IN Mahesh Bhatt's upcoming good guy-bad guy flick, Duplicate, Shah Rukh Khan thrashes Shah Rukh Khan. The bad Shah Rukh blows cigarette smoke into good guy Shah Rukh's face and both get involved, as Sambamurthy Tanjore Venki describes it, in a "lot of body contact" on screen. That's a first time for Indian films, where double roles usually mean a staple of static looking face-offs between 'two' clonish twin characters. But Bhatt's new film has a Dostoevskyan touch about its double, so what else does the director do, but land up at Venki's door to give it that touch of the bizarre. "This is the first time a double role will get so kinetic, doing so many things," says India's ace special effects whiz.
Venki's magic shop has conjured up several other devices before this. When Forrest Gump, the Robert Zemeckis film about a simpleton's journey through the times in America, was released here last year, audiences gaped at a scene where the real Tom Hanks shakes hands with the real John F.Kennedy in black and white in a nifty special effects job. But what the heck. Anything the Yanks do, we can too and better at that. So, when Indian, the fantastical freedom-fighter extravaganza from the boyish Chennai-based director Shankar, was released last year, it had Kamalahaasan receiving a medal from Subhas Chandra Bose and walking with the leader, circa 1946—an immaculate Venki handiwork that took six weeks and some 1,000 ft of decaying and jerky Films Division footage shot with a 16 mm hand-held camera. "The idea germinated in me before Forrest Gump was released," says Venki today.
The master crafter is engaged in giving Indian films a slick, new face. The sloppy opticals of yore exemplified in the flying chariots and heads of mythologicals have now given way to digital graphics, thanks to the pudgy 40-year-old arts college graduate from Chennai. Suddenly, cheap thrills are out and jaded special effects are de rigueur in the tired scenario of Indian commercial cinema. "There are 100, 200 ft jobs aplenty," says the FX whiz. "What is now making the difference is that I am getting proper films where my role is important and not just of a post production repairman."
In the beginning was a funny-looking face on screen—a Venki doodle—making grimaces at the hero in Kamalahaasan's bittersweet 1988 circus midget tale Appu Raja. In Anjali, Mani Ratnam's 1989 paean to a dying girl's spirit, a gaggle of cyclists take off in space and over the moon in a neat copy from the Steven Spielberg classic E.T. The gangly elastic dancing star Prabhudeva continues with a steamy barroom stomp after his mug and torso vanishes into thin air in Shankar's 1994 kitschy hit, Kadalan (Lover). "This was my coming of age," says Venki. "My graduation from optical to digital effects." Indian, of course, has the famous meeting and some giddy morphing—a lion alters into Kamalahaasan, and then the actor turns into a horse. And Priyadarshan's 1995 competent period tale, Kalapani, with its stock of spectacular action sequences, is full of dazzling Venki touches. The last three films have also earned him three consecutive national awards.
These days, Venki's doing a lot of creative messing around. In his cosy 2500-sq ft startup FX studio in Chennai's busy cinema district, stacked with optical and editing machines and Salvador Dali portraits on the wall, he's working on Jeans, an Ashok Amritraj production directed by Shankar—a Shankar project always promises to become the mother of genre-bending Tamil kitsch. The film has Aishwarya Rai and local hero Prashant in a double role. "There's a lot of my work here," he says. "Fantasy songs, little three-dimensional effects, some new tricks, lot of double role interface, the works." Then there is the Gandhi Krishna-directed Engineer starring Madhuri Dixit and Arvind Swamy, where Venki will work his magic to multiply crowds, clone characters and serve up a 3-D song sequence.
But Venki's potential seems worthy of a far wider scope. Look west and you have a red-hot Hollywood special effects industry delivering custom-made FX vehicles (Speed, Titanic, Jurassic Park or Independence Day) and making up anything from 3-D Batmobiles and cruise ships to big-eyed, hammer-headed icons like ET and computer-generated ghosts like Casper, combining digital graphics, robotics and animatronics. But state-of-the-art special effects, which remains in its infancy in India, is prohibitively expensive. "Just 200 ft or two minutes of good FX on film," says Shankar, "can set back the producer by a cool Rs 1 crore." And the commercial industry works on a time-tested weary formula.
So, Venki does the next best thing possible. The artist in him—he digs Picasso and adores Dali—combines Indian ingenuity with high-tech to give a fresh twist and look to kitsch, which began with the Prabhudeva song in Kadalan. "He told me that after seeing this song, people would go mad in the theatres," reminisces Shankar. Yet, the whiz, who hawked his animation work in London in the early '80s and then did a host of animation shots for companies, is not your average computer geek who's sold his soul to silicon graphics. "I don't think that special effects should be imposed on a story," he says. "Bits and pieces should be inserted cleverly and seam-lessly." And something like The Lost World: Jurassic Park which had 85 effects shots is "unthinkable in India". "We neither have the expertise, nor the talent."
Not that Venki is cribbing. "How can I?" he asks. "Six, seven years ago, producers didn't even put my name in the titles, and fainted if I asked for Rs 10,000 for an effects job. Today, whatever I demand, people are paying, and titles and publicity posters are carrying my name. I see it as a big leap." He also feels that with most of the star heroes ageing and "needing a lot of facelift with weary dancing abilities", he will be much in demand as Mr Fixit who'll make them twist and shout and basically look good. One US FX shop is already working on a $10 million project to make the first digital human.
And the FX man is having a lot of fun at work and home where he collects ghoulish thingamajigs—a plastic lizard, a latex rubber hand with blood stains, a tiny rubber skeleton. He's also mighty pleased these days. Some Indians working at George Lucas' (of Star Wars fame) Industrial Light and Magic, the US-based Mecca of special effects, have e-mailed him recently. They want to come down, meet him, see his work. Looks like Venki the Chennai whiz is set to take his magic to the global screen.