Madurai Veeranum Oscar Nayaganum!

Oscars. The mere word triggers memories of myriad English movies that we, youth from Madurai in the 80s and early 90s, gave a miss to based on the irrefutable fact they contained a lot of English.

The problem with the Oscar-type movies, in the clinical summation of one of my friends, was: ‘avangai pesikitte irupainga, bossu’ (They keep on talking, boss). Whereas we were looking for English movies that cut to the chase straight, in more ways than one. Such an outlook left us patronising, by and large, only two types of English movies 1) Bond films  2) Porn. (Baandu padam and Bittu padam, to be precise)

It is just as well that we watched only a limited number of English movies. Because had we been any more serious Sean Connery, rather than MGR, would have ended up as the Chief Minister of the State.

No, I am not exaggerating. Remember Ursulla Andress, that buxom Hollywood actress from the 60s? As far as I can remember, only two movies of hers were (re)released in Madurai in the 80s, and one of them was the Bond-starrer Dr No. And you know what happened on the day of the film’s release? Yes, there was a grand mandram in her name, and they were distributing chittu kuruvi legiyam (a local aphrodisiac), knowing full well that it will serve well a true fan of Ursulla Andress. Considering such a history, you must all be happy that we stopped with just a temple for Kushboo, and not demand the creation of a separate State in her name.

Interestingly, Madurai, in those days, had two theatres — Movieland and Regal — that screened English films alone. Regal was located smack between the main city bus stand and the railway junction, which was very helpful to create the illusion that there were discerning patrons even for the ploddingly boring Driving Miss Daisy, when in reality the auditorium was filled only with snoozing people who had turned in because they had three odd hours to kill before catching their bus or train.

Another cinema hall that used to screen English films in Madurai was the famous ‘Thangam Theatre’, which at one point held the record for having been home to the maximum number of bedbugs in the entirety of the Asian continent.

Yeah, I am  kidding. But the fact is Thangam, which was deemed to be the largest theatre in Asia, had bedbugs the size of Daniel Devito. And even if you had watched a lovey-dovey film like Kadhalil Sodhappuvathu Eppadi in Thangam, when someone asked what was the experience like, your honest reaction would be: ‘Orre bloody violence pa!’

Of course, Thangam theatre has been demolished now and I doubt whether they needed a bulldozer for it. Those bedbugs would have sufficed to bring the structure down.  Had Thangam been in the vicinity of Hollywood, they would have made a film with those horror bedbugs, and not Godzilla which, I can tell you, is mild and tame in comparison,

Talking of English movies, one of the most admired Hollywood stars in these parts has to be Arnold Schwarznegger. People here warmly refer to him by his first name, not necessarily reflecting his popularity, but certainly indicating the major fact that his second name is practically unpronounceable for an average Tamil.

When it comes to writing his name in Tamil, there is bigger trouble. A language that has given to the world the peerless Thirukkural and the incomparable Kamba Ramayanam, is unfortunately found inadequate to the challenge quite literally posed by ‘Schwarznegger’.

Nowadays, the Oscar-honoured films don’t hold any special interest for many of us, especially since all awards ceased to have any meaning after Saif Ali Khan won the National Award for best acting. Also English is not much of a problem these days, not just because there are subtitles, but also there is growing realisation that the average American’s English is less passable than that of the Madurai guys.

Anyway, thanks to the highbrow efforts of people like Kamal Haasan, Tamil films themselves have risen to the evolved sensibilities of English ones. And I can confirm that the average fan too has kept pace with all the intellectual development with the experience that I had in a theatre in Madurai.

Hey! Ram, Kamal’s nuanced and soul-touching reflection on ahimsa and the entire philosophy that sustained Gandhi, had just been released. In the cinema hall that I had been to, 15 or 20 minutes into the film, a person who had just made it to his seat tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Padam pottu romba neram aacha, sir?’ I replied, ‘Just 15-20 minutes, sir.’

And then he proceeded to ask that one question that would have made Kamal proud that he took so much trouble in directing Hey!Ram.

And that one question was: ‘Rani Mukherjee-oda bedroom scene mudinchirucha, bossu?