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30 years of 'Karagattakaran': actor Ramarajan goes on rewind mode

Ramarajan, now 60, was in the middle of a 11-film streak that had 100+ days theatrical run, when 'Karakattakaran' released on June 16, 1989.

Ramarajan, now 60, was in the middle of a 11-film streak that had 100+ days theatrical run, when 'Karakattakaran' released on June 16, 1989.   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

Thirty years since Ganghei Amaren’s epic blockbuster ‘Karakattakaran’ hit the screens, we ask Ramarajan, the film’s hero, to take us back in time

Ramarajan huffs at the prospect of Karakattakaran 2.

Judging by present day Tamil film industry trends, it isn't a far-fetched idea to conceive a sequel to the highly successful original.

The quantum of lapsed time between the two films wouldn’t matter (It didn’t for director Hari when he made Saamy Square).

All it takes is a producer willing to invest (of which there are many), and a hero willing to reprise his role. That second, very crucial, part is the sticking point here.

“Many people have broached the idea with me. Even Amaren anna (Ganghei Amaren) discussed it with me as recently as last year. I told him ‘No, it’s not happening’. As far as I’m concerned, oru thadava karakam eduthaachu, vechaachu, aadiyaachu, odiyaachu (we lifted the karakam pot once, and it has minted money). If we touch it again, it will be like disturbing a beehive. I want no part of that,” the actor says.

The backstory

The film with the immortal banana comedy scene came to be because of a casual exchange with Ganghei Amaren, recalls Ramarajan.

“It was I who suggested to Amaren anna that we could invert the Thillana Mohanambal (1968 film starring Sivaji Ganesan) formula but with both hero and heroine being karakattam dancers. It was never before done in Tamil cinema,” he says.

Ramarajan and Kanaka in the movie

Ramarajan and Kanaka in the movie  

Karakattakaran was the debut film for actor Kanaka, the lead female, who was only 15 at the time.

Prior to turning actor, Ramarajan had approached Kanaka, when she was only 11, to play the lead role in his directorial, Marudhani (1985), which was produced by director P Bharathiraja.

“She told me she wasn’t ready to become an actor then. But she was the perfect choice to play Kamakshi (in Karakattakaran),” he adds.

No discussion about Karakattakaran is complete without tipping your hat to Ilaiyaraaja’s music, a prominent fixture in Ramarajan’s films.


The actor was always a fan, but as an assistant director working under Rama Narayanan, he would be rebuffed if he suggested Raaja’s name. “I would be told that the film’s budget cannot accommodate Raaja anna,” he says.

But when he turned director with Mannukketha Ponnu (1985), Ramarajan instead approached Amaren to compose music.

“Only if I made friends with the younger brother could I hope to get acquainted with Raaja anna,” he laughs.

It was only after many rounds of pleading that Ramarajan and Amaren were able to convince Ilaiyaraaja to croon ‘Paattaalae buddhi sonnaar’, the title track for Karakattakaran.

However, it is ‘Maanguyilae’ which became more famous. “Even at political gatherings (he was an AIADMK star campaigner), people would ask me to sing ‘Maanguyilae’ though I was such a terrible singer,” he says.

30 years of 'Karagattakaran': actor Ramarajan goes on rewind mode

The record breaker

These numbers help put Karakattakaran's success into context.

This was Ramarajan’s 18th film as hero, and his third collaboration with Amaren after two hits in Enga Ooru Pattukaran and Shenbagamae Shenbagamae. The film’s first draft, says the actor, was completed on a measly budget of ₹35 lakh.

Ramarajan, now 60, was in the middle of a 11-film streak that had 100+ days theatrical run, when Karakattakaran released on June 16, 1989.

Comedian duo Goundamani-Senthil's track in the movie is considered iconic even today

Comedian duo Goundamani-Senthil's track in the movie is considered iconic even today  

“I had an inkling that the film might do a 200-day run,” says the actor, who credits Ilaiyaraaja for helping make up his mind. “The song cassette went on sale exactly a month before the film’s release, and it was a bumper hit among audience,” he adds.

When the time came to promote the film, Ramarajan stuck to his guns and got his way.

“I always used to distribute my films in Chennai and MR [territory]. But for Karakattakaran, I insisted that the producer also give me the Coimbatore territory. I told them I won’t complete the film’s promotional shoot until this happened. I was willing to pay the rate the producers wanted. I even asked them to deduct it from my salary,” the actor recollects.

30 years of 'Karagattakaran': actor Ramarajan goes on rewind mode

In Tamil film industry parlance, MR territory covers the distribution rights for Dindigul, Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga, Theni and Virudhunagar districts, while Coimbatore territory covers Erode, The Nilgiris, Tiruppur and Coimbatore districts.

“But people close to me advised that it would be difficult managing distribution in three territories. So, I sold the Coimbatore rights to another distributor for ₹1 crore. He saw a 100% profit after tax,” he says.

Eventually, the actor was convinced to sell his Chennai distribution rights as well for a sum of ₹75 lakh, he says, adding, “I had the confidence, and that is why I bought these rights. But the film’s success was all due to Amaren anna and Raaja anna.”

30 years of 'Karagattakaran': actor Ramarajan goes on rewind mode

The height of the film’s success saw Ramarajan purchase Nadanaa theatre in Madurai.

“Not even one ticket was unsold in the 385 days that it ran [in Nadanaa]. When we shifted the print to other theatres, it ran for a few more weeks. I think in Madurai alone the film ran for 450+ days, with theatres earning an operating profit on every show,” he adds.

The scene wasn’t any different in other parts of the State.

The fall of a legend

Born as Kumaresan — the fifth of six children to Ramaiyya and Vellaiammal, in Okkur, Ramanathapuram, Ramarajan says his stage name was self-adopted.

“I had an affinity towards the name Ram. I was born in Ramanathapuram. My father was Ramaiah. I worked as an assistant director to Rama Narayanan, the owner of the house where I was a tenant, when I was working as an assistant director, was Ramasamy, and, of course, my screen idol was M G Ramachandran,” the actor says.

‘Raja’ was an ode to his humble beginnings. The man spent five years working in a theatre before cinema happened.

“It all began at Raja touring talkies in Madurai. I was an usher, sold tickets, was promoted to be a cashier; I was a film reel operator, and I even stuck posters,” he says. And thus, Ramaraja came to be. “But it was a four syllable word, and I thought it sounded odd. So, I added an ‘n’, and it was better,” he laughs.

At his peak, the actor rivalled the likes of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan in terms of popularity, salary (he charged up to ₹2 lakh for a day’s shoot) and opening.

30 years of 'Karagattakaran': actor Ramarajan goes on rewind mode

An advertisement in 1989, celebrating his 32nd birthday, celebrated the fact that the actor had 32 films lined up, which even by today’s standards is impressive. Ramarajan, essentially, was the next big thing.

Then, the fall began. And, as the actor attests, it never ended.

“My mistake was to commit to films left, right and centre. Do you remember Manasukketha Maharasa?,” he asks. The 1989 film was notable for being composer Deva’s debut. “It was produced by Gowri gurukkal. He was a priest at a Vadapalani temple!”

His last film Medhai (2012) sank without a trace.

The offers haven’t dried up, except Ramarajan is being choosy about roles, and it is tough to relate to the actor’s hard line stance. He says he was offered the character of a boxer in Venkat Prabhu’s unreleased film Party, and that of a politician in RJ Balaji’s LKG, which one can only assume is the role that eventually went to the late J K Ritheesh, because Ramarajan doesn’t watch today’s films.

30 years of 'Karagattakaran': actor Ramarajan goes on rewind mode

“People have grown to love me in my bright-coloured shirts. I never played a role with negative shades. My characters are very soft. I’ve never discussed politics in my films, and I want all my roles to be liked by women, especially mothers,” he says, adding, “The characters filmmakers offer me these days don’t suit me, and my personality. I know there is a misconception that Ramarajan doesn’t prefer character roles, but that’s not the case. I won’t say no to playing the brother to Vijay or Ajith. Unfortunately, such roles don’t come my way.”

An interesting bit of trivia keeps the actor’s spirits up. “I still am the only actor in Tamil, who has played the solo hero continuously for 44 films since debut,” he says.

A cursory glance at the careers of Tamil cinema’s young stars reveal that many of them are quite some way away from matching, let alone breaking, this unique record.

“If ever anyone spots a person milking a cow, they will remember me first,” says the actor, adding in conclusion, “As for Karakattakaran, till such time the world exists, there will be temples, and as long as there are temples, there will be karakam... and whenever people see karakattam, they will only remember Ramarajan.”

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 8:58:53 PM |

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