Readers Write In #346: How did Tamil and Malayalam cinema treat its stars in the 80s-90s?

Posted on March 16, 2021

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(by G Waugh)

I am actually not a big fan of the late eighties/nineties cinema that came out in Tamil. Whenever I come across a blockbuster of that era like Rajnikanth’s Velaikkaran or Rajadhi Raja or Prabhu’s Chinna Thambi on the television, I immediately succumb to an impulse to reach out for the remote controller. I still strongly believe that blockbusters of that era were heavily dependent on the merits of two highly regarded men who indirectly influenced our tastes and instincts- Ilayaraja and Goundamani. Both of them were operating at ‘top’ form during that time as a result of which their contributions which were supposedly meant to serve the ‘material’(the overall film) as mere adjuncts ended up becoming the ‘material’ itself. A lot of movies of that time pulled people into theatres for either the ‘songs’ or the ‘comedy’ or both and fading stars like Karthik , Satyaraj, Prabhu  were forced to acknowledge the paramountcy of the ‘comedy/song’ element in their films and resigned themselves to act as ‘powerless’ heroes with absolutely no right of trespassing into the hallowed ‘Gounder-Ilayaraja’ territory. To describe the hero’s role in these films in Gounder’s words itself, “Initial (Hero yaaru nu) prachna varrakoodadhu nu soru pottu valakraanga!”

And it is not merely the unsurpassable greatness of these two men that made these films pale in comparison with their ‘outstanding’ individual contributions. Every crucial aspect of these commercial films such as scripting and staging were done too lazily and when you see a properly ‘focused’ action film like say, RK Selvamani’s Pulan Visaranai or a raw action film like Suresh Krissna’s Sathya in their midst, you feel like you are actually watching a ‘masterpiece’. All of this is a way of saying that I don’t often prefer watching films that came out in this time even if these were the ones that deeply moulded my cinematic tastes and preferences for the future. And this kind of aversion I had towards 80s-90s Tamil Cinema had without my knowledge developed into ‘distaste’ for other language films of this period as well- until quite recently.

One of my friends last month asked me to watch a Mammooty-led film called ‘Yavanika’ that came out in the early 80s. I searched for the title in YouTube and saw a few ‘rushes’. The dullness of the color tone, lack of stylized editing and apparently very ordinary production values didn’t inspire much interest in me. But having become a big fan of Mammooty and Mohanlal in recent years, I was willing to take the risk. And it happened on one lazy Sunday afternoon.

“A tabla player of a travelling drama troupe goes missing and a police officer is assigned to find him out”

If someone had told me this one-liner before I ventured to watch this film, I surely would have avoided it. But that was what Yavanika was all about. And was the film as underwhelming as it sounds? Quite the opposite. It unfolded at its own pace with elaborate introductions to the characters and their relationships and when I started wondering whether this was a thriller or a small-town drama movie, the film suddenly took a detour. And from then on beginning from a very simple premise, it kept building on just like how you start mapping the magnetic field of a bar magnet using a paper and pencil, starting modestly with just two points. If you think you have seen a lot of twisty Hollywood thrillers scripted by Nolan and Brad Bird and you won’t need prizes for guessing what happens next, I am sure you would still be surprised by the film’s conclusion.

The film, I later learnt was a multi-starrer (the antagonist was played by a popular Bharat Gopy, about whom I didn’t know then) and I decided to search for similar movies. Kariyilakattu Pole (1986) was reportedly a Mohanlal-Mammooty starrer and I postponed my office certification exam by a day to finish the film that weekend. I know a lot of film-makers of today who dismiss the possibility of doing ‘multi-starrers’ in Tamil citing ‘financial’ constraints. But the real reason is, our current generation of mainstream film-makers does not have the confidence and ability to write out proper, neatly fleshed out roles for the huge stars involved in the project and this remarkable ‘deficiency’ single-handedly has kept destroying all possibilities of realizing our dream ‘star-star’ collaborations.

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When you start writing a multi-starrer, the first thing you would have to think about is writing an introduction scene for each one of the stars. Here Mohanlal is introduced simply as a police official busy in his daily routine of physical exercise getting a call about the sudden murder of a famous film director. And how is the Megastar introduced? Do we see sparks flying when both the stars meet on screen? Lal enters the house of the film director surrounded by police personnel and we see a dead body lying on a wooden bed and the dead body is, of course the Megastar himself. So Mammooty gets murdered and Mohanlal tries to unearth the mystery. I am not sure about everyone here but isn’t the premise lip-smacking if we throw Lal and Mammooty out and replace them with Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth here, for our own version of Kariyilakattu Pole?

And please don’t assume that the stars cast here have been brought together solely for the sake of doing a multi-starrer, just like what we saw in Shankar’s recent ‘magnum-opus’ 2.0. Mammooty exists because he and none else can play the grey Harikrishnan so efficiently and Lal’s cold demeanour as the ruthless investigator Achuthan Kutty makes the role nothing less than memorable. And more importantly, what impressed me the most was how spell-binding the whole film is, and how the writers make the toughest task of holding the viewer’s attention look so easy, even if the plot is not about earth-shattering things like stopping a nuclear missile or killing a dangerous Pakistani spy.

And what bewilders me even more is the whole writing process involved. Do script-writers in Kerala fix a star for the role and then start writing the plot or do they do it the other way around? In the most probable case of the latter, how do they manage to write multiple powerful characters that demand the intensity of the big-star-wattage and yet make them finally submit to the overall ‘interest’ of the plot? In Tamil Cinema’s most recent ‘so-called’ multi-starrers Petta and Master, I could see only the stars doing more for the plot than the other way around and their casting appeared justified only because the primary intent of these films was to succeed commercially and not ‘artistically’.

I have always been taught by people who have ‘influenced’ me, that cinema is all about story-telling and not the story itself. And more often than not, it is only Malayalam mainstream cinema that has kept reaffirming my faith in this ‘tenet’ and without resorting to expensive gimmicks or super-high concepts, they have always managed to make films that are both entertaining and without doubt, supremely original.

P.S- Yavanika (1982), Kariyilakattu Pole (1986) and Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kaalathu(1990) are on Hotstar, subtitled.