MGR, Sivaji and Lakshman, the elephant

Five memorable trivia from Tamil film industry

Chennai: Chennai has just played host to a grand celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema with a series of spectacular functions, the highlight of which being many important awards that the film personalities thoughtfully presented to, well, themselves.

The other talking point of the four-day extravaganza, which saw many special song, dance and skit programmes was that nobody saw them. To be precise, the programmes, performed by the many stars of the four southern film industries, were mostly not open for the general public.

The programmes, we are told, will be shortly telecast in one of the Tamil channels. That means, the four-day programme will be encapsulated to a compact four hours to watch which you must have to sit through 40 hours of advertisements.

This programme will be doubtless shown on an auspicious festival day, during which families are known to gather around the presiding deity of television, and spend the entire day around it, even while carrying out every kind of living activity except the bathroom one.

You don’t need to a pretentious social scientist to figure out that Tamil Nadu takes its films and personalities seriously. This was the State that came close to recommending the Anna Gallantry Award to DGP Veeraraghavan for his meritorious and upright service in the film Oru Kaidhiyin Diary.

But even by the standards of Tamil Nadu, some trivia of films and their stars are somewhat low-key and not in popular currency. Here we cherry pick five of them for your entertainment:

1) After Lumiere Brothers came up with the first film screenings in the late 19th century, the movie industry has seen many developments. But one of the most remarkable innovations, one that involved a stellar leap of faith, came from Tamil Nadu in the early 1960s. In the words of film historian William Ratzer, ‘it is astonishingly out-of-the-box. It is a technique that opens up new doors for the makeup industry’. Ratzer, needless to say, was referring to M G Ramachandran’s radical method to use eye-pencil to draw a moustache over his lips.

2) In the year 1981, the Tamil Nadu State Government Film Awards threw up a major, ground-breaking surprise in the ‘best supporting actor’ category. The jury plumped for a performance, which, in its words, ‘adroitly combines humour, action and emotional display that is at once moving and winsome’. The film was Ram Lakshman and the best supporting actor award was for the elephant that played Laksman to Kamal Haasan’s lead role, Ram. There was a clamour as to how the award could be announced for an elephant. (Looking back, the furore looks decidedly silly, because the elephant was certainly far more expressive than Arjun Rampal in Rock On, a performance that fetched him the best supporting actor National Award.)

As it happens, the award for the elephant had to be withdrawn at the last moment because it was eventually brought to the jury’s notice that the elephant played Lakshman was actually a female one. The jury, on the grounds that the best supporting actor award could not go to what was actually an actress, eventually withdrew the award.

3) In 1983, the Central Board of Film Certification, for the first time ever, to a film that it had given a ‘U’ certificate, put out a statutory warning that a couple of scenes in it were extremely disturbing ‘as it is full of raw violence and atavistic action.’ The film was Miruthanga Chakravarthy and the troubling portions involved action sequences between Sivaji Ganesan and a hapless mridangam.

4) In a joint online survey conducted by the BBC, CNN, Washington Post, Time, and, of course, the UNESCO and the FBI as to who is the best actor of all time across languages, across countries and across eras, there was a sensational outcome: 98% of those who participated in the poll voted for the Tamil actor —Thala Ajithkumar. The big twist was that 100% of all those who voted were the actor’s fans.

5) In another poll, this time across the State on the question which is the ‘most dramatic casting coup’ in Tamil films so far, 27% settled for Sivaji Ganesan as the anti-hero in Andha Naal, 13% went in for Simran as the ‘villain’ in the film Parthein Rasithen, 9% for all films featuring Ravikrishna (‘casting him itself is a coup’, as one respondent succinctly put it), but the overwhelming number of people, 56% to be precise, picked ‘LIC’ Narasimhan as the legendary ‘Karikada Bhai’ in the film Themmangu Paatukaran. (Remarkably, none of those who voted had seen the full movie ever, nor knew who the hero and the heroines of the film are). ‘As far as ‘LIC’ Narasimhan’s casting in the film goes this was like Anna Hazare buying out Playboy Mansion’, said a commenter.

(Disclaimer:  The words ‘Kollywood Cinema’ can be rearranged to read ‘I mock Woody Allen’)