Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Two-film wonder”

Posted on November 28, 2014


Why did C Rudraiah’s career never take off after his dazzling debut film? The film industry’s answer: “Avar Appadithan.”

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).

PC Sreeram, who was Rudraiah’s junior at the Adyar Film Institute (Rudraiah graduated in 1975), told me, “We were all totally zapped by the movie. This is the kind of world cinema we had been exposed to, the kind of cinema we believed in, and to see one of your own make this kind of movie, in your mother tongue, was amazing.” Imagine what the audience must have made of it. You go to the theatre seeing the faces on the posters, the stars who were last seen together in Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu, Sridhar’s superhit which was released just that June, and you expect a story-driven melodrama along similar lines, with probably a trendy “item number” like Yennadi Meenatchi, and instead you get… this, this moody dissection of a woman’s psyche. And, at first look, this isn’t even a very likeable woman, someone you feel sorry for, someone whose plight makes your eyes swim in tears, but a woman who’s to her gender what cacti are to the plant kingdom. She’s filled with thorns, and she does her darnedest to keep you away.

When a film is in the spotlight – due to, say, its director’s demise, as in this case – there is a tendency to shove other films into the darkness, and if we are to be really fair to the other directors of the time, we should take note of K Balachander’s Thappu Thalangal, which was released in 1977. That film, too, had Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan (in a special appearance), and it, too, had an “adult” storyline that was unusual for Tamil cinema, something about a thug who meets a prostitute. That same year also saw the release of avant-garde filmmaker John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhudhai. So you could say there was something in the air.

Still, 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.”

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The director (seated behind the camera) during the shooting of ‘Gramathu Athiyayam’

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 made films like Kaani Nilam.) Arunmozhi, actually, was more than just a professional cohort. He spoke of the “ashram”-like atmosphere in Rudraiah’s Kumar Arts office at Raja Annamalaipuram, where, between 1978 and ’86, many like-minded and creatively inclined individuals used to gather. He spoke of a library there that housed Tamil translations of Jnanpith Award-winning novels, along with the scripts of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Polanski’s Cul-de-sac. Arunmozhi met Rudraiah at the Film Institute – the story of Rudraiah, then, is also a chronicle of people who’ve been trained to look at cinema purely as art, and what happens when they step into the Tamil film industry, which is among the country’s most commercial – and assisted him in his diploma film based on the Jayakanthan short story Siluvai, which is about a nun’s struggles with celibacy. The script was not approved by the HOD, who was Christian, but somehow the film was made and it impressed the examiner, K Balachander, so much that he awarded Rudraiah a gold medal. (At least this part, to some of us, isn’t very surprising. A nun’s struggles with celibacy? How could this story not end up fascinating KB?)

Arunmozhi 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. The film was shot simultaneously in Telugu – it was to be a bilingual; Rudraiah’s mother tongue was Telugu – and one of the locations was the set that served as the blind protagonist’s house in Rajapaarvai. Shooting went on for about 15 days, and the film was about 40% was complete (“Those days, you shot very quickly,” Arunmozhi said) when things ground to a halt. Hariharan told me that one of the reasons was probably that Kamal Haasan, at the time, was advised by SP Muthuraman – who had always been a sounding board, since the days of Kalathur Kannamma, on which SPM worked as an assistant director – to change tracks, to make more mainstream movies and not keep making films like Moondram Pirai (released in February 1982). The result of this advice was, of course, the as-mainstream-as-mainstream-can-be Sakalakalavallavan (released in August 1982). So Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu possibly collapsed under the pull of a big star, on one side, and, on the other, a director who worshipped Godard. A couple of songs that Ilayaraja had composed for the film – including Ponvaanile ezhil venmegame – ended up in a 1985 Manivannan flop named Anbin Mugavari.

But Kamal Haasan remained a well-wisher, and he 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 – and these words will be seen a lot over the next few paragraphs.

There was something called Unmayai Thedi, which was announced in the papers with an ad – but after a point, things came to a halt. Then, around 1988, there was something called TXT7, a road movie inspired by Taxi Driver. (Arunmozhi’s synopsis: “The taxi driver is a good man and society makes him a criminal.) This was to have L Vaidyanathan’s music. Raghuvaran was to be the hero. The story was by the writer Sujatha, who wrote the lyrics for a song as well. Two songs were recorded. But after a point, probably due to a financial problem, things came to a halt.

From some accounts, though, Rudraiah doesn’t seem to have been all that averse to merely producing a movie – and there are projects he floated where his role was just that. Among the more interesting-sounding of these projects is Bhishmar, which would tell a story of the legendary figure incorporating portions from myth as well as the modern day. Rudraiah was to produce, with his Film Institute classmate Kothandaraman providing the finances, and ‘Billa’ Krishnamurthy was to direct. Sivaji Ganesan was to play the leading role, and as a story goes, he landed up on the sets at 5 am, waited till 8:30 am, grumbled about the “lack of planning” by these “new Film Institute boys,” and left. When I asked Kothandaraman about the film, he said that he had distributed two hits from April 1984, Thambikku Endha Ooru and Vaazhkai – and the latter had propped up Sivaji Ganesan’s sagging market. When his classmate came by and spoke about his non-happening career, he decided to help. Vaazhkai had made him a familiar face in the Sivaji Ganesan camp, and he went along with Rudraiah to give the actor an advance for Bhishmar. But after a point, things came to a halt.

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The director (in a dhoti) during the shooting of ‘Gramathu Athiyayam’

Why did Rudraiah begin to toy with the idea of producing? Arunmozhi told me the story of how he, along with a few other technicians who were supposed to work on Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu, resigned their jobs at Doordarshan, New Delhi, when the film was announced because they couldn’t be shuttling back and forth. “We resigned a government job,” Arunmozhi said, and when the film never really took off after that, Rudraiah probably felt guilty. Turning producer for films made by other directors was possibly a way to help out the disciples from his “ashram.”

Around the late 1980s, Rudraiah decided that he would direct films for other producers – some people might describe this as climbing down from a rather high horse – 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. There could have been other projects too, Arunmozhi said, and he didn’t know about them because, for a while after 1986, he wasn’t in regular contact with Rudraiah, at least not as much as in the “ashram” days. If some of these projects appear to be overly big in scope, especially considering the filmmaker’s modest (and modestly budgeted) résumé, they seem in line with Rudraiah’s thinking, which was always big. “He’d travel by car, never by auto,” Arunmozhi said. The economic losses from the shelved films didn’t cramp Rudraiah’s style. His wife was employed as a teacher, and there were friends who lent him money. After his divorce, he moved into a Single Person’s Quarter in Royapettah, but he kept wanting to move out. “Even during his last days,” Arunmozhi said, “he was looking at houses that cost something like Rs. 60,000 per month.” And this is a man who hadn’t made a movie in over 30 years.

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. The man was also a Marxist, a follower of the French philosopher Louis Althusser, which may mean nothing until you begin to consider the unapologetically capitalistic and class-filled nature of the commercial film industry. (Titbit: Rudraiah’s elder brother Gurulingam considered himself a ‘Marxist Leninist’, and it was this dynamic, reversed, that worked its way into the relationship of the siblings in Raja Ennai Mannithuvidu.) In his last days, though, there appears to have been some disillusionment with the people he put his faith in. When Rudraiah was undergoing treatment for the cancer that finally consumed him, he noticed that most of the patients in the adjacent beds were from Kolkata. “What good is a Marxist party if it cannot build even one good hospital?” he told Gurulingam.

Kothandaraman 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. “He was a villager at heart. The three years at the Film Institute changed him. Had he been persistent, he could have been the mascot of a new wave, but he gave up.” 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.”

Arunmozhi told me that Rudraiah’s fondness for Kamal Haasan was really why nothing ever happened. “Kamal was intelligent, talented, and he knew so much about world cinema. They were on the same wavelength. Rudraiah always appreciated him and admired him. In fact, I would say he was addicted to him. He wouldn’t settle for less. He could have tried to do something with Rajinikanth as well. Rajini helped him too. He didn’t take any money for Aval Appadithan. But Rudraiah wanted only Kamal. It was like an ‘oru thalai kaadhal’.” This revelation lends another layer to Aval Appadithan, where Kamal Haasan plays an uncompromising, non-commercial filmmaker and can be seen as Rudraiah’s alter ego. In the opening credits sequence, Arun (the Kamal character) – rather his voice, given that we just hear him over a black screen – tells an associate that nothing can be done if “villagers” don’t understand this film, and we hear many other thoughts along these lines, all overlapping, like voices inside the head, until Arun shouts “Silence,” like a director would. Consider these other scenes too. The scene where Arun looks at the audience (us) and says, “Konjam left-la thalli irukkanum,” which Kamal Haasan recently revealed was an injunction for the audience to have leftist (or in Rudraiah’s case, Marxist) leanings; the scene where Manju (Sripriya) enters Arun’s home and finds a huge poster of Mamayev Mound, the statue commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad (speaking of Russia, Arunmozhi told me that The Brothers Karamazov was one of Rudraiah’s favourite books); the scene where Manju asks if there’s lots of money in cinema, and Arun replies, “Adhu mattum ennoda nokkam illai”; the scene where Arun tells someone that he’s going to interview S Janaki and she asks if it’s the Janaki who sang Machaana paatheengala and he says he only knows the Janaki who sang Singaravelane; the scene where a big-name actress says she has no dates to spare for the production company named ‘Kumar Arts’… These appear, today, to be as much about Arun as Rudraiah. Even the character of Manju was based on a woman Rudraiah knew. I asked Arunmozhi if Rudraiah, like Arun, was a bidi smoker. He laughed, and reminded me that Rudraiah liked to live life Kings size. “Even if he had to borrow money, he’d smoke a 555 or a Dunhill.”

The only other actor Rudraiah was interested in was Raghuvaran, whom he had seen in Hariharan’s Ezhavadhu Manidhan. “He considered Raghuvaran an actor of some capability,” Hariharan said. “They shared a similar wavelength.” But then Raghuvaran turned to villainous roles in films like Mr. Bharath, and he acted in a 1987 potboiler called Michael Raj, which became a hit. And Rudraiah lost interest. He dropped Raghuvaran and went back to casting, in his head, Kamal Haasan in his various could-have-been films – like Gautam, or much earlier, an adaptation of Amma Vandhaal, Thi. Janakiraman’s story of a Brahmin boy who discovers that his mother is having an affair. But would such a busy star be able to shave his head and sport a tuft for the duration of the shoot? The question, now, is moot. As always, after a point, things came to a halt.

The only film that fructified after Aval Appadithan, then, was Gramathu Athiyayam, which Arunmozhi said was an attempt to transpose Anna Karenina (another Russian connection!) to a village – but the film, today, apart from the outstanding Ilayaraja songs, looks like a fairly undistinguished love triangle between a man (named Thangavelu), his sullen wife (named Bhavani), and her former lover (named Arun, like the Kamal Haasan character in Aval Appadithan). To Rudraiah’s credit, his film was probably the first to explore this dynamic, which would be seen later that year in Mahendran’s Nenjathai Killadhey, and the next year in K Bhagyaraj’s Andha 7 Naatkal – and it’s interesting that the woman, who is confused about her feelings for both men, doesn’t choose who she ends up with; the end is more the result of a deus ex machina. And there are touches that remind us of the filmmaker Rudraiah wanted to be. After Bhavani’s father arranges her marriage with Thangavelu, she attempts suicide by jumping into a pond. Arun sees this and jumps in after her. And the frame freezes. We don’t see them thrashing about in water, we don’t see the rescue – instead, we cut to the characters sitting by the banks and talking. Only, they don’t move their lips. It’s some sort of Bressonian alienation thing, which is amplified by the affectless acting of newcomers Krishnaveni and Nandakumar.

Alas, this is a charitable way of looking at these performances – and most audiences just saw this as bad acting. (Saritha, who played a small role in Aval Appadithan, was supposed to play Bhavani. She even did a photo shoot, in costume, but finally the dates did not work out.) Arunmozhi told me that Krishnaveni was fairly exposed to world cinema, and that she responded well to Rudraiah’s direction. Unlike other directors of the time, most famously Bharathiraja, Rudraiah wouldn’t act out a scene and tell performers what he wanted. He’d get them into the mood by talking to them about the character’s backstory and mental state and how all this informed the situation currently being filmed. “The cameraman always had to be alert,” Arunmozhi said. “Rudraiah didn’t like to hear excuses like ‘the lighting is not yet done’, and he didn’t give much time to the technicians. He wanted them to be ready when the artists were ready. He was always thinking about the actors.”

According to Hariharan, the film’s problems rose from the cast. Rudraiah signed director Jayabharathi (who’d made Kudisai) to play Arun. (The prospect of hiring a star never arose because Arun is a weak-willed character, the kind of man who’d give up his love because he doesn’t have the courage to talk to his domineering father. Then, as now, the character would be seen as lacking “heroism.”) But after a few days of shooting, Jayabharathi was replaced with Nandakumar, who had joined Rudraiah’s unit as assistant director. “Maybe this was Rudraiah’s way of letting people know that he could make anybody act,” Hariharan said. Eventually, Rudraiah must have realised he wasn’t making the movie he wanted to make. Later, whenever Hariharan would bring up the film, he’d say, “Andha padatha pathi pesa vendaam. Let’s talk about the next film.” Arunmozhi said that part of the problem could have also been that Ananthu, who was the screenwriter, was in Visakhapatnam, with K Balachander’s unit, shooting Ek Duuje Ke Liye, and he couldn’t be present to make changes to the script. These were finally done over the phone, which made it impossible to have the kind of back-and-forth discussion that’s possible when two people are locked in a room, arguing animatedly, feeding off each other’s energy and ironing things out. Arunmozhi later told Rudraiah that he should have postponed the shoot until Ananthu was available on the sets. I asked him if he, too, thought that the casting caused problems. He said, “Had the film worked, no one would have said anything. Because it didn’t, we try to find excuses.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.