Lalitha, a versatile actor in her own right, are two stars who remained in the periphery right through their long careers.

Seema was not director IV Sasi’s first choice for his bold, pathbreaking film Avalude Ravukal. The story of a woman who turns sex worker was pitched to many heroines but Sasi drew a blank as not only was the subject taboo but there were quite a few risqué scenes as well. The film became a blockbuster and Seema was flooded with roles. The one-time background dancer in films would later prove her mettle in the MT Vasudevan Nair scripted Aaroodam, directed again by Sasi, whom she married. Sasi’s Aalkkoottathil Thaniye was another film in which she delivered a stunning performance. Seema later faded away and was last seen in Tamil TV serials.

The petite Jalaja too was another dignified performer in the 1970s and 80s. Introduced by the late Aravindan in Thampu, Jalaja went on to work with ace directors like Lenin Rajendran in Venal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Elippathayam.

The Malayalam film industry boasts of some of the finest acting talent in Indian cinema. But Dame Luck smiles only on a few of them. But the rest, far from being disheartened, have always laboured with sincerity and devotion to their craft. And their contribution to the industry’s growth has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Also read: Her story: 12 Malayalam films where women characters have their own arc

Music
What is gratifying about the music scene in Kollywood is that with production of films on the rise there is enough work for every music director.
  • Tuesday, June 05, 2018 - 15:46

Music has been an integral part of cinema ever since the first talkie hit the screens. There have been films without songs but a film without background music is an unheard of concept.

Tamil cinema has always placed great emphasis on music and has been well served by excellent music directors right from its early days. Music directors like CR Subburaman, G Ramanathan, SM Subbayya Naidu came up with brilliant scores. Actor-singers like MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, SG Kittappa, PU Chinnappa and NS Krishnan became household names for their full-throated rendering of songs written by the poet laureates of the time.

But the first superstars in Tamil film music were the immensely talented duo, MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamoorthy, known widely as Mellisai Mannargal (Monarchs of Light Music). MSV-TKR, poet and lyricist Kannadasan along with singers TM Soundararajan, P Susheela, PB Srinivas, Seerkazhi Govindarajan and S Janaki enthralled a whole generation of music lovers. Almost all the songs in their films turned out to be chart toppers. The duo, however, split and MSV branched out on his own and proved his mettle in such blockbusters as Sivaji’s Sivantha Mann and MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban.

Equally popular was KV Mahadevan, who was inevitably the first choice for mythological films. His scores in Kandan Karunai and Thiruvilayadal embellished the films a great deal. But his crowning achievement was Sankarabharanam, the story of a classical singer and a danseuse, directed by K Viswanath. To the dismay of classical music connoisseurs, KVM roped in SP Balasubramanian to render all the numbers. With Carnatic music stalwarts like Balamuralikrishna and Yesudas available, this was a clear gamble as SPB had no grounding in classical music. But it paid off in a big way and all the three National Awards for Music that year were bagged by KVM, SPB and Vani Jayaram.

The music directors who came later, like Shankar-Ganesh, were quite popular too and their music for MGR’s Idaya Veenai had some soulful melodies. ‘Thenisai Thenral’ Deva too had a good run and is credited for the introduction of a new genre in music, the ‘Gaana’. Even today Gaana songs are extremely popular and singers like ‘Gaana’ Ulaganathan and ‘Gaana’ Bala continue to be in demand.

The real revolution in Tamil film music, however, came with the 1976 film Annakili. Produced by Panchu Arunachalam, poet Kannadasan’s nephew and a lyricist in his own right, this film introduced to Tamil cinema, a shy, demure young man, Ilaiyaraaja. Annakili was a perfect launch pad for Raaja who later teamed up with Bharathiraaja in several films, right from the latter’s debut film Pathinaru Vayathinile. The music director, who had good exposure to Western music as well, regaled audiences with his background score for Bharathiraaja’s Sigappu Rojakkal, an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Their partnership ended after Bharathiraaja opted for AR Rahman for a couple of films.

Raaja’s association with the late cinematographer director Balu Mahendra was no less fruitful. Azhiyatha Kolangal, Moodu Pani and Moondram Pirai all had chart topping numbers. Balu never looked beyond Raaja and the fact was acknowledged by Raaja himself. Raaja’s association with Mani Ratnam too was an enduring one, beginning with Mani’s first film in Kannada Pallavi Anu Pallavi. Mouna Ragam, and Nayagan were a few of the films where the Mani-Raaja team worked wonders together.

The release of Roja in 1992 was like Annakili in 1976 – a real gamechanger in the musical firmament of Tamil cinema. Veteran director Balachander, the producer of the film, plumped for a 22-year-old newcomer, AR Rahman, till then a keyboard player for several music directors, including Ilaiyaraaja, and a creator of jingles.

The Mani Ratnam directed film had perhaps the best score ever in Tamil cinema. Though Rahman has worked in hundreds of films in various languages and also pocketed a couple of Oscars for the English film Slumdog Millionaire, his aficionados still opine that he has never surpassed his score for Roja.

Mani stuck with Rahman ever since and Rahman has always reserved his best for Mani, even scoring for his Hindi films like Dil Se and Guru. Rahman’s rapport with another director, Shankar, too began with the latter’s first film Gentleman and their combination has given the industry hits like Kadhalan, Jeans, Robot and so on. But with his commitments in Hindi and his international ventures, Rahman has been quite choosy about his projects.

Among other music directors who have been highly successful in Tamil films are Harris Jayaraj, Yuvan Shankar Raaja and D Imaan. Harris has given his best in films directed by Gautam Menon, such as Kakka Kakka, but a tiff with the director resulted in his losing out on films like Nee Thaane En Ponn Vasantham, where Ilaiyaraaja was assigned the job. Yuvan and Imaan have been extremely prolific and the quality of their work is reflected in their numbers finding acceptance from listeners from different walks of life.

Anirudh Ravichandar arrived with a bang in 3 and the number Why this Kolaveri Di, written and sung by the hero of the film Dhanush, became a rage with millions of online hits. Two composers, Vijay Antony and GV Prakash Kumar (Rahman’s nephew), have decided that donning the greasepaint and turning into heroes is a better proposition than wielding the baton. Antony, whose creation Nakka Mukka reached every nook and cranny of the state and outside as well, and Prakash, whose work in films like Adukalam was highly acclaimed, are no great shakes when it comes to histrionics and just ham their way through their films.

But the flavour of the season is none other than young composer Santhosh Narayan, who has been a permanent fixture in all movies directed by Ranjith, right from Ranjith’s debut Attakathi (2012). His background score for films like Pizza and Jigarthanda, directed by Karthik Subburaj, was noticed and appreciated. But the two Rajinikanth films directed by Ranjith, Kabali and the yet to be released Kaala, have shown him to be a force to be reckoned with. With films like Parayerum Perumal, Shaitan Ka Bachcha and Vada Chennai in his kitty, he is clearly sitting pretty.

What is gratifying as far as the music scene in Kollywood is concerned is that with production of films on the rise there is enough work for every music director. While the big guns like Rahman get the cream in the form of big budget films, the others too have multiple projects to work on. As far as talent goes, Tamil cinema has some of the finest composers, lyricists and musicians and they have the latest technology at their disposal as well.

Also read: From thundu to 'Kaala' sunglasses: Rajini's style props over the years

Opinion
The characterisation of Gemini Ganesan, especially, has stirred a hornet's nest.
  • Thursday, May 24, 2018 - 15:11

The biopic Mahanati, which revolves around the life and times of actress Savitri who was a popular heroine in Telugu and Tamil cinema in the 50s and 60s, carries a caveat right at the beginning. It states that the film is a fictionalized account of the late actor's life.

This disclaimer absolves the makers with regard to the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the narration of the story, and in the depiction of the events in the life of the late star. But just as biographies often turn into hagiographies, biopics too can present a highly favourable picture of the protagonist, concealing warts if any and needlessly exaggerating hidden virtues while presenting other characters in a less than flattering light.

Apart from a fleeting reference to thespian Sivaji Ganesan with whom she starred in several films, mostly tearjerkers, her association with actors like MGR and even her husband Gemini Ganesan with whom she worked in a number of hits has been given the go by. She was equally popular in Tamil cinema as she was in Telugu and had a huge fan base in Tamil Nadu as well.

But what has stirred a hornet’s nest is the characterisation of the man who shaped her life and destiny from a very young age, Gemini Ganesan. The authorisation to make a film on Savitri was given by Savitri’s daughter Vijaya Chamundeswari, who also provided vivid insights into her mother’s life and career. While she has not noticed any flaws in the representation of her father Gemin Ganesan on screen, Gemini’s daughter by his first wife Alamelu (Bobji), Kamala Selvaraj, a leading doctor in Chennai has taken umbrage at the supposed raw deal meted out to Gemini.

Kamala is sore that in their overzealousness to put Savitri on a pedestal, they have allegedly denigrated Gemini. The late actor is alleged to have introduced Savitri to alcohol at a party and that eventually led to her lifelong affair with the bottle which ultimately took a heavy toll on her health and led her to an early grave. While this fact has been vouched for by those who were close to the actor, Kamala vehemently denies such a development.

The film has also chosen to overlook the agony suffered by Gemini’s first wife when the realisation dawned on her that Gemini had taken on a new and much younger wife. But Savitri’s angst on hearing about the actor’s infatuation with a contemporary, Pushpavalli (mother of Bollywood siren Rekha) has been well documented. Did Gemini desert Savitri and leave her to her fate or was it vice versa is another matter where the film has taken a contrarian stand.

This apart, Dulquer, the Malayalam actor and megastar Mammootty’s son who essays the character of Gemini is shown in a few frames as a jobless actor hanging around the sets where Savitri is shown as busily shooting for her films. This is in stark contrast to the real situation as Gemini was, right through his long and eventful career, a highly rated actor, third in the pecking order after MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. He also had a considerable fan following. As a matter of fact it was Savitri who struck a lean patch towards the fag end of her career when she began to pile on the pounds and her health took a beating with diabetes setting in. Only directors like the late Dasari Narayan Rao continued to cast her in their films but the spark had long gone out of her acting and her performances too began to suffer.

The first part of the film has detailed her advent into cinema, how she first met Gemini, then a manager in a studio and how she slowly worked her way up the ladder to fame and prosperity. She was by no means stylish or svelte like the actors of today but she had the innate ability to light up the screen with her nuanced portrayals. She was the ultimate tragedienne but was also adept at comedy. The film has highlighted all these features of the star in the early frames.

Savitri’s alcoholism was not the only factor that debilitated her and turned her into a physical and mental wreck. Like Gemini who had a nose for business and invested heavily in real estate, Savitri too took a leaf from his book and followed suit. But where she really put her foot wrong was in turning director and producer. She ignored the sane advice given by, among others, the famous scriptwriter of the time, Aroor Das, who was also a close confidant. She sunk a fortune into the films she produced only to end up on the verge of bankruptcy as her ventures turned into duds at the box office.

Generous to a fault she never turned down any request for money and this trait was often exploited by sycophants and hangers on who fleeced her. In the final analysis one can safely conclude that Mahanati is a biopic that blends fact and fiction. The makers have delved deep into the life of the star and have brought out the essence, highlighting her rise and fall in the process. But a dispassionate view of the roles played by all those associated with her at various phases of her life and her own failings is indeed conspicuous by its absence.

(Views expressed are author's own.)

Mollywood
'Bhayanakam' won three National Awards this year.
  • Wednesday, May 02, 2018 - 12:37
Facebook/Jayaraj Nair

Malayalam cinema has reaped a rich harvest at the National Awards for 2017 and three of those awards were won by the yet to be released film Bhayanakam.

 The awards were for Best Direction (Jayaraj), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jayaraj) and Best Cinematography (Nikhil S Praveen). For director Jayaraj who helmed his first film Vidyarambham in 1988 and is still going strong, this was his second National Award for Best Director. The first came way back in 1997 for the internationally acclaimed Kaliyattam starring then mainstream hero Suresh Gopi in the lead role.

Apart from several National Awards, Jayaraj's work has also won international honours at various film festivals. An engineering graduate, Jayaraj was drawn to films after being fascinated by classics like Akiro Kurosowa’s Rashomon and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Fortunately for the young man, he had as his neighbor one of Malayalam cinema’s most celebrated directors, Bharathan. Bharathan took Jayaraj under his wing and their first collaboration together was Chilambam.

Jayaraj assisted the veteran in six more films, including the lavishly mounted Vaishali. After getting his first break with Vidyarambham, Jayaraj went on to direct several films that did precious little to further his career. Most of them were commercial ventures like Aakasha Kottayile Sultan, Johnnie Walker, Highway, Arabia, Kudumbasameham etc. But the first film in which Jayaraj showed flashes of his brilliance was Desadanam, released in 1997.

The film which eschewed commercial ingredients in toto, narrated the story of a young boy all set to renounce material life and embrace the life of a sanyasi and the emotional churn in the lives of his parents who are loath to part with him. The film turned out to be a commercial success and also won the National Award for the Best Regional Film. But the film that created a greater impact was Kaliyattam, also released in 1997 an adaption of Shakespeare’s Othello.

The principal characters of Theyyam artistes were played by Suresh Gopi, Lal and Biju Menon, with Lal playing Iago to Gopi’s Othello and Manju Warrier, with her large expressive eyes was cast as Desdemona. Misled by Paniyan ( Lal), Kannan Perumalayan (Suresh Gopi) suspects his wife’s fidelity and slays her, only to realise later that she was innocent of his suspicions. Stung with remorse, Perumalyaan kills himself.

Jayaraj won the National Award for Best Director for the film and Suresh Gopi was adjudged the Best Actor. After flirting with comedy in Thilakkam, starring Dileep and Kavya Madhavan, Jayaraj again captivated audiences with his hard hitting film 4 The People, a story of four engineering college students who raise a banner of revolt against corruption. The major highlight of the film, however, was Jassie Gift’s music score with a few numbers turning into chartbusters. While 4 The People was a hit, the other two films which were part of the trilogy - By the People and Of the People turned out to be damp squibs.

Jayaraj embarked on a series of films, dubbing them as a ‘navarasa’ series and the culmination of the journey was Bhayanakam. The films were titled ShanthamKarunamBheebats (Hindi with Seema Biswas and Atul Kulkarni), Adhbudham, Veeram and Bhayanakam. Except Bhayanakam which is expected to hit the screens this month, all the other films were released commercially to varying degrees of success. 

Veeram, which had Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor in the lead, was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and was a period film set in 13th century Kerala. A painstaking effort by Jayaraj, his cast and technicians, the film which had Kerala’s celebrated martial arts discipline ‘kalari’ as a backdrop met with little success at the box-office.

Bhayanakam was based on a couple of chapters that were a part of Jnanpith winning author Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai’s epic novel Kayar. A simple film with a few characters, Bhayanakam is set in the days of World War II and the protagonist isa postman (Renji Panikkar) who delivers money orders from soldiers to their kin in a village in the pre-war days. With the outbreak of war, the same postman turns into an omen of death, carrying telegrams conveying tragic news of ultimate sacrifice on the war front and becomes a dreaded figure.

Among the oeuvres of this director who has always trodden his own path, was Naayika, the story of an actor. It had Urvashi Sharada in the role of a diva past her prime and Padmapriya as her younger version. Jayaram, as the evergreen hero of Malayalam cinema Prem Nazir, played his part to perfection, bringing to life the mannerisms of the star and his perfect diction as well. Naayika won critical acclaim but bombed at the box office.

But, perhaps the one film that should deserve a pole position among Jayaraj’s works was the much admired Ottaal, the plot of which he borrowed from the play Vaanka by the Russian playwright and author Anton Chekov. The film narrated the story of an emotional bond between a young orphan boy and his grandfather, with their simple joys and profound sorrows forming the nucleus. Brilliant acting by Ashank Sha as the young boy and Kumarokom Vasudevan (a fisherman in real life), as the grandfather, haunting visuals and Jayaraj’s deft directorial touches were the highlights of the film. Ottaal won all the major awards at the International Film Festival of Kerala and also the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The film also had the distinction of being the first Malayalam film to be released in the theatres and online simultaneously.

While Jayaraj has worked with superstar Mammootty in three films Johnnie Walker, Loudspeaker and The Train, he is yet to make a single film with the other reigning superstar Mohanlal. Jayaraj has plans to direct films based on the arts, Shringara, Roudram and Hasyam in the coming days. His greatest strength so far has been the discerning viewer and most of his films have catered to that segment of film aficionados.

Tollywood
ANR, Nagarjuna, Naga Chaitanya and Akhil Akkineni - how has each generation contributed to Telugu cinema?
  • Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - 14:25

In the sixties and for even a good part of the seventies, Madras (now Chennai) was the Mecca of south Indian cinema. Sprawling studios like Vauhini and AVM, recording theatres and labs were all situated in Madras. In those early days, when outdoor shoots were rare, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada filmmakers made a beeline to Madras to shoot their films. 

Two men - actor Nageswara Rao and producer D V S Raju - were instrumental in Telugu cinema shifting gradually to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh. 

The thespian Nageswara Rao also founded Annapoorna Studios with state of the art facilities and slowly, Tollywood began to warm up to functioning in its own territory. The two superstars of the time, N T Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao, dominated Telugu cinema for several decades before handing over the baton to others, including their sons. Rama Rao’s son Balakrishna, and Nageswara Rao’s son Nagarjuna, along  with the likes of Chiranjeevi and Mohan Babu.

The Akkineni family is now in its third generation, as Nagarjuna’s sons Naga Chatianya and Akhil Akkineni continue to hold the family banner aloft.

ANR

Nageswara Rao faced a lot of challenges in the initial stages and was cast in women's roles in theatre before he began to be noticed by filmmakers. 

Biographies and mythologies  were a rage in those days and Nageswara Rao found his métier in performing vital roles in such films as Tenali Rama, Mahakavi Kalidasu, and Bhaktha Thukaram

He also landed the plum role of Abhimanyu in Maya Bazaaar, one of the biggest grossers at the box-office. Rao further essayed the characters of Mahavishnu and Arjuna as well. His ability to emote and deliver lengthy dialogues stood him in good stead and he added several notches to his popularity as a mass hero. 

However, the role that really brought him into the limelight was that of Devdas in a  bilingual film of the same name, (Devadasu) released in 1953 and based on a story by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya. 

The role of a besotted alcoholic was performed with panache by the actor and it was reported that Dilip Kumar, who acted in the Hindi version of the film lauded Nageswara Rao’s performance, rating it above his own portrayal of the role. 

With the slow fade out of mythological roles, Rao drifted towards social themes and here too, he tasted a great deal of success with hits like Prem Nagar, Premabhishekam, Megasandesham, Dharma Daata etc. The Nageswara Rao – Dasari Narayana Rao combination proved to be a formidable one and Dasari’s film Premabhishekam not only broke several box office records but also ran for more than a year in theatres across the state. 

Nageswara Rao donned dual roles in films like Iddaru Mithrulu and Buddhimanthudu. Apart from being a good singer, Rao was also a fleet-footed dancer and could match steps with gifted dancers like Jayaprada, Jayasudha and Sridevi among others with consummate ease.

 A simple man with spartan habits, Nageswara Rao who also produced films under his home banner, excelled in a whole gamut of roles during his long and eventful career. A Padma Vibhushan awardee,  Rao won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour  in Indian cinema. Their home production Manam, which brought together all the three generations of the Akkineni family, was released after he passed away at ninety. Manam, which fared well at the box office, had Nageswara Rao as an aging patriarch of a family with Nagarjuna and his two sons Naga Chaitanya and Akhil Akkineni also in pivotal roles. Samantha, who would later go on to marry Naga Chaitanya, was part of the cast, too.

Nagarjuna

Unlike his father who could not even afford primary education, Nagarjuna passed out with an automobile engineering degree from the Michigan University in the US but was inexorably drawn into films, following in his father’s illustrious footsteps. Nagarjuna, though a chip off the old block, never aped his father’s acting style or mannerisms and embarked on his career, largely relying on his handsome looks and electrifying presence on screen. 

Although he acted in several pot boilers like Aatma Porattam, Janaki Ramudu and others, the two films that gave a distinct fillip to his career were Mani Ratnam’s Geetanjali and Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva, both released in 1989. 

Varma’s Shiva became a cult film and Nag’s role of a fiery student leader won him plaudits galore and the film too became a blockbuster. One trait that Nagarjuna shared with his father was a penchant for biographical films, a genre that none of his contemporaries with carefully cultivated images were willing to touch with a barge pole. 

Nagarjuna’s performances in films like Annammayya, Sri Ramadasu and Shirdi Sai were a far cry from his commercial avatars where he was cast as a swashbuckling hero opposite the biggest heroines of the time like Sridevi, Vijayashanthi and Ramya Krishnan.

 His home production Ninne Pelladatha, directed by Krishna Vamsi, Gharana Bullodu and Allari Alludu were all big box office hits. Ninne Pelladatha also won a National Award for the Best Telugu Film of the year. Nagarjuna ventured into Bollywood and acted in Mahesh Bhatt’s bilingual Criminal, the Amitabh Bacchhan starrer Khuda Gawah and also films like  Zakhm, Agni Varsha, and LOC Kargil. However, his foray into Tamil cinema with Rakshagan, opposite Sushmita Sen cut no ice with the viewers.

Naga Chaitanya and Akhil

Although he has been around for nearly a decade, Naga Chaitanya, Nagarjuna’s son, has to go a long way to go before he can come anywhere near the lofty standards set by his father and grandfather. He, however, has the benefit of training in a Film Institute in Mumbai and in Los Angeles as well. 

Naga Chaitanya impressed in Gautam Menon’s Ye Mayave Chesave as a lovelorn young man  and in Sukumar’s 100% Love but films like Autonagar Surya and the latest Rarandol Veduke Chudham and Yuddham Sharanam did little to further his career. Bejawada, where he played the role of a college student who turns gangster, was perhaps the worst of the lot. Tadakha, a remake of the Tamil hit Vettai was a face saver and Naga Chaitanya did full justice to the role. The Telugu Premam, remake of the popular Malayalam hit, also did well.

Nagarjuna’s son with actor Amala, Akhil Akkineni who picked up his acting lessons at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute, made his debut as a full fledged hero in Akhil, after playing a cameo in Manam. He also has a film Hello to his credit and this was helmed by Vikram Kumar who also directed Manam. Like his step brother Naga Chaitanya, Akhil, too is on the lookout for meaty roles that can provide adequate scope for his acting talents.

Sandalwood
After Dr Rajkumar, it was Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan who ruled the Kannada film industry.
  • Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 13:51

MGR and Sivaji Ganesan after their long tenures at the top passed on the baton to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. The duo ruled the roost in Kollywood for decades.

Likewise, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, the superstars of Malayalam cinema, ceded their positions to Mammootty and Mohanlal. A similar phenomenon also prevailed in Tollywood where NT Rama Rao and A Nageswara Rao had able successors in Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna.

However, in Sandalwood, the one hero who held the fort for a considerable length of time was Dr Rajkumar who ploughed a lonely furrow till two young men who would eventually metamorphose into macho heroes appeared on the scene in the early seventies.

Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh have had long and illustrious careers in Kannada cinema. Vishnu, however, passed away in 2010 when he was just a year shy of his sixtieth birthday, having served the industry for close to four decades.

Ambareesh, currently in the autumn of his acting career, has been balancing politics and films and has now taken to doing character roles in a few Kannada films.

Both the actors have been prolific and have more than 200 films to their credit.

Vishnuvardhan was introduced to films in the year 1972 by actor-director Girish Karnad in the National Award winning film Vamsa Vriksha, based on the novel by the same name penned by SL Byrappa. But the real mentor for both Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh was one of Sandalwood’s most acclaimed auteurs Puttana Kanagal.

The film Nagarahavu featured Vishnu as a hot-headed young man Ramachari and in his first full fledged role, the actor revealed flashes of his potential. Incidentally, Ambareesh had only a cameo role in the film that marked his debut in Sandalwood. Nagarahavu was a super duper hit at the box office and was the launching pad for the two stars.

Some of Vishnu’s films that afforded him a lot of scope to reveal his mettle were Rajendra Singh Babu's Bandhana, Muthina Hara, S Narayan’s Veerappa Nayaka, Simhadriya Simha, Gandhada Gudi, Sooryavamsa and Santosh Sivan’s ‘Navarasa’. Among his latter day films. P Vasu’s remake of Manichitrathaazhu, Aptha Mithra and its sequel Aptha Rakshaka fared well at the box office.

Incidentally, Aptha Rakshaka was released in theatres after Vishnu breathed his last. Many of his earlier films were directed by Rajendra Singh Babu and the 1984 film Bandhana in which he was paired with Suhasini still remains green in memory. More so, it was the biggest hit in his career.

Vishnu has also acted in films in other languages. His Tamil films like AlaigalMazhalai Pattalam and Kauravar caught the audience's attention. In Telugu, he did a couple of films Okkadu Chalu and Sardar Dharmaanna.

In Malayalam, Vishnu worked in films like Adima Changala, Mazhakala Megam and Samarpanam. He made his debut in Bollywood with Ek Naya Ithihas and went on to do films like Inspector Dhanush, Ashanth and Zalim.

Vishnu brought to bear a great deal of charm and grace in his portrayals and looked every inch a swashbuckling hero. Dubbed the Phoenix of Kannada cinema for his comebacks, Vishnuvardhan was also fondly called as ‘Sahasa Simha.’

Veteran singer S P Balasubramanian who sang for Vishnu in Nagarahavu remained his favourite playback singer and even in his last film Aptharakshaka SPB rendered as many as five hit numbers. Incidentally, Vishnu himself was no mean singer and had sung in as many as twenty films, apart from cutting a few discs comprising religious songs. His duets with acclaimed singers like P Susheels, S Janaki and K S Chithra were all chart busters.

The careers of Vishnu and Ambareesh ran parallel to each other and the duo’s popularity levels too matched a lot.

Ambareesh who earned the title ‘Rebel Star’ impressed audiences as a tough as nails Inspector Amarnath in Chakravyuha and went on to act in successful films like Diggajaru (with Vishnu), AnthaRanganayakiEllu Suttine Kote, Masanada Hoovu, Shubamangala, Gaddu Bheranda, Operation Antha (sequel to Antha) and Sree Manjunatha’ among others.

He later went on to do supporting roles in films like Upendra’s Katari Veera, Surasundarangi.It was his performance in the film Chakravyha that fetched him the title ‘Rebel Star’.

Ambareesh also excelled in dual roles in Antha as a cop and a prisoner. He matched strides with thespian Rajkumar in the film Odahuttidavaru. Ambi Ning Vayassaithu and Kurukshethra where he plays the role of Bheema are the films that the star is presently shooting for. 

Vishnu and Ambareesh shared a lifelong friendship and were like two peas in a pod before the icy hand of fate snatched Vishnu away. Both married co-stars and while Vishnu tied the knot with Bharathi, Ambareesh found his soul mate in Sumalatha.

Their saga of success had a lot to do with the way they shaped their careers. They knew their limitations and range and their directors too ensured that the kind of roles that they signed up for were right up their street. A remarkable aspect in the long innings that the duo essayed on the silver screen was that they managed to keep their fan bases intact. Nearly eight years after his passing, Vishnu’s birth and death anniversaries are observed by his diehard fans who do their best to contribute to the charitable causes that he espoused during his lifetime.

Kollywood
Most directors prefer to play safe when choosing themes for their films but not Mysskin.
  • Friday, March 09, 2018 - 11:42

Most directors prefer to play safe when choosing themes for their films as any kind of adventurism in this regard could cost them dearly. A bagful of awards or critical acclaim might not fetch them their next assignment if the film fails to click at the box office and the producer’s returns fall short of his investment.

But there are a few directors who are made of sterner stuff. They prefer to chase their own rainbows and make the kind of films that provide them aesthetic satisfaction and which they feel will also touch a chord with audiences.

One filmmaker who makes the cut in this respect is the burly Mysskin ( Shanmugha Raja ) who has, right from the outset, swerved considerably from the beaten track. Right from the choice of subject to the delineation of the plot and the casting, Mysskin has always preferred to rely on his own intuition and his confidence in his ability to deliver. Most times his gamble has paid off and though he has helmed just eight films so far, most of them have retrieved their investment with a tidy profit and have also merited rave reviews.

Mysskin, who served his apprenticeship with director Vincent Selva for a while, got off the blocks with his small budget venture Chithiram Pesuthadi a romantic tale featuring two Mollywood stars Narain and Bhavana. The hero, a henchman of a ruthless don decides to turn over a new leaf after he meets the heroine, employed in an NGO. Just when the nuptials are round the corner, he is whisked away by the police. The heroine is devastated and her father dies of shock. How the lovers finally unite form the crux of the film.

The film returned to the cans in record time but after a number from it, ‘Vaalai Meenukkum’ sung by Gana Ulaganathan, turned chart topper, it was re-released in Chennai and elsewhere and did brisk business.

Mysskin’s fascination for gangster movies continued and his second film Anjaathe turned out to be an edge of the seat thriller. The theme of good versus evil with the former triumphing at the end was shot well and the technical brilliance was clearly visible. Narain, the hero of Mysskin’s debut film played the role of a tough cop and Prasanna and Panidarajan were cast as the antagonists. Audiences lapped up the fast paced venture. The film brought back memories of Hollywood gangster movies and one could clearly discern that Mysskin had drawn his inspiration from films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. The film had a phenomenal run with the music score and the lyrics too contributed to its success.

With two hit films under his belt, Mysskin was ready with the script of his third film Nandalala,  but when he pitched the film to a few top actors in Kollywood, all that he got was a thumbs down. A disheartened Mysskin was clearly unwilling to abandon the project and decided that he would himself don the protagonist’s role. The theme of the film, which was borrowed from the Japanese movie Kikyiro narrated the story of a mentally challenged adult and an eight year old boy in search of their mothers.

The film which ought to have been Mysskin’s second before Anjaathe had its share of troubles and was almost shelved after producers backed out of the project. A dark tale of human suffering with hardly any formula ingredients, Nandalala, however won international acclaim when it was screened at the Norway Film Festival where it won the Critics and People’s Choice Awards. Mysskin’s understated performance in the main role, however, proved to be a handicap and it was largely propped up by Ilaiyaraaja’s score with Mysskin collaborating with the maestro for the first time.

While films like Yuddham Sei (2011) and Mugamoodi ( 2012) did little to enhance Mysskin’s reputation as an auteur, he came back strongly with Onaiyum Attukuttiyum which he wrote, directed and produced under his home banner Lone Wolf Productions. In a clear departure from norms, this film had no songs and no heroine either. The movie was a neo noir thriller with a story line that encompassed the events occurring in a single night in the dark lanes and alleys of Chennai.

Sri who made his mark with Vazhakku Enn 18/9 was cast in the role of a young medico who saves the life of a mortally wounded gangster and has to lock horns with the cops who are on the trail of the killer. Slickly shot, the film had its dose of dark humour and emotional content and with nary a single dull moment, received rave reviews as well. Ilaiyaraaja entrusted with the background score did not disappoint. The box office success of the film enabled Mysskin to prove his credentials as a serious filmmaker who could hold the attention of the audience with his brand of storytelling.

Mysskin’s last two directorial ventures were Pisasu produced by director Bala and Thupparivaalan which was made under actor Vishal’s banner ‘Vishal Film Factory’. Pisasu, which marked Mysskin’s first foray into the world of the supernatural, was released in 2014 and its USP was the taut screenplay by Mysskin and the action sequences deftly choreographed by a Hong Kong stuntman who had earlier worked with Mysskin in Mugamoodi. Newcomers Naga and Prayaga Martin enacted the main roles and Pisasu was clearly a shade above many of the ghost films that had been hitting the screens with monotonous regularity.

Thuipparivaalan was the outcome of Mysskin’s fascination for Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes and featured producer Vishal in the role of an intrepid detective Kaniyan Poonkundram with Prasanna as his Watson-like assistant. The detective on the trail of a missing dog stumbles on the sudden death of two people struck by lightning and senses that diabolical forces are at work. With the crafty villain one step ahead of the hero the story moves at a fast pace. The film had its lighter moments too and both Vishal and Prasanna carried off their roles well. The film however ended up as an average grosser.

Savarakathi where director Ram has played the hero is the latest venture from Mysskin’s production house and he has also penned the script for the film directed by his brother Aditya. Mysskin has for the first time in his career, donned the villain’s role and his performance has won him accolades. However Mysskin the director is clearly streets ahead of the actor who donned the greasepaint more out of compulsion than choice. As a singer too he is yet to make his mark. And while he will be game for acting assignments, another film with Vishal is on the cards.

Sridevi
While Sridevi's father Ayyappan was thrilled to have daughter interviewed by an English magazine, the star herself was uninterested.
  • Monday, February 26, 2018 - 12:14
Screenshot/YouTube

Balachander had roped in his proteges Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan for the main roles for his film Moondru Mudhichu and had begun the search for a heroine. He stumped his assistants by rooting for a teenager named Sridevi. Balachander had seen the actor essay the role of Lakshmi’s kid sister Irene in Julie, the Hindi version of the Malayalam film Chatakkari. The director, who had a high regard for the Malayalam filmmaker KS Sethumadhavan, who had helmed both the versions, felt that Sridevi who'd been picked by the latter should fit the bill in Moondru Mudichu

Sridevi, who had faced the arc lights at the age of four, had no hang-ups about doing the role but skeptics wondered how the slip of a girl would be able to play Rajinikanth’s step mother and the second wife of a widower (Calcutta Viswanathan) convincingly. But Balachander’s gamble paid off and Sridevi did full justice to her part.

Her film with debutant director Bharathiraaja titled Pathinaru Vayadhinile was entirely a different kettle of fish. Pathinaru Vayadhinile originally titled Mayil after the Sridevi's name in the film was a heroine oriented subject and offered the young star an opportunity to reveal her histrionic talent. Although both the scene stealers Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth were around in this film, too, it was Mayil who stole the thunder with her vivacity and joie de vivre.

As a freelancer moonlighting for a number of film magazines, I was able to approach the actor for an exclusive interview with a now defunct journal named Star & Style. Despite her glamorous appearance in Pathinaru Vayadhinile, Sridevi was quite shy and demure and I could easily discern that her impending stardom post the film’s release had not begun to rub off on her.

In those days, when visual media had not yet made an impact, interviews in film magazines were highly prized and actors through their PROs would often cajole writers to feature them in their journals. Sridevi’s father, Ayyappan, an advocate by profession who was managing her fledgling career at that point of time, was thrilled that his daughter would be getting some exposure in an English journal, that too from Bombay ( now Mumbai). Sridevi, however, was hardly excited, and answered all my queries in monosyllables. Though her exuberance was evident, a passion for cinema was perhaps still in an embryonic state.

Kamal Haasan, in a teary eyed tribute to the star, had recalled his meeting her when she was a teen on the sets of Moondru Mudichu and observing that she had a childlike innocence about her. It was this blithe spirit that cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra captured so vividly in his 1982 film Moondram Pirai where he cast Sridevi as an amnesia struck waif who loses her bearings after an accident and is rescued by a professor ( Kamal Haasan ). He nurses her back to health and in the process falls head over heels in love with her, only to lose her in the climax as she fails to recognise her benefactor.

This role, which both the actors reprised in the Hindi version Sadma as well, should rank as one of her finest ever. The film was critically acclaimed and also had a phenomenal run at the box-office. Rumours were rife that Sridevi would win the National Award for Best Actress for her portrayal but she missed out by the proverbial whisker. Kamal Haasan won the Best Actor award that year for the film.

Speaking to Balu after the jury had announced the awards, I could see that he too had been piqued at the jury bypassing Sridevi. Until then, Sridevi had been playing glamorous roles and her transformation in Moondram Pirai was a revelation. On interviewing her after the release of the film and the announcement of the awards, I could see that Sridevi , far from being crestfallen or depressed, had taken it in her stride and was all set to move on.

The State Government’s Award for Best Actress was a consolation as were the plaudits that came her way. My bond with the actor who was destined to touch much greater heights in the days ahead grew when she injured her leg during the shooting of a song sequence for the film Shankarlal. Explaining the chain of events, she observed that she had to enact a slow motion scene for a duet and had landed heavily on her right leg, fracturing it in the process. Incidentally, Sridevi was an exceptionally gifted dancer who had attained great proficiency in classical dances like Bharathanatyam, so much so that dancing became her forte when she became a superstar in Bollywood.

Biweekly visits to her humble rented abode became a habit and she would be propped up in her four poster bed, busy poring over a comic book with a stereo system blaring in one corner of the room. Four teddy bears had been placed strategically in the four corners of her bed and the teenager would often glance in their direction, all the time making small talk with me. But such was her dedication to her craft that she continued to dub for the film albeit with her leg in a plaster cast.

Before Bollywood made her its own, Sridevi had a long and fruitful career in Tamil and Telugu cinema and also Malayalam, where the industy saddled her with roles that called for skimpy costumes and risqué scenes. But that innocence that flashed in her eyes always remained and Sridevi unfailingly managed to pull off even such roles, emerging with her dignity intact.

My last interview with Sridevi was in 1983 on the sets of the Jeetendra starrer Himmatwala directed by Raghavendra Rao, where she was participating in a dance sequence. Child artiste Baby Shalini (who later acted in Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthe among other films and married Tamil actor Ajith Kumar) was perched on her lap, and in between shots she would take questions from me. Her films with Jeetendra would rock the box-office and the piece de resistance in the films would be the dance sequences with Jumping Jack Jeetendra matching steps with the queen of dance, Sridevi.

A humble, genial personality, with no airs whatsoever, Sridevi exuded a lot of warmth and always endeared herself to one and all. Considering the fact that she had made a comeback to films, the industry and her legion of fans will certainly miss her.

Obituary
What is remarkable about her rise to this throne is that she never had any godfathers in any of the industries she worked in.
  • Sunday, February 25, 2018 - 03:32

Fifty years ago, in a studio in Chennai (then Madras), a young girl faced the cameras for her debut as a child artiste.

Not many in the audience that watched this wisp of a girl would have wagered that this lass with luminous, bright eyes and a prominent nose would one day become the toast of not just South Indian cinema, but Bollywood as well.

Sridevi performed as a child artist in a number of films, but landed her first significant role in a Hindi remake of the Malayalam hit Chattakari. Titled Julie and directed by veteran director KS Sethumadhavan, the film saw Sridevi cast as the heroine Lakshmi’s nubile younger sister.

But, the biggest challenge of her fledgeling career came to her in the Tamil film Moondru Mudichu, directed by star maker and the man with the Midas touch – K Balachander. As a thirteen-year-old, she was saddled with the role of the wife of an aging widower (played by Calcutta Viswanathan) and the stepmother of Rajinikanth.

Kamal Haasan had a guest role in the film and the highlight of the film was the sequence of scenes between Sridevi and Rajinikanth. Balachander was later to cast her in another successful film Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, which had Kamal in the lead, and Sridevi in the role of a young girl with a wayward father who falls for Kamal.

Another director who played a stellar role in turning Sridevi into a household name was Bharathiraaja. His debut film Pathinaru Vayadhinile, a pastoral drama, had Sridevi playing the central role of the village beauty, Mayil, with Kamal Haasan as a physically challenged Chappani and Rajinikanth as the scheming villain Parattai.

The film turned out to be a blockbuster hit. Sridevi, who had not yet established herself in the industry, threw caution to the winds, exhibiting the voluptuousness of her lithe frame, sending the front benchers into raptures of delight.

Bharathiraaja again cast her opposite Kamal in the suspense thriller Sigappu Rojakkal, where Kamal played a homicidal maniac hunting down the heroine only to perish in the climax. The Sridevi-Kamal Haasan pair was a rage in Kollywood for several years, and the duo worked together in over forty films, including comedies like Meendum Kokila and intense dramas like Moondram Pirai.

Moondram Pirai, helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Balu Mahendra, was a milestone in Sridevi’s film career. It tells the story of a professor (Kamal) who picks up an amnesia-struck waif, rendered senseless after a near-fatal accident. He takes her home and shelters her in the cocoon of his heart, but eventually loses her in a dramatic denouement when, after recovering her mental faculties, she is unable to recognize him as her saviour.

But for the climax, where Kamal goes overboard with his emotions, the entire film belonged to Sridevi. Glamour took a back seat in the film as the actor essayed her role with aplomb, touching a new height in her career, dwarfing even a seasoned performer like Kamal. Ironically, it was Kamal who won the National Award for his performance while Sridevi was overlooked in the Best Actress category.

Sridevi also worked with other Tamil heroes like Sivakumar in Kavi Kuyil and turned in a memorable performance in the Mahendran-directed Johnny opposite Rajinikanth, with whom she had also acted in the SP Muthuraman directed Priya.

Sridevi forayed into the Malayalam and Telugu industries too, and while Mollywood only cast her in lacklustre roles, well fleshed-out roles came to her in Telugu opposite veterans like Nageswara Rao (Premabishekam, a smash hit), NTR, Krishna, Shobhan Babu and so on. Sridevi was the heroines in such Telugu hits as Konda Veeti SinghamKshana KshanamVeeragadu, Sardar Pasparayudu and Bobbili Puli.

Sridevi’s first foray into Bollywood as a heroine was with Bharathiraaja’s 1978 remake of Pathinaru Vayadhinile titled Solva Salwan, which however turned out to be a damp squib. It was in Himmatwala released in 1983, where she was paired with Jeetendra, a favourite of producers down South, that she created a significant impact. Suddenly, Sridevi and her ‘thunder thighs’ came into sharp focus across the nation.

The Sridevi-Jeetendra pair was much like the Sridevi-Kamal combination down south, and films like Mawali and Tohfa clicked in a big way, while almost all their other films too did brisk business. Jeetendra, dubbed ‘Jumping Jack’ for his dancing prowess, was in awe of Sridevi. In a recent interview, he commented that he found it tough to match steps with her in the dance sequences as she was such a brilliant dancer.

Not all her Hindi films did justice to her talent or versatility as they were mere potboilers focusing on entertainment. But there were notable exceptions like Sadma (the remake of Moondram Pirai), Mr India, ChandniChaalbaaz (in a dual role with Sunny Deol and Rajinikanth), Khuda Gawah (again, playing dual roles of an Afghani mother and daughter, opposite Amitabh Bachchan), Lamhe, and Gumrah.

Shekar Kapur’s Mr India (which critics felt should have been titled Miss India as Sridevi hogged the limelight) was a delightful comedy caper, where she acted opposite Anil Kapoor. The “Hawa Hawaii” song, where she danced with gay abandon, became a craze, as did her Chaplinesque act that brought the roof down.

Ace director Yash Chopra was so fascinated with her talent that he cast her in the dual role of a mother and daughter in his film Lamhe. Already, she had won hearts in his earlier film, Chandni, in a role tailor-made for her. Commercial hits like NaginaKarma, and Janbaaz kept coming, right down to her last project before bidding au revoir to the industry, Judaai.

Marriage to Boney Kapoor, Anil Kapoor's elder brother and a producer in his own right, turned the queen of the box office into a demure housewife. But when even her most die-hard fans thought she had hung up her boots for good, Sridevi sprang a surprise by returning to the silver screen after a fifteen-year hiatus.

In 2012, Sridevi made a powerful comeback with the English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde. The film’s theme centred on Sridevi as a housewife, who after being taunted by her husband and daughters on her lack of proficiency in English, strives to match their expectations by opting for a crash course in the language.

The film was a runaway hit and the actor proved that she could still carry a film on her shoulders. Sridevi’s film Mom, produced by husband Boney Kapoor and directed by newcomer Ravi Udyavar featured her in the lead as the mother of two children played by Pakistani actors Sajid Ali and Adnan Siddique. The film also saw Nawazuddin Siddique and Akshay Khanna sharing frames with her.

There’s no dearth of admirers even within the industry for the woman recently chosen as India’s greatest actress in the last hundred years by a popular news channel. Salman Khan, for instance, had said that Sridevi is greater than all the Khans in the industry, while veteran actor Anupam Kher dubbed her the Queen of Hindi cinema.

What is remarkable about her rise to this throne is that she never had any godfathers in any of the industries she worked in. Instead, she made her rise to the top thanks to her versatility, her commitment to cinema and the hard work she put in over several decades.

Bollywood has always been a haven for actresses from the South, with the likes of Vyjayantimala, Waheeda Rahman, Padmini, Hema Malini and Rekha all carving niches for themselves. But Sridevi has always been in a different league altogether, which is saying a lot considering that these other stars had massive followings in their heydays.