The re-release of a 1960s multistarrer offered an opportunity to go back in time, to the age of mammoth productions with equally outsized star-actors
Those who were lamenting that, thanks to cricket, there were no major-hero movies released this April 14 — the Tamil New Year — were simply not paying attention. Two of Tamil cinema's biggest stars each had a release — rather, a re-release.
In an unexpected turn of events, solitary prints of “Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum” (starring MGR) and “Thiruvarutchelvar” (with Sivaji Ganesan) found their way to two Chennai theatres, and I opted to sit through the latter. I think it's because it had been a really long time since I saw something with Sivaji in it. Also, the promise of a luminous Padmini in Eastman Colour was more appealing than Bhanumathi in harem pants in Geva Colour. There's something about Bhanumathi that always scared me as a child, and I wasn't sure I wanted to investigate the reasons as an adult.
As it turned out, Padmini had just one song, the glorious ‘Mannavan Vandhaanadi', and a subsequent scene. This song is interesting because, on the obvious level, it's a eulogy to the emperor played by Sivaji Ganesan. But deconstruct the moment, and you're left with the 1967 equivalent of the ‘hero introduction number' so loved by today's top stars. The mannavan (king) isn't just the character on screen but also the regal star at the screen's centre, who is revealed to us on a red carpet — feet first, like Rajinikanth today — as rose petals are offered in obeisance by maids-in-waiting. Only then does the camera begin to gaze upwards, coming to rest at his face.
This lingering first glimpse, you imagine, is when fans on this side of the screen were given a moment to erupt in joy. (Even now, there was applause when Sivaji Ganesan appeared as Thirunavukkarasar, gnarled and wizened with the old-age makeup of the day.)
Watching “Thiruvarutchelvar” today is something of a chore. Every idea is delivered through dialogue and there is no attempt at dramatisation — the film is very much in the mould of the rhetoric-heavy morality tales of the 1950s and 1960s, more dramatic than cinematic. But, it's something else to behold this actor on the big screen. In the living room, his out-sized emoting shrunk to the size of the television monitor, he can often appear ridiculous to the modern eye. To see him up there is to see a lion freed from the confines of a cage and in its natural habitat. It's where he belongs. The big screen so easily accommodates his big acting.
“Thiruvarutchelvar” is from a time Tamil films were flirting with colour. The average Hindi film from the mid-1960s — the fluffy, hill-station romance; the social drama; the melodramatic love triangle — was already in colour, but in Tamil, only the epics were mostly in colour. These films — the best of which is “Thiruvilayaadal” — were the equivalent of, say, the Amar Chitra Kathas about the Jataka Tales, a compendium of smaller stories linked by a religious thread, with gods putting mortals through severe tests, rather like a punitive IIM exam setter determined to let through only those that are truly deserving.
But the film itself — marred by scratches and audio burps — deserved better preservation. The point isn't that “Thiruvarutchelvar” is a masterpiece and therefore needs to be restored to its former glory. It may well be a dinosaur from an older era, but it needs to be embalmed in amber if future generations are to behold a key link in the evolution of Tamil cinema.
(Lights, Camera, Conversation... is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films)