Readers Write In #568: Objects in the rear view mirror: 80s Kollywood

Posted on April 16, 2023


By Srinivasan Sundar

Quentin Tarantino is unabashedly critical of the Hollywood of the eighties (‘..f*ing wasteland of a decade..’, Cinema Speculation). Kollywood was no less. Though the decade was so very central to the history of Tamil cinema – meteoric rise of the Superstar, peaking of geniuses like Bharathiraja and Ilayaraja, end days of masters like K.Balachander and BaluMahendra, the Mani Ratnam phenomenon and more just happened in those ten years – the predominant output was mass masala films that centred around the theme of personal revenge. In most cases, men avenging a murder or a rape or generally both. Production values were non-existent as the same duplex bungalow with interior white stairways was omnipresent; Makeup meant giving a bright white coat on the face and red lipstick; Stunt scenes were entertaining but silly;The films believed in the 5-song-5-fight format. They all had a happy ending.Well, one could argue that some of these markers could be used for the Tamil cinema of the new millennium too. But that is a story for some other day. Here is my top recall as I reminisce of the Kollywood of the eighties.

Guru Sishyan (1988, directed by S.P.Muthuraman)-Evidently a two-hero package, with Prabhu having a near-equal screen presence with Rajinikanth, this pucca commercial film comes with an extra fun dose of comedy. With a solid line-up that includes the likes of Cho, Vinu Chakravarthy, Manorama and Radha Ravi, Guru Shishyan is Gautami’s Tamil debut. Humourous take on the way English is spoken by common men who do not have grounding in English grammar is a guarantee hit material in Kollywood even to this day. Critically-acclaimed Vetrimaran too had used it with Dhanush to a good result. Easily, Rajinikanth’s antics with the language in this film comes at the top of the‘English comedy in Tamil films’ category. The episode of ABC officers conducting a raid is still enjoyable with all three lead actors delivering laughs so naturally.Being in a jail was such a cool thing in the pre-Mahanadi days, and sticking to the norms Guru Shisyan too has a nice, political and funny song set inside a prison. Broadly, the songs of the film are passable. The film is a remake of a Hindi film; and the title of the film was reused in a 2010 film that brought disrespect to the legacy of the original. Yesskis me!

My Dear Kuttichathan (3D, 1984, JijoPunnoose)Kuttichathan continues to be a landmark film in the history of Indian cinema. What is so nice about the film is that even though there was such an excitement around the film, being the first 3D film of India, the makers did not take the audience for granted; they made a genuinely good film with an added entertainment of 3D viewing. The film was not just an arrangement of breathtaking 3D experience that relegated cinema to the background. It was cinema first, technology next. While the movie had a lot of fun part for kids like a red cherry from an ice-cream cone popping onto your face, balloons flying all over the cinema hall and an extraordinarily made song with kids walking up the side walls and ceilings like the Spiderman, there were also equally terrifying moments that gave you shudders. Both the songs of the movie are beautiful. Kuttichathan was a film with a deep emotional connect. It worked well with your heart as well brain.

Punnagai Mannan (1986, K.Balachander) – This is a classic. An ultra-tragedy. One of the last gems of the legendary KB who had by then completed twenty years as a filmmaker. A tail-end masterpiece of the KB-Ilayaraja creative powerhouse. A two heroine (or is it three?) the film is about losing love and finding it again; and losing it all. The film preserves a streak of the director’s own Ek Duuje Ke Liye, again starring Kamal. Surprisingly this seems to be the only film of KB, who made nearly 100 films as a director/writer, featuring a double role; Kamalas Chaplin Chellappa eased up the otherwise a heart wrenching film. Kamal went on to do more iconic one+ role films in the following years, Apoorva Sagodharargal (3 roles)and Michael Madana Kama Rajan, (4 roles);He seems to have done with indulging (Dasavathaaram, 9 roles).And how can one forget the Punnagai Mannan theme music!

Poovizhi Vasalile(1987, Fazil)This film gives a chill down the spine even to this day. Set in an evergreen premise – a protagonist without a purpose getting a random chance to redeem himself – Poovizhi Vasalile is among the best thrillers of Tamil cinema. With extraordinary performances by Sathyaraj, Sujitha (performing as a boy with hearing and speech disabilities) and Raghuvaran (he was becoming a force to reckon with), the movie has great cinematic moments. Ilayaraja’s background score of the film can serve as a guiding lesson to composing music for a thriller; it also has two beautiful songs by K.J. Yesudas.  Poovizhi Vasalile is a remake of Fazil’s own Malayalam film and the director went on to remake more of his Malayalam films into Tamil with super success.

Puthiya Vaanam (1988, R.V.Udhayakumar) – I had watched this film multiple times in theatre and all I remember about this is – in the climax Sathyaraj, wearing a black inner banian and standing in an open Gypsy, with some kind of a machine gun spluttering non-stop, gives serious insecurities to even John Wick in a killing contest. This is one of the early cop films of Sathyaraj who by then was establishing himself as a hero material. He was already a roaring success as an indomitable villain, playing opposite to the greatest stars of the day like Rajinikanth (Mr.Bharath) and Kamal Haasan (Vikram). Just like in his earlier outing Jallikattu, in Puthiya Vaanam too Sathyaraj teamed up with Sivaji Ganesan. This was the time when Sivaji had started doing supporting roles to the top hero of the day (Padikkadavan, 1985; Viduthalai, 1986) and stopped playing the lead roles. Interestingly, in the film Sathyaraj plays a character MGR. Puthiya Vaanam is the second film of director R.V. Udhayakumar and it is distinctly different from his other successful works that generally involve pride and honour in a rural setting. Puthiya Vaanam is a Hindi film remake.