Lights, camera, conversation...Two-film wonder

During the shoot of Gramathu Athiyaayam 03   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

This is your first film, and even the way you refer to this first film in the acknowledgements at the beginning is different – not as “ mudhal padam,” which is the literal translation, but as “ kanni muyarchi,” your virgin attempt. Padam signifies a tangible product – a film. Muyarchi, on the other hand, is shrouded with vagueness – it suggests flailing about, it suggests a search, it suggests an experiment. Aval Appadithan (loose translation: She Is the Way She Is; in other words, her own person, not too concerned about blending in with the rest of society, all of which, gender-reversed, seems to apply to the director C Rudraiah as well) was all of these things, especially an experiment. The film, which was released in October 1978, remains one of a kind, an “art film” made with huge commercial-cinema stars (Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Sripriya).

Aval Appadithan was different. The shadowy black-and-white cinematography was different. The dialogues, which were more about revealing character than advancing plot, were different. The frank handling of sex and profanity (“she is a self-pitying, sex-starved bitch!”) was different. The documentary-like detours were different. The painfully sensitive, feminist hero was different. Rudraiah was different. If nothing else, no Tamil film, before or since, has had the hero and heroine kissing in the loo, right next to the flush toilet. K Hariharan, the filmmaker and a close friend of Rudraiah, told me, “He was very radical. His thinking was very [French] New Wave – he was a big fan of Godard. Like Godard, he was into anti-narrative cinema, without traditional beginnings and ends. He wanted to change the conventions of cinema.”

Seen from today’s vantage, then, it’s not surprising at all that someone like Rudraiah had such an abbreviated (one might even say aborted) career – he made just one other film, Gramathu Athiyayam, which was released in 1980. That same year, Rajinkanth became a superstar with the release of Murattu Kaalai, and two years later, with Sakalakalavallavan, Kamal Haasan was officially launched into the stratosphere. It wouldn’t be feasible for these stars to do small films again, especially if the director wanted things that the box office did not want. Hariharan pointed to Mani Ratnam, too, as a “major game changer.” He said, “His was a consumerist kind of cinema. He looked at frames as commodities in themselves. And this was anathema to Rudraiah, whose cinema was a pure, radical, anarchic world that could not be seen subscribing to anything called ‘standard culture’. Between the native folk art of Murattu Kaalai and Sakalakalavallavan and the urban city art of Mani Ratnam, Rudraiah lost out.”

But not for lack of trying. Among the people I spoke to was S Arunmozhi, who was one of Rudraiah’s associates on Aval Appadithan and Gramathu Athiyayam, and a director in his own right. He told me about the other films, the could-have-beens, and though he wasn’t exactly clear about the dates, the chronology, it’s at least instructive to see that even when he was not making cinema, Rudraiah was thinking, constantly, about making cinema. In the 1982 timeframe, give or take a few months or years, there was Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu, with Kamal Haasan playing younger brother to Chandra Haasan. Sujatha was cast as the latter’s wife and Sumalatha was to play Kamal’s heroine. The story dealt with the conflict between the peacenik older brother and the Naxal leanings of the Kamal character.

There was this other project that Kamal Haasan tried to put together a project – this was sometime after Moondram Pirai – that Rudraiah would produce and Balu Mahendra would direct. “But Rudraiah, at that point, wanted complete control over a project,” said Arunmozhi. “He wanted to produce the project. He wanted to direct the project.” But after a point, things came to a halt.

There was something called Unmayai Thedi. Then, around 1988, there was something called TXT7, a road movie inspired by Taxi Driver. Around the late 1980s, Rudraiah decided that he would direct films for other producers, and in the 1990-91 timeframe, he began work on Kadalpurathil..., which was based on the novel of same name by Vannanilavan, who co-wrote Aval Appadithan (with Somasundareshwar and Rudraiah). It was a tragic love story set in a seaside village, and Archana was supposed to play the lead. After a couple of weeks of shooting, the producer decided to make it a telefilm, and he changed the heroine as well as the director. Kadalpurathil... ended up being telecast on Doordarshan.

Then there was this film whose story was written by Somasundareshwar. PC Sreeram remembers listening to Somasundareshwar’s narration, and being impressed by “this intense love story. It was wild and weird, and still made a lot of sense.” Arunmozhi remembers this film as a modern version of Romeo and Juliet (that, in fact, was the film’s name), to be made with Somasundareshwar’s son as hero. Sreeram was to do the cinematography. AR Rahman was to do the music. “This was supposed to bring Rudraiah back as a director,” Arunmozhi said. But after a point, things came to a halt.

Even during the director’s last days, he was planning a film – it was called Gautam, and the hero would play a triple role, a father and his two sons. The film was to be shot in London and Colombo, and the German filmmaker Martin Repka (whose 2007 film Return of the Storks was Slovakia’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars) was roped in for discussions. But after a point, things came to a halt.

It’s common for a project or two to get dropped in the course of a filmmaker’s lifetime, but in Rudraiah’s case, it comes off like something chronic – almost as if he couldn’t bear to go ahead with the ideas he had in mind. One of the reasons for the stalling of Rudraiah’s career, Arunmozhi said, was that it was too late by the time he began to consider making films for other producers.

Kothandaraman, a Film Institute classmate, said that Rudraiah was too sensitive, that he used to take things very personally, that he had “too much self-respect” to function in the film industry, where a bit of boot-licking is the norm. Hariharan said that Rudraiah was a private man who would frequently retreat into a shell. He wouldn’t circulate and meet others.

But more than anything, it was perhaps the cult success of his first film that left Rudraiah paralysed. “He was frozen with Aval Appadithan,” Hariharan said. “Everyone kept praising the film, and it took years for him to come out of its shadow. And he was not flexible. I said I’d take him to Doordarshan, where he could make a meaningful documentary or some sort of semi-fiction. I was doing TV then. Saeed Mirza and Govind Nihalani were doing TV then. But he said no. For him, that was a big compromise. I used to tell him that the best way to describe him was ‘Avan Appadithan’. He would laugh.” And later, he probably started losing confidence. “I met him last in the mid-1990s. He had forgotten what it was like to make a film. Aval Appadithan was so far back in the past.”

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 5:11:40 AM |

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