Mollywood
The award winning Malayalam filmmaker passed away on January 14.
  • Tuesday, January 15, 2019 - 18:24
Lenin Rajendran/ Thachan.makan/ Wikimedia Commons/ CCBYSA3.0

In a career spanning more than three and a half decades, Lenin Rajendran, the Malayalam filmmaker who passed away on 14th January, 2019 directed just fifteen feature films. He could have directed many more but as one who steadfastly refused to pander to the box-office, he derived satisfaction from the genre of filmmaking that he chose to explore through his oeuvres.

Lenin picked up the craft of filmmaking by working as an assistant to PA Backer, who created a splash with his debut Kabini Nadi Chuvannapol. Lenin got his first break with Venal in 1981 and followed it up with his second film Chillu in 1982. Both these films were shot on shoestring budgets but were noticed for their offbeat treatment of the themes.

Lenin’s film Prem Nazirine Kanmanilla caught the eye for its title. This writer remembers quizzing the director as to his choice of theme for the film and the title. Nazir, incidentally, was the reigning superstar of Mollywood at that time, working multiple shifts and churning out films by the dozen year after year.

Lenin was nonchalant and admitted that he had chosen the title as the theme dealt with the disappearance of the star and the consequent pandemonium that sets in. Nazir not only approved of the film but also played himself in the kidnap drama. Lenin generally worked on scripts written by him but was also not averse to adapting novels. His film Deiathinte Vikruthigal was based on a novel by M Mukundan while Madhavakutty’s (Kamala Das) story Nashtapatta Neelambhari provided the nucleus for Mazha.

 A departure from his conventional genre was the film Meenamasathile Sooryan, a film that dealt with the peasant uprising in 1940 against feudalism, and he chose to narrate the story with a cast of four young men rising in rebellion. The film had a marked communist slant to it which was only to be expected as Lenin Rajendran, right from his college days, was a dyed in the wool Marxist.

Among his other films, those that deserve special mention include Swathi Thirunal, Puravrutham, Kulam, Mazha, Rathri Mazha and Makaramanju. Swathi Thirunal, released in 1987, was based on the life of the Maharaja of Travancore, Raja Rama Varma who earned name and fame as a composer, and whose kritis continue to be popular in classical music circuits even today. Anant Nag was the apt choice for the monarch’s role but the film was more of a musical with as many as 14 tracks rendered by some of the finest singers of the time, including Balamuralikrshna, KJ Yesudas, S Janaki and SP Balasubrahmanyam with MB Sreenivasan wielding the baton.

National Award winning cinematographer Madhu Ambat, who has cranked the camera for most of Lenin’s films, and art director Krishnamurthy contributed immensely to the success of the film which also had popular actors like Srividya in the cast.

Puravrutham was another period film but this time Lenin chose to pick an actor from Bollywood for the lead role of a young man who rebels against a libertine landlord who lays down the law in a small rural hamlet and forces new brides to sleep with him. His choice of hero was Om Puri, who delivered a powerhouse performance, with his eyes blazing like charcoals in the confrontation scenes. An apt foil to him was Revathi in the role of a docile homemaker, marveling at her husband’s strength of character and conviction. Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s music score too embellished the film.

Kulam, a 1997 film directed by Lenin, was loosely based on the historical novel titled Marthandavarma by CV Raman Pillai. Although most of Lenin’s films were quite offbeat, he never hesitated to sign marquee stars for the roles that he had in mind. His choice of Suresh Gopi, Bharath Gopi and Bhanupriya for Kulam, and Om Puri, Murali and Revathi for Puravrutham are clear examples of Lenin using mainstream actors in pivotal roles in his films.

Lenin Rajendran’s films Mazha and Raathri Mazha, where rain was a leitmotif were clear manifestations of his love for nature. Mazha, based on a short story Nashtapatta Neelambari by Madhavi Kutty, dealt with the romance between a teenager and her orthodox music teacher that goes awry, with the lovers drifting apart only to meet again after losing their respective spouses.

One of Lenin’s latter day films Raathri Mazha with Vineeth and Meera Jasmine as the leads had a more relevant theme of love blossoming between two young dancers and how they meet through social media and find that the harmony that existed in their relationship had turned into dissonance after they exchange their marital vows. The highlight of the film, apart from Lenin’s adroit handling of the plot, was the panoramic and pictuesque cinematography by S Kumar.

In Makaramanju Lenin has delved deep into the world of art, with the film tracing the life and times of the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma and his muse. The lead role was essayed with elan by acclaimed cinematographer Santhosh Sivan, with the petite Karthika Nair, daughter of yesteryear heroine Radha in the role of his muse. The film was one of the five that were selected for the International Film Festival of India and also won an international award for Best Film.

Lenin’s last released film was Edavapathi (2018) which narrated the woes of the displaced. The title role was that of a Tibetan monk played by Sidharth Lama. Debutant Uthara Unni and Bollywood actor Manisha Koirala too had well defined roles in the film. The director, who held the post of the Chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation at the time of his passing, had a tryst with electoral politics as well and was nominated by the Marxist Party for the Lok Sabha elections in 1989 and 1991, and on both occasions, he contested unsuccessfully against KR Narayanan of the Congress who would later become President of India.

Lenin will be remembered for the diverse themes that he handled in his films and for his directorial skills that won him five state awards but ironically attracted little attention at the national level.

Kollywood
Dhanush is an actor, producer, director, scriptwriter, lyricist and playback singer, and has seen success in the various spheres of filmmaking.
  • Monday, January 07, 2019 - 12:30

Thulluvadho Ilamai, a coming of age film directed by Kasthuri Raja based on a script by his elder son Selvaraghavan, narrated the story of six teenagers, three boys and three girls. One of these boys was played by Dhanush, the younger son of the director. The film was released in 2002 and more than 16 years down the line, Dhanush, the gawky teenager who had his eyes set on becoming a marine engineer, has metamorphosed not only into one of Kollywood’s most popular heroes, he also dons several hats. Dhanush is an actor, producer, director, scriptwriter, lyricist and playback singer, and his efforts in the various spheres of filmmaking have been largely crowned with success.

Early success

Dhanush’s passport to stardom was his second film Kadhal Kondein, which released in 2003 and was directed by Selvaraghavan. Saddled with the complex character of a physically and mentally abused young collegian who finds his saviour in a classmate who takes him under her wing, Dhanush had to reveal a wide range of emotions. Highly melodramatic, the film, which had a riveting music score by Yuvan Shankar Raja, also fared well at the box office.

The career of the actor, who has earned the sobriquet of an Indian Bruce Lee for his wiry frame and excellence in stunts, has seen its ups and downs. After his early success, he acted in films like Thiruda Thirudi, Sullan, Dreams and Parattai Endra Azhagu Sundaram, which were mindless entertainers with weak storylines. A dance number in Thiruda Thirudi, ‘Manmadha Raasa’, however caught everyone’s eye. The grapevine has it that when the dance sequence was being filmed in Kolar Gold Fields, Dhanush had run up a temperature and his movements in the fast-paced number appeared as though he was in a delirium.

Steady rise to the top

Dhanush’s collaboration with director Vetrimaaran has been mutually beneficial and though their first film together, Pollathavan, was little more than a potboiler, their second effort, Aadukalam, was a real game-changer. The film, which netted six National Awards including Best Director for Vetrimaaran and Best Actor for Dhanush, had a pastoral setting with the age-old sport of cock fighting as its nucleus. Dhanush literally breezed through the role and the National Award jury probably felt that the portrayal was au naturel fitting the character to a T.

The latest film from Vetrimaaran and Dhanush was Vada Chennai, where the star essayed the role of a carrom player who, by a quirk of fate, turns into a gangster. Dhanush had played a gangster earlier in his brother’s film Pudupettai, but the character in Vada Chennai was more fleshed out. The film also had a better run at the box office. Among Dhanush’s more successful films was Velayilla Pattadhari, where he was cast as an engineer but the sequel of the film Velayilla Pattadhari 2, in which Bollywood actor Kajol played the antagonist, received mixed reviews and a lukewarm response at the box office. While the earlier film had lensman Velraj wielding the megaphone, Dhanush’s sister-in-law Soundarya Rajinikanth handled the sequel.

Another franchise that has been repeated by Dhanush is Maari, helmed by Balaji Mohan, the story of a small-time gangster. In Maari 2, the sequel which hit the screens recently, Dhanush has hammed to the hilt but audiences have lapped up his mannerisms, dialogue delivery and body language. The film, which featured Mollywood’s latest craze Tovino Thomas as the villain, even has Dhanush mouthing a punchline that goes: “If you’re bad, I’m your dad”. In both these films, the actor portrayed the gangster with a tinge of humour, and up-and-coming comedian ‘Robot’ Shankar served as a perfect foil for the hero. Incidentally Maari 2 was released along with five other films, including the dubbed version of the big budget Kannada film KGF starring Yash, and has received mixed reviews, so its fate at the box office is keenly awaited.

The other Tamil films by Dhanush that deserve a mention are Yaaradi Nee Mohini, in which Nayanthara was cast as the heroine, and Maryan, a Bharat Bala film with Parvathy starring opposite Dhanush. The actor had to shed a lot of sweat in the latter film, a hostage drama shot extensively in a vast desert.

While Raanjhanaa, Dhanush’s first foray into Bollywood directed by Anand Rai, though mediocre had a good run, his second venture, Shamitabh, with no less an actor than Amitabh Bachchan and directed by Balki was an unmitigated disaster.

As producer and director

Wunderbar Films, his production house, has been performing exceedingly well and small budget films like Kaaka Muttai have won accolades and recognition at the national level. Two films that provided a fillip to Sivakarthikeyan’s career – Ethir Neechal and Kaakki Sattai – were produced by Wunderbar. Dhanush and Vetrimaaran also combined to produce the hard-hitting Visaranai directed by the latter, which was India’s official entry to the Oscars. The duo bankrolled Vada Chennai as well. Naanum Rowdy Dhaan with Vijay Sethupathi and Nayanthara in the main roles was another Wunderbar film. But the biggest movie produced by the banner so far has been the Rajinikanth starrer Kaala, directed by Pa Ranjith who had directed the Superstar earlier in Kabali.

The actor’s only film as director has been Pa Paandi, which narrated the story of an aging stuntman played by actor-director Raj Kiran, who had once been a benefactor to the Kasthuri Raja family. Written and produced by Dhanush, the film was embellished by the performances of the lead actor and veteran Revathi who essayed the role of his old flame. However, the film turned out to be an average grosser.

Ennai Nokki Paayum Thotta, an action thriller helmed by Gautam Vasudev Menon delayed for various reasons, is likely to be his next release. Another venture, Asuran, is on the floors and is expected to release next year. Meanwhile, he marked his presence in the international scene with the comedy The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, in which he portrayed the character of a street magician.

Despite one of his numbers ‘Why this Kolaveri di’ from his home production 3, directed by his wife Aishwarya Rajinikanth, setting YouTube on fire, Dhanush has yet to earn his spurs as a lyricist and playback singer. Purists wasted no time in ripping ‘Kolaveri’ to shreds and were unsparing in their criticism of the lyricist-singer.

Now in his 30s, it remains to be seen what other heights this talented actor will scale.

Profile
Aishwarya shot to fame with her performance as a slumdweller and mother of two young kids in the critically acclaimed ‘Kaaka Muttai’.
  • Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 18:01

She first attracted attention in the inane slapstick comedy show Asathapovadu Yaru on Sun TV but it was her dancing abilities showcased in the reality show Maanada Mayilada, which she won, that brought her film offers. Some of her earlier films, like Avargalum Ivargalum, Rummy and Pannaiyaarum Padminiyum, were washouts at the box office. It was the Manikandan directed Kaaka Muttai that did the star turn for the young actor Aishwarya Rajesh, whose performance as a slumdweller and mother of two young kids was widely appreciated.

Not many actors eyeing a foothold in cinema would have jumped at the opportunity to play a young mother at such an early stage in their career. The role, entirely shorn of glamour, had a lot of potential. Shot almost entirely in the slums of Chennai, Kaaka Muttai’s theme centred around two slum kids yearning for the exotic pizza. Aishwarya, as their mother who is trying to make ends meet, was cast in the pivotal role and did not disappoint. The film picked up a National Award and gained international recognition, and the actor too won accolades and awards for her intense portrayal.

The box office success of Kaaka Muttai, however, did little to advance her career; Aishwarya had to bide her time and it was after a yearlong wait that offers came her way. Her keenness to avoid typecasting cost her a few films but the actor, who prefers an ideal mix of glamour and intense roles, caught the eye of Malayalam filmmakers. Her films, Jomonte Suvisheshangal with Dulquer Salman and Sakhavu with the current Mallu heartthrob Nivin Pauly, featured her in roles that she could do full justice to. In Jomonte, veteran director Sathyan Anthikkad cast Aishwarya in the role of a Tamil girl, Vaidehi. Though the film was largely hero-centric, with old-timer Mukesh also playing a major role, the actor did manage to hold her own in the limited scenes allotted to her. As far as Sakhavu was concerned, it was a Nivin Pauly show all the way as he hogged most of the frames, but Aishwarya as Sakhavu (comrade) Janaki also impressed.

Evidently the actor opted to sign these films with the intention of widening her footprint in regional cinema, but her portrayals were noted and there is no reason why Mollywood should not offer her more and better roles in the days ahead. Aishwarya also landed a role in the 2017 Hindi film Daddy, loosely based on the life of jailed gangster Arun Gawli (played by Arjun Rampal). She was cast in a significant role, that of Asha Gawli, Gawli’s wife, and the actor had given it her best but the film nosedived at the box office and was soon forgotten.

In recent times, Aishwarya was seen in a number of films like Saamy 2, the sequel to Saamy starring Vikram and directed by Hari, and the Mani Ratnam directed Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, a multi-starrer, apart from Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai in which she was cast in a fiery role mouthing the coarse dialect of the milieu in which the film was set.

Saamy 2 was clearly a film that Aishwarya should not have touched with a barge pole. Trisha, who had starred in the 2003 roaring hit Saamy, turned down the role of Saamy’s wife without a second thought as it was purely ornamental and there was little in the script for an actor with calibre. Aishwarya also had to contend with another heroine, Keerthy Suresh. As expected, the sequel, hardly a patch on the original, sank without a trace at the box office.

Mani’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, with its distinct shades of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather, was a celebration of male machismo with a star cast comprising Arvind Swamy, Vijay Sethupathy, Simbu and Arun Vijay. As could only be expected, the leading ladies were given short shrift and apart from Jyothika the others, including Aishwarya Rajesh, Aditi Rao Hydari and newcomer Dayana Erappa, were cast in insignificant roles.

In Vada Chennai, however, it was a totally different story altogether. The Vetrimaaran film, conceived well over a decade ago, finally hit the screens recently with Dhanush in the lead role of Anbu and Aishwarya as his love interest, Padma. The grapevine has it that heroines who were considered for the role ahead of Aishwarya had opted out as the character had to mouth a lot of cuss words. But Aishwarya had no hang-ups about what the role required and matched an award-winning actor like Dhanush stride for stride. The film, which also fared well at the box office, is likely to provide a distinct fillip to her career as well.

Aishwarya Rajesh has a number of projects in her kitty, including Dhruva Natchathiram with Vikram that is directed by Gautam Menon, debutant Arun Raja Kamaraj’s Kana that is produced by actor Sivakarthikeyan, fantasy film Idhu Vedhalam Sollum Kadhai, and Idam Porul Yaeval directed by Seenu Ramswamy in which she will be seen with her Rummy and Dharmadurai co-star Vijay Sethupathy. She might also be a part of Aramm director Gopi Nainar’s next film and has also reportedly been offered a Telugu film with Vijay Deverakonda who tasted massive success with his Arjun Reddy. Aishwarya’s versatility in handling a wide gamut of roles, from glamour to feisty ones, have ensured her success. All she has to do now is to pick the right kind of films and avoid the flippant and inconsequential roles where she is required only as a prop.

Also read: Watch: What workplace sexual harassment is, and what companies should do

Cinematography
Madhu has cranked the camera for films in nine different Indian languages and has also been a part of Hollywood films.
  • Sunday, October 14, 2018 - 17:07

Armed with a degree in Physics, a young Madhu Ambat had two options in front of him. He had secured admission in IIT where he could pursue a career in engineering. He had also gained admission to the prestigious Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune that offers multifarious courses related to cinema. A yen for cinematography saw him plump for the latter, a decision that he has never had to rue till date.

Madhu passed out of FTII with a Gold Medal and in 1973, bagged his first assignment, a documentary on ‘Industrial Estates’ directed by Ramu Kariat of Chemmeen fame. In over four and a half decades, Madhu has cranked the camera for an incredible 250 films, his milestone film being Pani in Malayalam. He is perhaps the only cinematographer in Indian films who has worked in nine different languages and has also been a part of Hollywood films directed by Manoj Night Shyamalan (Praying with Anger) and Jagmohan Mundhra (Provoked). Madhu’s first full-fledged film was in Malayalam, titled Love Letter released in 1974. He then forged a partnership with another up and coming cinematographer, Shaji N Karun, and the duo worked together in three films before branching out separately.

A marked feature of Madhu Ambat’s career has been his penchant to work in films made by offbeat directors whose work signalled a clear departure from the traditional auteurs who concentrate more on the entertainment angle. Even after establishing himself and earning plaudits for his camera work he has never shied away from films made by first-time directors. In fact, his 250th film Pani is helmed by debutant Santosh Mandoor. A major chunk of Madhu’s work has revolved around Malayalam cinema and here too he has worked with established professional directors and the younger lot as well. The cinematographer cherishes his association with one of Mollywood’s most acclaimed directors, KS Sethumadhavan, with whom he worked in films like Oppol, starring Balan K Nair and Menaka, and the Tamil film Nammavar with Kamal Haasan in the lead.

The late Bharathan was another director who placed a lot of faith in Madhu and their collaboration in films like Amaram, Vaishali, Sandhya Mayangum Neram and Padheyam, among others, turned these movies into aesthetic and visual treats. Particularly haunting were the visuals in the period film Vaishali shot at lush outdoor locales. The talents of Bharathan, who was also an accomplished art director, and Madhu fused admirably to turn the film into a panoramic delight for viewers.

Lenin Rajendran was another filmmaker who rarely looked beyond Madhu while scouting for a cinematographer. Some of their outstanding works include inter alia films like Swathithirunaal and Makaramanju. Incidentally Makaramanju, based on the legendary painter king Raja Ravi Varma, featured one of Madhu’s illustrious contemporaries, Santosh Sivan, in the role of the protagonist. Other discerning directors with whom Madhu has been associated in his long and fruitful innings were KR Mohanan (Purushartham), Rajeev Nath (Sooryante Maranam) and Pavithran (Aaro Oral).

First-time director Salim Ahamed too had Madhu wielding the camera for Aadaminte Magan Abu, a poignant film that narrated the story of an aging, poor Muslim yearning to fulfil his dream of going on the Haj. The focus here was on highlighting the pathos of the central character and Madhu’s frames conveyed the angst to perfection. Madhu Ambat’s third National Award for Best Cinematography came to him for this film. The director-cameraman team came together again for the Mammootty starrer Pathemari.

Although his exposure to Kannada cinema was limited, Madhu had the opportunity of working with some of the finest directors in Sandalwood. The late acclaimed director GV Iyer placed considerable faith in Madhu and their combination resulted in some of Iyer’s finest films on celluloid. Adi Shankaracharya (Sanskrit), Kudure Motte, Madhvacharya Bhagwad Gita (Sanskrit) and Swami Vivekananda, all helmed by Iyer had some fascinating lenswork from Madhu. In fact, Madhu’s first National Award was for Adi Shankaracharya. As the ace cameraman confessed to this writer once, shooting for Iyer’s films was extremely tough as comfort was the last thing on the director’s mind, especially during outdoor shoots.

Another Kannada director for whom Madhu had high regard was the late Prema Karanth with whom he did Phaniyamma. Multiple National Award winner Girish Kasaravalli too roped him in for Tabarane Kathe, a film based on a novel by the late Poornachandra Tejaswi. This film again was an emotion-laden human drama with a great deal of pathos woven into the script. A national award winning portrayal by Charuhasan was the highlight of the film and Madhu’s contribution with the camera too won him accolades.

Madhu Ambat won his second National Award for the film Sringaram, directed by debutant Sharada Ramanathan, which depicted the life of Devadasis during the 1920s. Other notable films that provided Madhu an opportunity to showcase his talents were Amodini, a Bengali film directed by the well-known literary critic and father of actor-film maker Aparna Sen, Chidananda Dasgupta, Sai Paranjape’s Disha, Mani Ratnam’s Anjali and Mohan Sharma’s Namma Gramam. Madhu has also directed a film 1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love.

The cinematographer who turns 70 next March remains wedded to the silver screen and we hope he continues to work with filmmakers who can add new dimensions to cinema with their novel themes and ideas.

Also read: Freedom and the confidence to face anything: Why these Indian women travel solo

Entertainment
From Kasturi Siva Rao in the silent cinema days to recent entrants like Vennela Kishore and Priyadarshi, a list of Tollywood’s popular entertainers.
  • Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 15:55

Comedy has been an integral part of Indian cinema right from the time the first talkie hit the screens and comedians have always been in great demand in south Indian cinema as well. Comedy of course is a serious business and unless one really has the talent and flair for it success could well prove elusive.

Tollywood has had a long tryst with comedy and a name like Kasturi Siva Rao was popular among the audiences even during the silent cinema days. The early 50s witnessed the emergence of the talented comedian Relangi Venkata Ramaiah who in tandem with another funster Ramana Reddy earned name and fame by portraying comic roles. They were also referred as the Laurel and Hardy of Telugu cinema with the rather portly Relangi earning the sobriquet Oliver Hardy and the thin Ramana Reddy hailed as Stan Laurel. Films like Gunasundari, Missamma and Maya Bazaar, which starred the duo, were huge hits with their comic interludes contributing greatly to the success.

Another pair that rocked Telugu cinema in the 60s and 70s and added new dimensions to Telugu film comedy was Allu Ramalingaiah (Chiranjeevi’s father-in-law) and Padmanabham. They too captivated audiences with their brand of comedy and had separate tracks written for them. Raja Babu, famous for his quirky mannerisms, dressing style and dialogue delivery, ruled the roost in Tollywood for quite some time and producers queued up to sign him for their films. Later he went on to turn hero and his fans appreciated his performances, though with his facial contortions he was always seemed a little over the top. Raja Babu also went on to produce and direct films before his untimely death at the age of 45.

The stocky Babu Mohan and Kota Srinivasa Rao, the latter seen as a scheming villain in Kollywood, also made the rounds of Telugu cinema as a comic pair and a few films featuring them were well-received. Two other actors who also started their careers as comedians but later drifted to playing hero roles were Rajendra Prasad and Sunil Varma. Both of them had excellent timing sense and even after turning heroes, producers often cast them in social comedies revolving around family themes.

MS Narayana was another comedian who struck a good rapport with audiences. But the actor who has epitomised comedy in Tollywood for well over three decades is undoubtedly Brahmanandam. He made his debut in 1985 courtesy director Jandhyala and has had an uninterrupted run with well over a thousand films to his credit. The former Telugu lecturer first gave glimpses of his talent in Rama Naidu’s Aha Naa Pellanta and went on to become a household name in no time. His set of stock mannerisms and facial expressions notwithstanding, Brahmanandam has been able to invest his roles with elan and flourish with his unique style of dialogue delivery.

Money, Anna, Anaganaga Oka Roju, Vinodham, Ready, Boss, Hitler, Race Gurram, Manmadhudu, Koncham Ishtam Koncham Kashtam, Dookudu and Baadshah are a few films that banked heavily on Brahmanandam to deliver the goods. The role of Khan Dada in the film Money is easily one of his best so far. In collaboration with fellow comedian Ali too, Brahmanandam’s comedy tracks have been outstanding. The actor’s cameos in Tamil films like Mozhi and Saroja were impressive. Of late, however, a few of his films have crashed at the box office raising speculation that the ace comedian might be losing his Midas touch. The industry nevertheless can hardly give him short shrift considering his immense popularity with audiences of all ages.

Ali, an illustrious contemporary of Brahmanandam, started out as a child actor. He too has been extremely prolific and directors like Krishna Reddy, Puri Jagannath and actor Pawan Kalyan have cast him in almost all their films. Generally cast as a friend of the hero, Ali has always found enough scope to mouth his one-liners and punch lines to good effect. His comic flair was to the fore in films like Super (Kannada), Race Gurram, S/O Sathyamurthy, Gabbar Singh, Amma Nanna O Tamil Ammayi and Narasimha Raju. The actor continues to be in great demand and has a packed calendar ahead of him.

Although not in the same league as Brahmanandam or even Ali, mimicry artist turned comedian Venu Madhav too has the capacity to raise a good laugh. Films like Master, Tholi Prema and Hungama provided him an opportunity to prove his talent. These days, however, the comedian has turned choosy and has been in hibernation having turned down roles that required him to indulge in low brow comedy laced with double entendre. But he has at least three films awaiting release. Among other comedians who are in the reckoning are Jayaprakash Reddy, Raghu Babu, Prudhvi Raj and Allari Naresh and a few recent entrants like Vennela Kishore, Priyadarshi and Shakalaka Shankar.

Comediennes, however, have always been in short supply. While Tamil cinema’s greatest comedienne Manorama has done Telugu films, it was the likes of actors Geetanjali, Sri Lakshmi and Ramaprabha who were considered for comedy characters, which at times were reduced to blink-and-you-miss roles. Kovai Sarala, another Kollywood veteran, and young Vidya Raman are now in demand for comedy roles and they have been acquitting themselves well.

Comedy films have been doing fairly well in Tollywood, if the success of some of the recent films are any indication. But there is plenty of room for improvement where this genre is concerned.

Also read: ‘Nannu Dochukunduvate’ review: A love story that promises much but delivers little

Kollywood
The two directors have only a handful of films to their credit but they have created a space for themselves in the industry.
  • Saturday, September 01, 2018 - 14:58

There is hardly any dearth in numbers as far as the release of Tamil films is concerned, only a handful of films have impacted the box office while the others have returned to the cans in record time.

But, the silver lining is that the industry now boasts of a number of young filmmakers who can be counted on to hold the banner of Tamil cinema aloft in the coming days. Themes considered taboo are being tackled with gusto, and audiences which were lulled into a soporific slumber by the monotonous fare now have something to cheer for.

Two directors who have already made a name for themselves though they have helmed only a handful of films are Vetri Maaran and Pa Ranjith. To the former, goes the credit of bagging the prestigious National Award for Best Director for his second film Aadukalam. Ranjith is not far behind - when he was just two films old, he managed to get back to back assignments to direct Rajinikanth starrers, something that directors would give their right arm for.

But what is refreshing about these auteurs and others like them is that they are not too wary of the box office and are prepared to swerve from the beaten track to tackle fresh and novel themes.

Vetri Maaran, a protégé of the late cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra, commenced his innings with a regular commercial film Polladhavan, a title borrowed from an yesteryear starrer of Rajinikanth. With Dhanush as the hero, the film had little to commend it as it more or less revolved around stunts and romance with the vivacious Divya Spandana paired opposite the hero. The director hardly gave any glimpses of his craft in the film, which however had a good box office run.

However, it was his second directorial venture Aadukalam again with Dhanush in the lead role that won plenty of critical acclaim and a bagful of awards that marked out the young director as a talent to watch out for. Set in a village where cock fights are common, Aadukalam mirrored life in the raw with flaring passions, gang wars over roosters, enmity between different sects etc forming the leitmotif.

A petite Tapsee Pannu was roped in to play the female lead. With excellent choreography by Dinesh and riveting music by GV Prakash Kumar, the film had everything going for it. But where Vetri Maaran scored was in fleshing out his characters with Dhanush, Naren and Jayabalan all perfectly cast in tailormade roles, A taut screenplay and pithy dialogues too added plenty of pep to the film. A rich haul of National Awards came the film’s way and the box office collections too were heartening, considering the fact that the film was made on a shoestring budget.

But arguably, the best film by Vetri Maaran was the hard hitting Visaranai, India’s entry to the Oscar Awards. It was based on an autobiographical novel Lock Up by Auto Chandran. The film, which dealt with custodial violence, had a surfeit of blood, and gore. So much so, that Dinesh, who was incidentally introduced by Ranjith in Attakathi and played the lead role in Visaranai, confessed that he would get nightmares recollecting the graphic violence in the film.

Visaranai elicited mixed reviews, but critics also lauded the director for not chickening out in depicting the sordid sequence of events where police use extreme third degree tactics to extract confessions from innocents. Vetri Maaran, who has floated his own production unit, has also produced films like Kaaka Muttai and Kodi, with Dhanush as a co-producer. His next film, too, has Dhanush leading the cast and Vada Chennai is touted to be a movie based on gang wars in Tamil Nadu. Thanks to his Dhanush fixation, Vetri Maaran is yet to make films with other A lister heroes. 

Pa Ranjith debuted with a romantic comedy Attakathi, but it was with the political film Madras that he won his spurs as a director. Madras, in which Kaarthi played the lead, dealt with depression and unemployment among the youth. The film had a political slant and the symbolism was apparent as the story unfolds around a giant hoarding of a politician on a wall that leads to intrigue and murder.

Ranjith shot to further fame with the two films that he made with superstar Rajinikanth.. Directing superstars, however, has its pluses and minuses and while it can assure a good outing at the box office, the director has to finetune his script keeping the superstar’s image in mind. This would leave him little elbow room to maneouvre. But that did not unnerve Ranjith who not only turned Kabali into a hit, but also bagged Rajini’s next film Kaala.

Kabali, extensively shot in Malaysia, pleased the superstar’s fans with the director affording Rajinikanth free rein to showcase his mannerisms, flex his muscles etc, while putting forth his brand of politics. In Kaala, it was the director and scriptwriter Ranjith who stole the show. Kabali, the story of a don who goes in search of his family after serving a stiff jail term, was also written by Ranjith but Rajini’s overpowering aura was the piece de resistance of the film.

Kaala, set in Asia’s biggest slum - Mumbai’s Dharavi -  dealt with the displacement of have-nots from their homes by land sharks. With a theme revolving around oppression and anti-caste politics, Ranjith’s fiery dialogues were the mainstay and even the star’s charisma had to take a backseat. While Ranjith is not keen on being labeled as a Dalit filmmaker, caste inequalities have always been part of his films. The grapevine has it that Ranjith is all set to do a web series on the late actor Silk Smitha.

Ironically, despite their success, both Vetri Maaran and Ranjith have not found the sailing smooth so far in their careers. Vetri Maaran, especially, has had producers play ducks and drakes with him and stars too have opted out of his films at times. But the future augurs well for both the filmmakers, as they have the courage of their convictions and the innate ability to tell a story the way it should be told.

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.)