Getting a first-day-first-show ticket for Captain Prabhakaran was a big deal at Nagercoil’s Chakravarthy Theatre, where the movie was released in 1991.
The theatre is a now multiplex in Nagercoil, a town in the southernmost tip of India. I wanted to catch the movie for two reasons. First, my bosom buddy was a diehard fan of Vijayakanth. Second, the film, the 100th for the actor, was being released among unprecedented hype. And, I had a very good opinion of RK Selvamani, a Chennai Film School product. Vijayakanth had encouraged many film school students in his career and had worked with Selvamani earlier onPulan Visaranai, a take on the life of ‘Auto’ Shankar, the serial killer. I had seen and liked the movie.
I did manage to obtain a ticket, sweating my way through a long queue, and was delirious for the most part of it. The film gave Vijayakanth the sobriquet ‘Captain’, with a larger-than-life image to go with it. Never mind he doesn’t have single seat in the Tamil Nadu state assembly today.
Vijayakanth was known for his roles as a honest, trigger-happy cop with a passion for delivering justice, which often puts him at odds with the police department. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was an action icon with a consistent box-office appeal.
In the movie, Prabhakaran is the officer assigned to catch forest brigand Veerappan, and it was filmed 15 years before the sandalwood smuggler was actually killed. The stunt sequences were carefully choreographed and the movie was a thrill pill.
Compared to the new wave of films, Captain Prabhakaran may have gone out of date, but for everyone who caught the theatrical release, the movie was undoubtedly a landmark.
If Prabhakaran was targeted at the 18-25 male crowd, Chinna Thambi, also released in 1991, was aimed at families, especially sentimental women in small towns.
Chinna Thambi gave a breakthrough for Kushboo (yea, the same actress for whom fans built a temple). She would dominate Kollywood for long. The son of actor Sivaji Ganeshan, Prabhu, already one among the major stars in Tamil, played the role of a slightly dumb, but physically strong simpleton. The success of the movie fuelled a rumour that Prabhu and Kushboo were a pair, even offscreen. P Vasu helmed the project.
Comedian Gowdamani’s sequences, featuring him as a husband trying to hide his night blindness from his new wife, made for some oft quoted hilarity and are treasured. They are a regular on TV these days.
Sample these two movies — Captain Prabhakaran and Chinna Thambi — and you would get a hang of what 1991 was for Tamil cinema. Both the movies broke many box office records, being successful as they were in drawing repeat audiences.
These films, which also preceded the digital camera and DTS, were, nevertheless, stridently commercial and spared no trick in wooing crowds.
In those years before the advent of piracy and the cable TV boom, films, at least the good ones, ran for over 100 days, something of a rarity today. There was no social media to deliver instant verdicts. And, standalone theatres were the norm. Multiplexes were unheard of. People often smoked while watching, and stepping outside during a song sequence was common practice.
1991 was also the year when Kamal Haasan’s Guna was pitted against Rajinikanth’sThalapathi, one of last times this would happen. Both movies were unexpectedly superhits.
Guna blurred the line between love and devotion, where Kamal’s psychopath, channels Lord Shiva in search of his Abhirami. Thalapathi, directed by Mani Ratnam, was a modern taken on Karna of the Mahabharata, set in the underworld.
Both films are still referred to as the golden age of the actors. The songs of these two movies get airtime even today, a testimonial to how evergreen they really are.
Both Guna and Thalapathi didn’t stop with just achieving commercial appeal, which the lead actors had in tons. What stood out was that the films successfully combined critical acclaim with box office domination. When released, Guna shocked audiences, with Kamal’s crazed dialogues being repeated by his fans.
Rajini’s role in Thalapathi is often singled out by critics as one of his best in the the post-Balachander phase.
This was also the year Tamil cinema got recognition from the National Awards for the first time. Marupakkam, directed by the inimitable and underrated K S Sethu Madhavan, won the Golden Lotus, apart from two other national awards.
It was also the year a young Murali, an unknown actor then, played the lead role in the romantic drama Idhayam, in which his character is in love with the unattainable Heera. Throughout the entire movie, the pining hero is obsessed with his love, but is never once able to tell her until it is too late. The movie, the debut for director Kathir, resonated with the audience and the concept was endlessly parodied. It is unfortunate that Murali is no longer alive.
Azhagan, with Mammooty in the lead role, had three women in love with his character. Directed by K Balachander at his best, the movie featured great music by Maragathamani. It was the Malayalam actor’s second hit of the year after Thalapathi.
Nanbargal, featuring an ensemble cast including the siren Mamta Kulkarni, was an urban, yuppie, college romance story that caught the zeitgeist of the times. Vivek’s antics stood out and began the remarkable career of the comedian.
Cheran Pandian, an early movie from K S Ravikumar, exhibited his knack for capturing rural Tamil Nadu in an unabashedly commercial way. Featuring a young Sarath Kumar as the Bullet-driving landlord, the movie foretold the success of both actor and director. Ravikumar, especially, would become a highly sought-after director, who would go on to helm projects with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.
En Rasavin Manasile was also set in rural TN and featured an unusual story by Kasturiraja. It featured Raj Kiran, who would go on to become a major character actor, and a young Meena. Raj Kiran also produced the movie, which became a surprise hit, more through word of mouth than by marketing.
Many of the storylines of these movies, in hindsight, look rather quaint and campy now. Even the acting, the editing and the mounting of these movies, make it clear that they are from an era gone by. It is rather hard, logistically speaking, to watch them as they were meant to be seen. Some of them like Marupakkam have been forgotten by the layman.
Then why do we need to remember these movies? Why do some of us, the ardent filmgoers, who were around then, take pride in this year in moviemaking? It is not all of it nostalgia.
Movies over the last 15 years in Tamil are influenced by world cinema. It is as if every director has seen a collection of them, with DVDs being so readily available and downloads a touch of a button away. Back then, directors, the cast and crew were more insulated, and were better off that way. Although they made very good points, the stories were essential Tamil in spirit. All a good director had to do was tell a good story. Technique was essential, but didn’t get in the way. Technology wasn’t something that was out there, wanting to be admired. So I suggest you travel to that year with these movies. I am sure your cultural cauldron will be kept at boiling point.