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A crusade for the underrated

Ajit and Jyothika in "Mugavari".

LIKE THE `A', `PG-13' and `PG-17' movie certification/rating you see on movie posters, they should have one called `U' - for Underrated. (There isn't much of a chance that there will be an O - for Overrated, will there?)

Every year a tiny bunch of decent to good to great movies come and go without really being noticed. Because they are underrated. Sometimes by the critics, sometimes by the audience. Or both. They are the ones that come without much hype. It is only later, by word of mouth or critical reappraisal that these films find their true audience. And this re-discovery happens through the video/dvd circuit or because of television re-runs and film festival retrospectives.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if they re-release these films with a `U', so that everyone can know they deserve a second chance, a new audience? Just kidding. Underrated movies are, first and foremost, personal favourites. And who doesn't have one? Even if you aren't a movie buff, you'll have a movie that you feel

a) should be seen by everyone

b) hasn't got its due

c) that your friends don't like but ought to and

d) is better than all those over-hyped, overrated movies out there.

The strong critical conviction that lies behind personal (favourites) is that these movies we care for so much are not just a subjective thing but that they are masterpieces, albeit small ones, that have been unfairly dismissed or overlooked or under-seen.

If you are a movie-buff, you go a step further: you crusade for them to be recognised for the wonderful films they are. I'd like to, in this very column if possible, carry out such a crusade for my list of underrated films (and put some very overrated films in their place, if possible) of the 90s: "Babe II: Pig in the City", "The Quick and the Dead", "Vanya on 42nd Street", "The Browning Version", "Six Degrees of Separation", "Love and Death on Long Island", "Truly, Madly, Deeply", "Flirting", "Wonder Boys," "The Tailor of Panama", "The Russia House" and "The Zero Effect".

My underrated films' crusade begins not with the above-mentioned list but with a commercial Indian movie! - a Tamil film called "Mugavari" (Address) which was made a few years ago. Written and directed by Durai, it starred Ajit and Jyothika. This delightful, realistic feel-good film never found the audience it deserves. At the end of "Mugavari" I wanted to stand up and cheer. The, this - is-how-it - is - in-real-life ending was such a sweet surprise.

Ajit's one passion in life is to be a cinema music composer, an ambition that his adoring, unusual middle class family actually encourages.

Jyothika, the girl he loves, gets him the break he's been looking for - an audition with a movie producer. On the verge of making it, Ajit is forced to choose between the three loves of his life: family, beloved and music. A family crisis forces him to give up his dream and get a regular nine to five job. He is last seen walking to work.

The beauty of this ending is that it does not foreclose the possibility that Ajit and Jyothika will get back together and that Ajit would make it one day. But the audience who saw it in its first week run probably dissed it, compelling the filmmakers to quickly tack on a clichéd, happy ending.

The film's greatest strength is the streak of realism running through it: the boy meets girl romance is handled with charm and freshness, while the families here at least resemble real families. (Malayalam films have been doing this kind of thing for ages). And the film turns out to be not about romance or even family melodrama but about the difficulty, the hardships and the pressure of keeping faith with your dreams. The script is chockfull of fine, unexpected details — whether it's looking at romance, familial love, movie industry intrigue or the price you pay for being passionate.

My favourite detail is the inclusion of the now legendary Luz Corner second-hand pavement bookshop in Chennai - no one before Durai seems to have thought of featuring it in a movie. "Mugavari" is what most Indian commercial movies ought to be: not great or even good but modest, believable entertainers.

I don't know if the video or dvd of the film has been released but if so, I'm hoping Durai has kept the original ending. But where is this wonderful new director? I have no news of him. Has he, for instance, made anything after "Mugavari"?

If there is anyone out there who has some information on him, do write in to the e-mail id below. Also, Reader, send in your list of favourite underrated movies to


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