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The curious case of ‘Jeans’ and what it meant for Prashanth’s career

Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth in the 1998 film ‘Jeans’ directed by S Shankar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In a recent interview to The Hindu, cinematographer-director Rajiv Menon, reminiscing on his film Kandukondain Kandukondain (the film completed 20 years since release on May 4), revealed an interesting nugget of information.

Menon had approached actor Prashanth for the role played by Ajith Kumar in his film, only for the former to turn it down because he preferred to act alongside Aishwarya Rai and not Tabu. This throwback story, written by a colleague, gained eagle-eyed netizens’ attention, many of whom felt the need to comment on Prashanth’s now near non-existent film career in Tamil cinema — an astonishing, albeit not entirely surprising, climb down the ladder of fame and influence from the heights he occupied in the 1990s.

For the uninitiated, Prashanth is one of only three actors (the other two are Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan), to have acted in a film directed by three of the top filmmakers ever produced by Tamil cinema — the late Balu Mahendra, Mani Ratnam and S Shankar.

A few days before Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain reveal, it was reported in vernacular media that Prashanth’s father, the actor-filmmaker Thiagarajan, is in talks with actor Tabu to reprise her role from the Hindi film, Andhadhun, which is being remade in Tamil with Prashanth in the lead, and I thought life and its ironies have a strange way of playing out.

The popular opinion among Tamil movie buffs is that it was Prashanth’s poor choice of films in early 2000s that led to the collapse of a once-promising career.

I found this line of argument intriguing. When Twitter commentary rages about how verbal duels on the social networking site ought to have been waged between fans of Prashanth, Vijay and Ajith (as opposed to between Vijay and Ajith fans), it comes across as an idea driven by emotion rather than one based on facts.

The other two too suffered colossal failures in their careers and have managed to bounce back. All three actors did romantic films in the 1990s because it just was the trend then. The new millennium made all three graduate to action films, but only two managed to survive the transition and continued their foray into superstardom.

The cast of ‘Jeans’ included Lakshmi (far right), Nasser (second from right) and Senthil (far left)

The cast of ‘Jeans’ included Lakshmi (far right), Nasser (second from right) and Senthil (far left)   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In my opinion, however, Prashanth’s route down the forgotten lane started much earlier than the 2000s. A good example is actually the blockbuster film — Jeans (which released 22 years ago in April 1998); a film I decided to watch recently on Amazon Prime Video amid these developments. At the end of the film, there was only one thought: Jeans has not aged well, and it has to rank amongst the weakest films from S Shankar’s stable (there aren’t many entries in that list, fortunately).

Jeans is one of only three Shankar films that doesn’t fit his mould or trademark: the do-gooder who has been wronged and is out to seek revenge. The coming-of-age film Boys and the remake film Nanban are the other two. Jeans, however, did light the filmmaker’s still burning desire to milk visual effects to the maximum in his films.

Let’s rundown the film’s broad story framework: twin brothers growing up in the US, an Indian family flies into Los Angeles for a surgery, through a botched operation a romance brews but there is an interesting underscore to this love, a flashback and some ridiculous plot twists later we arrive at the climax. The film, though, had some beautifully-shot song sequences with the maestro AR Rahman’s tunes amplifying its girth.

Prashanth plays dual roles — Viswanathan and Ramamurthy. The latter has to be the most useless twin character written in Tamil films since even the times of MGR-Sivaji. Come to think of it, what exactly does Ramamurthy bring to the script apart from his refusal to grow a stubble, at least, or tattoo his upper arms (maybe an ear piercing).

Watching the film with the biased lenses of 2020, it is tough to find it convincing that two Indian-Americans who had grown up in the US all their life are living a Karaikudi lifestyle in Los Angeles, where the film is initially staged, and are subservient to their father who commands that they wear the same pair of clothes.

Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth in the 1998 film ‘Jeans’ directed by S Shankar

Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth in the 1998 film ‘Jeans’ directed by S Shankar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Even more strange is that when Ramamurthy hits the heights of desperation, as he lusts after the non-existent twin named Vaishnavi, which is what the song ‘Anbe Anbe’ is, he sticks on a fake moustache! (yeah, yeah... the period factor of the song has been considered.) By comparison, and quite amusingly, the twin Nassers had several personality and character differences.

A cursory look at the way Prashanth’s twin characters were developed and how Aishwarya Rai’s invented twin characters were developed, it is easy to note that the film is more “female-centric” (a term that was thrown around liberally by every second Tamil filmmaker, purely for purpose of promotion, until the pandemic started) than many other films featuring the hero in a dual role.

Prashanth played dual roles in ‘Jeans’

Prashanth played dual roles in ‘Jeans’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Whether it is Vijay in Mersal or Ajith in Vaali or Villain or Rajini in Moondru Mugam and Kamal Haasan in a handful of films, a Tamil film hero, when he opts to play a dual character in a film, has always looked to leverage the maximum potential (read as: mass) from each of the characters. Prashanth, himself, attempted doing the same in his later films but to not much success. In this regard, Jeans is an oddity.

Except, Jeans had several issues with its writing. Here is one scene I’d like to offer as an example. The “smitten in love” Madhumitha (played by Aishwarya Rai) is stopped at the baggage check at Los Angeles airport, where the officer picks out an empty Coca Cola can, bits of betel leaves and discarded wraps of chocolates. Shankar justifies this scene as showing the woman is crazy, madly in love with Viswanathan! (On a side note, isn’t this the same scene in Anniyan, when Vivekh stumbles upon rubber band and greeting cards held by Vikram’s Ambi character addressed to Nandini (played by Sada)? A food for thought: upcycling, at times, is better than recycling.)

Prashanth and Aishwarya Rai in ‘Jeans’

Prashanth and Aishwarya Rai in ‘Jeans’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Antakshari sequence in the first half of the film felt like something that should have been edited out. Also, this is a film where a man practicing medicine offers naturopathy treatment to a woman he supposedly is in love with for “women’s problem”, get that?

The primary issue over its long runtime was Jeans had only a single character who could push the viewer in you emotionally, and made you want to react to the character’s histrionics (trust me, all the characters are histrionic in this film!). That person is Radikaa’s Sundarambal, the conniving, mean-spirited wife of Nasser’s innocent twin brother. In approximately five minutes of screen time, Radikaa does what the rest of the film’s characters fail to do despite being in front of our faces for over two-and-a-half hours.

Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth in the 1998 film ‘Jeans’ directed by S Shankar. One song in the film was shot in front of seven wonders of the world.

Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth in the 1998 film ‘Jeans’ directed by S Shankar. One song in the film was shot in front of seven wonders of the world.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Besides, being the costliest Indian film to be produced at the time of its release (with a production budget of ₹20 crore), Jeans rode on its magnum opus promotional piece — the song that was shot in front of seven wonders of the world. No other reason justifies the placement of that song with just seven minutes or so left to run in the film; that song was the “main event” and would make the ‘90s audience sit through the film’s runtime just to catch a glimpse of the wonders and Aishwarya Rai in stunning outfits.

All of this still doesn’t make sense as to how and why was Jeans chosen as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in 1998. Predictably, it didn’t make the shortlist, and the decision-makers’ logic of pushing Jeans remains a mystery.


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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 8:34:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/the-curious-case-of-jeans-and-what-it-meant-for-prashanths-career/article31527116.ece

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