When filmmaker Rudhraiya passed away in November last year, a lot of unknown information about his films surfaced. In eulogies that were carried by several outlets, writers and actors held forth on movies that Rudhraiya aspired to make. But only a precious little was revealed about the man himself, while his volume of work – despite being thin – was discussed to a great deal.
When director RC Sakthi breathed his last, though – someone who also entered Tamil cinema in 1970s (around the same time as Rudhraiya), and made over a dozen films – much was said about the man that he was. His movies seemed to come after him. In his video tribute, Kamal Haasan shared his memories of Sakthi, whom he fondly called anna. Speaking to reporters, he remembered Sakthi as his ‘first-class fan’, and also, ‘a great human being’. Someone who encouraged him to write. Someone with whom Kamal would discuss the nuances of storytelling and screenplay.
But nothing was said about Sakthi’s films. Of course, obits duly mentioned Unarchigal – a daring movie about the sexual adventures of a young man, and also the movie which launched Kamal Haasan as a lead actor. A few others like Chirai and Dharma Yuddham were cast about as well. They all had their cursory pages on Wikipedia, and that was that.
It was this curious lack of information that inspired my movie-marathon. And thankfully, Youtube had all of them duly documented.
When Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala – Sakthi’s second directorial venture – begins, we see a woman – a sex worker (Sri Devi in a lime green sari, and untouched nose) – soliciting on the road. Her man for the night is Major Sundarrajan – in matching whites and a rippling moustache – who heartily disapproves of her ‘profession’. Of course, he makes this known only when they get to his palatial bungalow.
While movies made today would probably begin on a mysterious note and then, slip in the ‘reason’ later, Sakthi, a product of his time, includes a prologue well before the credits – Sri Devi’s sister is sick. And as she would later explain (to Major Sundarajan), she doesn’t solicit ‘regularly’.
Quite like Sri Devi in Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala, Rajesh makes a brave entry in Chirai. The actor – unlike his other films where he mostly plays the ideal man of all time – downs shot after shot at a drinking contest to win a strange prize.
A wild night with a whore.
Sakthi’s prologues intend to cleanse the palate.
He turns Sri Devi into a sex worker.
Rajesh becomes a wanton lad.
And Thengai Srinivasan, an organ trafficker (in Dharma Yuddham).
Kamal Haasan’s role in Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala is one that would be reflected in his movies to come – particularly Thevar Magan and Virumaandi – virile, with a handle-bar moustache and a rustic accent. And Rajinikanth’s Vijay in Dharma Yuddham appears to be a rehearsal of sorts for his Alex Pandian (of Moondru Mugam) which would happen three years later. The Vijay of Dharma Yuddham is stylish, impulsive and almost always angry. He also wears those dark round vintage shades.
Sakthi’s films during the early phase of his career were filled with emerging stars who are now veterans. Kamal Haasan, Sri Devi, Rajinikanth, Manorama, Suruli Rajan and Major Sundarrajan appear frequently. And when Kamal and Rajini began taking on more mainstream films in the 80s, Sakthi simply switched his attention to another set of upcoming artistes. Vijayashanti, Chandrasekhar, Amala, and Raghuvaran. His movies helped stabilize the career of a few, who were in sore need of a break. Kootu Puzhukkal is said to have established Raghuvaran in the main league.
And every once in a while, Sakthi re-introduced an old face, albeit only for a short while. He’s perhaps one of the earliest filmmakers to have employed cameos. Case in point: Vijayakanth’s Manakanakku (1986) in which Kamal Haasan appears briefly.
The first three releases of Sakthi have a visible pattern. Unarchigal and Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala are offbeat and thematically adult, while Dharma Yuddham is a thorough commercial entertainer. His filmography is a mix of movies that play to the gallery and the ones that perhaps satiate him as a filmmaker. Even in movies like the critically acclaimed Chirai and Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala, Sakthi refrains from going overboard. Suruli Rajan, SS Chandran, Manorama and Thangavelu do what they are best at. Separate comedy tracks are a staple in Sakthi’s movies. Remove the comedy scenes and the rare duet, and those films can pass for art-house products.
Also, Sakthi’s characters have a penchant for English. While Gautham Menon is criticised for his exaggerated love for the language in his movies – which are set in a period well after 2000 AD – Sakthi makes Thengai Srinivasan speak French, yes, French, in Dharma Yuddham.
Women in Sakthi’s movies are intriguing paradoxes. On one hand, they yearn to fit in, and be accepted by the society. On the other, quite like Rudhraiya’s Manju and the numerous women in K Balachander’s films, they are unapologetic about championing liberation.
But again, the next moment they are vulnerable.
And, as a thumb rule, they are always tormented.
Kamal Haasan is not the hero of Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala.
Sri Devi is.
Besides a few scenes in which Kamal Haasan flexes his muscles, the movie is a Sri Devi show till credits roll. The finest surprise of the film is perhaps the relationship between Kamal Haasan and Sri Devi, the most charming couple of that time.
He is her brother.
Sakthi had clearly liked shocking his audience.
And, cleansing their palate.
Sakthi’s men are quite the judgmental lot. In Manidharil Ithanai Nirangala, Major Sundarrajan slaps Sri Devi for soliciting. Later though, he revisits his principles and lets her marry his son.
But there is still a catch – he does that when Sri Devi’s ‘chastity’ is proved.
In Chirai, Bhahirathi’s (Lakshmi) husband abandons her on the road when she is raped by an inebriated Antony (Rajesh). The husband is a purohit. A dishevelled Bhahirathi (in a traditional nine-yard sari) then beseeches her husband to take her back. Her father disowns her too, and in a bizarre twist of sorts, she chooses to share her violator’s roof. A platonic relationship is established between the two.
When Chirai’s credits roll, pictures captured during the making play on screen. A conversation between Sakthi and MS Viswanathan is heard in the background.
“Idhu romba vithyasamana kadhai. Chirai-la irukkura thanimai, isai-la velipadanum…” Sakthi warms up his audience well before the movie could begin, for it has quite a few arresting scenes.
It’s been 31 years since Chirai released. Tamil cinema still hasn’t seen another Bhahirathi …and, not a lot of actors like the versatile Lakshmi.