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January 16, 1999


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A still from Chudalani Undi. Click for bigger pic!
The pace of film-making in Kerala is slowing down, just that little bit every year. The year 1998 saw just 62 films being released -- which could be a good thing in its own way, with quality rather than quantity being the criterion for the offerings that hit the marquee.

But then, theatres can't be kept idle either, can they? And hence, the search for fill-ins that now animate the industry. Two methods are being employed -- the dubbing of films from other languages, and the re-release.

Dubbed versions of Telugu/Tamil potboilers did enjoy a measure of popularity for a while, earlier, before vanishing from the Malayalam marquee. Now they are back, with Chiranjeevi's 1998 blockbuster Chudalani Undi in the vanguard. Re-titled Calcutta for the Keralite audiences, the film co-stars Bombay girl Anjala Zaveri and Soundarya. Interestingly, the film is being picked up by Keralite distributors at the kind of price a Malayalam original commands -- as graphic an indicator of the distributors' need to fill the theatres as any.

Alongside the dubbed version is the re-release. Here again, two films of proven worth are in the vanguard. The first is the K G George-directed Yavanika, a taut murder mystery set against the backdrop of a drama company. The film was one of the first to star Mammootty, then an unknown -- but the re-released version seeks to cash in on his current fame.

Sivaji Ganesan.
Thus, the publicity will hype the presence, in the cast, of two stars who have won the Bharat award for acting excellence -- 'Bharat' Gopi of Kodiyettam fame, and of course, 'Bharat' Mammootty.

The other film is the Tamil devotional, Thiruvilayadal, an epic-scale telling of the tale of Shiva. The film has 'Chevalier' Sivaji Ganesan playing Shiva -- a part that won Sivaji as many plaudits as his famed earlier role, that of Maratha hero Chhatrapathi Shivaji.

The high points in this film are a q-and-a session between Sivaji and Nagesh, and the star's performance of the famed tandav dance.

Tangentially, the devotional film -- a once popular genre that appeared to have been shelved for a while, barring the occasional offering around the Sabarimala season -- is back with a bang. Three recent bhakti films had extended runs at the turnstiles.

The first, Kadavul, was, in fact, seemingly devotional; however, the thrust of the storyline was towards debunking myths and superstitions. Then there was the megahit Amman, which had sex siren Ramya Krishnan playing the role of the Mother Goddess while Soundarya played the devotee.

Ramya Krishna. Click for bigger pic!
The feature of this one was outstanding FX -- a must for such mythologicals, and carried to great heights in this one. And now there is Kannathaal, now running to packed houses in the smaller towns and villages.

The highlight of the film is that Khusbhoo plays narrator, telling the tale of the deity in the villu-pattu style. In essence, this traditional form depends on a mammoth, taut strung bow, on which the performer plays with sticks with bells attached, to the accompaniment of her own singing.

To learn the form, Khusbhoo sought out a famed exponent and spent time with her, learning the ropes -- in the same fashion that, earlier, saw her spend time with karagattam artistes for her role in the immensely popular Nattupurapaadal.

The T2K problem

When you hear that an upcoming film is set in the year 2000, what occurs to you? Sci-fi with a futuristic bent, robots and computers and lasers and such-like paraphernalia?

Duh! Try Tarzan.

The perenially popular traveller along the arboreal realms now swings onto the Malayalam marquee with Tarzan in 2000 under the Santoshima Productions banner.

Being directed by Sunil, with camerawork by Williams, a cinematographer renowned as much for his compositions as for his daredevilry. This, remember, was the man who once jumped off a cliff with a camera in his rock-steady hands, to capture the dizzying nature of the drop.

The film stars martial artist Babu Antony in the title role. According to its makers, the film aims for a blend, focussing as much on special effects as on a loving picturisation of the natural splendours of 'God's own country'.

The inheritor

The way Manju Warrier kicked off her career, it appeared that she was set to rule, solo, over the Malayalam marquee for some years to come.

Divya Unni. Click for bigger pic!
In fact, so phenomenal was her box office draw that movie-makers began preparing scripts that revolved around her -- a rarity in an industry dominated by the big three of Mohanlal, Mammootty and Suresh Gopi, with the likes of Jayaram, Kunchako Boban and Jagadish in support.

Then she got married, to rising young actor Dilip -- and suddenly, a vacuum appeared to be developing. But not for long, if Divya Unni's rise is any indication.

A top notch classical dancer in her own right, Divya marked 1998 with five roles that earned her universal acclaim -- in Pranayavarnangal, The Truth, Maravathur Kanavu, Ayushmaan Bhava and Suputran.

With that kind of track record, Divya is being touted as the star to watch for, this year.

Interestingly, Pranayavarnangal has both Divya Unni and Manju Warrier sharing the credits, playing the role of room-mates and good friends. Given how busy the two leading ladies are, though, we wouldn't hold our breaths waiting for the team to come together again in the near future.

Labouring on love

Sonali Bendre. Click for bigger pic!
Kaadhalar Dinam -- Valentine's Day, in translation -- has been referred to in these columns before. The latest word on the Sonali Bendre-Kunal starrer with Kathir at the helm is that the unit is fighting odds to ready the film by February, to coincide with the month of St Valentine.

This tale of a romance that begins on the Internet is reported to be costing producer A R Rathnam a bomb. One song sequence, for instance, has the set designer paving the entire forecourt of the Taj Mahal with tonnes of rose petals, at an enormous expense.

And while on song sequences, the film has Rambha, a star in her own right in Tamil and Telugu, making a one-song appearance in the film. Worthy of mention, this, because in the Tamil industry, the trend really has been for Bollywood stars to make such one-song appearances to add glamour to films starring southern girls -- remember Pooja Batra inAasai, Sonu Walia in Dalapathi, Karisma Kapoor in the yet-to-be-releasedKoteeswaran, Sonali Bendre herself in the Humma Humma number in Bombay, Malaika Arora in the top-of-the-train number in Uyire (Dil Se) et al?

Rambha. Click for bigger pic!
Rambha's one-song appearance is, buzz says, a show-stealer for the film. Come to think of it, girls from the south have, albeit rarely, done odd such appearances before. The notables are Gautami in the Chikku bukku raile song in Shankar's debut film, Gentleman, alongside Prabhu Deva (who, too, appears only in the song in that film), and Bhanupriya's sister Shantipriya (aka Nishanti) in Mani Rathnam's Anjali.

And the Pongal windfall...

And with that we are into Pongal, the harvest festival for the Tamils and, traditionally, the cue for a spate of films to hit the marquee, hoping to cash in on the holiday mood throughout the state. This year is no exception -- so, herewith, a quick look at the films hitting the screens this Pongal weekend:

Houseful, a Parthiban-Suvalakshmi-starrer directed by Parthiban himself, and set entirely in a movie theatre (for which a real theate in Madurai was hired) belongs to the rescue genre, telling the tale of a bomb threat in a crowded movie house and how the hero and acolytes cope with it.

Aishwarya, daughter of Julie Lakshmi, plays an inspector in charge of the bomb disposal squad. Seen earlier in a small role in the Mammootty-starrer Makkal Aatchi among other films, the lissom lass then went through marriage, childbirth, and break-up all in quick succession.

Arvind Swamy. Click for bigger pic!
These problems -- escalated by disagreements with mother Lakshmi -- in turn led her into drugs. The good news being that she came through that particular personal hell intact, going through rehab and, last heard from, being well on the road to making a stab at living all over again. Now back with her mother, her life revolves around a baby daughter, computer classes, and the small roles with which she seeks to re-establish a foothold in the industry.

Then there is En Swaasa Kaatre, with Arvind Swamy -- the perennial chocolate box hero of southern cinema -- playing an action-oriented hero for once, in a tale of hi-tech crime and detection (based loosely on Mission Impossible). The film, directed by K S Ravi, co-stars Isha Koppikar, of whom more later, and Prakash Rai. Industry buzz holds that two of A R Rehman's compositions for this film -- Thirakkaadha Kootukkulle and Jimbilakadi -- could be the biggest chartbusters this year.

Vijaykanth. Click for bigger pic!
Kallazhaghar, the Vijaykanth-starrer directed by Bharati, and produced by Henry, revolves around extremist Nasser's attempt to create communal tension by planting a bomb in the famed Meenakshiamman temple in Madurai. And the hero (who, in the film, plays a Muslim character) does his bit to stymie the plot.

Regulars of this column will remember that this is the film for which they tracked down Appu, the elephant icon of the 1983 Delhi Asiad, for an on-screen appearance. And perhaps predictably, the guest of honour at the muhurat was, well, what else, an elephant!

Meanwhile, Vijaykanth, often dubbed the poor man's Rajnikanth, may be pretty much on his last legs in the urban centres but his popularity is still huge outside. Owing to the ardour of the fans, there was a major problem shooting with him in Madurai. So after a few necessary scenes at the temple, the rest of the temple shots were taken on a specially-created set. But the effect, we hear, is still mind-blowing.

The Meenakshiamman temple at Madurai. Click for bigger pic!
For this film reputed director Mahendran has been co-opted to write the dialogue. Mahendran himself is resting easy, with a new film Sashanamstarring Arvind Swamy and Gautami, ready for release.

Dropping the megaphone and picking the pen has done him a power of good, he says.

A ballet troupe is also being flown down from Moscow for a song sequence choreographed by Rajshekhar and starring leading lady Laila.

In passing, we must mention that this will be composer Deva's 250th film -- and the industry felicitated him yesterday at the Kamarajar Arangam, with stars from TN, AP, Kerala and Bombay industries all attending.

Laila. Click for bigger pic!
Besides Kallazhaghar, there's Azhagarswami, directed by Sundar C (the director apparently prefers that his initial comes after his name), with Satyaraj and Roja in the lead. The story is about a mother, Sujata, pledging, while still pregnant, stage that her child, when born, will serve as bonded labour for the local landlord. The rest of the film being about the outcome of that pledge.

Endrendrum Kaathal has Vijay and Rambha in the lead -- the former being the rising star tipped to take over Rajnikanth's mantle. Shot extensively in Europe, the film is about an NRI falling in love with an Indian girl, and the twists and turns their romance takes.

The film has newbie Manoj Bhatnagar holding down the twin portfolios of director and music composer. Interestingly, another north Indian, Sushma Ahuja directed her debut film, Uyirodu Uyiraaga, in Tamil. Are we looking at some kind of trend, here?

Back to Pongal releases, and there is Anandamazhai. Quite a while back, we had in these columns talked of how the Taj Mahal had been re-created, on a beach along the TN coastline, to serve as set for a romance. Okay, this is the one. Starring Pawan Kalyan, Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi's brother, opposite Keerthi Reddy and directed by Karunakaran, an erstwhile assistant of Kathir, the film is a remake of Tholi Prema, which, in the original Telugu, showed tremendous staying power at the box office.

Pawan Kalyan. Click for bigger pic!
Another Telugu remake hitting the Madras marquee for the season is Thudarum, directed by debutant Ramesh Khanna, with Ajith, Devyani and Heera in the lead -- the same star cast that had a superhit in Kaadhal Kottai. The strongpoint of this film is believed to be the score by musical icon Ilayaraja.

Unakkum Enakkum Kalyanam has Livingstone and Devyani in the lead under debutant director Parthasarathy.

Livingstone, you will recall, was the unlikely hero of the recent superhit, Sollamalle. The film has music by Sirpi, of Ullathey Allithaa fame.

While all the above are slated for release this week, indications are that one or two of the above could also be pushed back to January 26. A fate, incidentally, that could also be that of K T Kunjumon's Koteeswaran, starring his son Aby with Simran. Word is that the much-delayed film could appear on the Madras marquee this month, to coincide with the festive season -- however, nothing is yet official.

Love from the grave

While all these films ready to jostle each other on the marquee, a recent film appears to have ensconced itself there. Kaadhal Kavithai, under the Amritraj Productions banner with Agathyan directing, is doing very well on the marquee, as per reports.

Isha Koppikar in Kaadhal Kavithai. Click for bigger pic!
Regulars might remember this one. The story proper kicks off in England -- specifically, on the grounds of Althorp House, the Spencer family seat where stands the monument to Lady Diana. A girl visiting the site sees among the myriad floral tributes one with a note attached, in her native Tamil language. Curious, she writes a reply to the poetic tribute and leaves it at the site. When she goes there next, her own note, she finds, has drawn a response...

This tale of love budding under unusual circumstances has Jeans Prashant opposite the Konkani beauty Isha Koppikar -- and the latter threatens to walk away with the plaudits. A strong screen presence, and acting skills that belie her newbie status combine to give the impression that Isha could be the latest to storm the TN industry. And she has the chance, this weekend, to do an encore with En Swaasa Kaatre, referred to above.

The film's draw cards include spectacular picturisation of London and its environs, and an authentic Moroccan belly-dance number that could come as a revelation to those who have only seen the Helen/Bindu/Padma Khanna/Aruna Irani versions. The front-benchers are also going ga ga over a steamy dance number -- the choreography is by Prabhu Deva's brother Raju Sundaram -- starring Kasturi.

Which, folks, ends this particular edition -- a happy Pongal/Makara Sankranthi to all.

-- Rajitha

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