Tamil cinema came of age in the 1970s. There were remarkable advances in every area – from black and white to colour; filming inside studios to shooting on locations. Protagonists became darker; women more liberated; scripts more realistic. Films like Mullum Malarum, Aboorva Raagangal, Ninaithale Inikkum, Avargal, Moondru Mudichu and Sigappu Rojakkal were representatives of this new-age of Tamil cinema, but the crown jewel of the era was a film by an unknown debutant from the Chennai Film institute called C Rudhraiya.
Aval Appadithan. That’s just how she is.
The movie has been called iconic, progressive, and far ahead of its times. A guerrilla attack on Tamil cinema.
It was too. But the most relevant statistic about the movie is also the saddest. In the thirty six years since the movie was made, its director only had one other release.
Rudhraiya died last week in Chennai. He was 67.
Aval Appadithan’s central character – played by Sripriya – is a revelation. She has a series of failed affairs before a documentary filmmaker (Kamal Haasan) and an ad agency executive (Rajinikanth) come into her life. The two men have radically different outlooks – one is chauvinistic and successful, the other soulful and sincere. Over a series of whiskey fueled conversations between the men, the movie builds up to an unexpected twist and a rather sour climax.
In a final discussion in Rajinikanth’s car, Sripriya asks Saritha, “What do you think of women’s liberation?” Saritha replies, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that.” Sripriya replies with a cynical “No wonder you are happy.” The film ends with Sripriya standing on the road as the car carrying Rajinikanth and the married couple pulls away from her. A voice-over says, “She died today. She will be reborn tomorrow. She will die again. She will be reborn again. That’s how she is”. [Wikipedia]
Aval Appadithan was conceived by filmmaker Rajeshwar (formerly known as Somasundareswarar), who relied on his experience in the advertising industry to write a two-page brief for the movie. Rudhraiya and his team took the summary and developed it into a full fledged script. Writers Ananthu and Vanna Nilavan penned the dialogues for the film. Ananthu and Vanna Nilavan also worked on character development for the script – while Ananthu worked extensively on Rajinikanth’s character, Vanna Nilavan wrote the back story for Sri Priya. It was Ananthu who named the movie Aval Appadithan.
The movie was probably the first Tamil movie to undergo storyboarding. Vannanilavan, in an article from the (now defunct) Aaramthinai recalls scenes being discussed in detail days before they were filmed.
From dialogues to camera angles, every aspect of Aval Appadithan was well-conceived and planned. The entire team was prepared when the actual shooting took place. Rudhraiya would explain each scene to me (Vanna Nilavan) and the director would ask me to improve the dialogues until he got what he wanted. Ilaiyaraaja was an upcoming composer then. He used to arrive with Gangai Amaran at 8 am each morning to the production offices. Even then Ilaiyaraaja would reel off tune after tune on his harmonium. [Vannanilavan]
When released, the movie failed to do well at the box office and shows were stopped after a week. Nearly six months after the original release, Rajeshwar managed to release the film in Sapphire Theatre again. Filmmakers Mrinal Sen and Bharathiraja watched the film and gave interviews praising the movie, which garnered audience attention and helped the movie enjoy an average theatrical run.
Rajeshwar noted that after Aval Appadithan, Rudhraiya made a movie that never saw the light of day. “Yaaro Paarkiraargal, which was based on Sujatha’s 24 Roobaai Theevu, was filmed and shelved. Kamal Haasan played the lead. There were too many problems. We wanted to make one more film with Kamal Haasan. It was titled Raja Ennai Mannithividu. But that didn’t take off too. Besides that, Rudhraiya launched a couple of films, which were dropped in the early stage itself. And every time it was usually due to unavailability of stars’ dates or we couldn’t fund the projects,” said Rajeshwar.
Rudhraiya wanted to make another film with Rajinikanth; a story of a coastal town again written by Rajeshwar. He couldn’t get Rajinikanth’s dates and the story was later adapted into a film by Bharathiraja. Bharathiraja called it Kadalora Kavidhaigal.
Gramathu Athiyayam was the only other Rudhraiya movie that was released in theaters. The movie was poorly received. Rudhraiya’s friend, Tamil writer SuRa, who recalled his memories of the director in a post on Facebook, wrote that the film was “painfully slow.” SuRa, who met Rudhraiya after the release of Gramathu Athiyayam, told the filmmaker what he thought of the film and how it was being ridiculed by the audience in theatres. An unfazed Rudhraiya told him, “Idhu en panam! adhai eppadi vendumaanaalum veenaakkuven!”
Both Aval Appadithan and Gramathu Athiyayam were produced by Rudhraiya under his Kumar Arts banner.
Writer Gnani, who remembers Rudhraiya as taciturn and kind, shared similar thoughts. In his note, Gnani said, “Although a lot of producers were willing to fund his movies, Rudhraiya was adamant about producing his own films, and he lost a lot of time because of that.” Here was a real life Howard Roark, stubbornly refusing to compromise his creative freedom.
But he was not one to give up. Rudhraiya continued to write more stories and approached different actors to see if they would star in his scripts. SuRa, who was also Raghuvaran’s PRO in 1987, was contacted by Rudhraiya, who had an interesting story for Raghuvaran. “Rudhraiya narrated the story to both of us. It was about a musician. He took us to his house in Lloyds Colony, showed the cover of an English magazine and told us that Raghuvaran would sport the look of the man on the cover. The story was brilliant. But the film was dropped,” recalls SuRa, who later became Rudhraiya’s close friend. A couple of years later, a movie that Rudhraiya wanted to make with actor Karthik also did not take off. SuRa and Rudhraiya bumped into each other quite often after that and SuRa recalls encouraging Rudhraiya to stay motivated.
Rajeshwar revealed that Rudhraiya had worked on a script for Sivaji Ganesan; a 3D version of the story of Beeshmar from Mahabharata. A few years ago, Rudhraiya wanted to retell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a musical and desired to work with AR Rahman, Vairamuthu and PC Sreeram. The cinematographer agreed to give him dates in six months. “Rudhraiya had to meet a few people to get help to finance the film. He didn’t quite enjoy that. It also challenged his principles. And that project was dropped too,” said Rajeshwar.
Kamal Haasan, eulogizing Rudhraiya in the Hindu says that the director “took fierce pride in his work. He wouldn’t settle for working under somebody else. He knew so much about cinema and expected to take control.” He added that Rudhraiya was a kind of director, “who wouldn’t mind holding a reflector aloft, if it meant that a scene would look better.”
Writer Vanna Nilavan, who was Rudhraiya’s close friend for nearly 40 years, writes that the director planned to film T Janakiraman’s novel Amma Vandhaal before he started work on Aval Appadithan. Vanna Nilavan scripted the movie, and Rudhraiya sent him to Delhi to meet Janakiraman to seek his approval. Even though Janakiraman agreed, the project did not take off. Rudhraiya then began the spadework for Aval Appadithan and set up his production house Kumar Arts in the building where National Pictures (the production house that made Parasakthi) operated.
Talking to Silverscreen, Vanna Nilavan recalled living in Rudhraiya’s house. “I shared his room when Aval Appadithan was being made. His house was always filled with books and his friends,” he said. “We would discuss literature and cinema for hours. A lot of his friends from film institute visited him every day. That was one of the most memorable times of my life. He would often talk about French filmmakers and the unique kind of movies that were made in France.”
Vanna Nilavan pointed out that cinema industry has never been kind to off-beat filmmakers. He said, “Rudhraiya is not a commercial entertainer and perhaps that’s why the industry failed to recognise him. Only commercially successful filmmakers get offers to make films. When a director’s film doesn’t do well, it’s hard for him to come back. Rudhraiya did not have market value and it was a struggle for him to establish himself in the industry. But he tried till his last breath.”
A year ago, SuRa received a phone call from Rudhraiya and the friends met at a restaurant in Mylapore, where Rudhraiya gave him the bound-script for a film that he planned to shoot abroad. Rudhraiya requested SuRa to listen to the whole script and they headed to his house in Lloyds Colony. “His wife had separated from him then. Rudhraiya had good things to say about her. And we discussed the story for about 1.5 hours,” wrote SuRa. Rudhraiya wanted to narrate the story to Vikram. The actor’s manager told him that Vikram was out of town shooting for I and he would facilitate a meeting as soon as he returned. “Kaalam appadiyoru santhippirkkey, vazhi undaakki tharavillai enbathu thaan vindhaiye!”
Actress Kutty Padmini, who made a special appearance in Aval Appadithan, played the lead role in Rudhraiya’s Kaani Nilam. There isn’t any material available about the movie, but Kutty Padmini remembers playing a reporter in it. “Kaani Nilam was about land grabbing. It was made brilliantly as well. It was filmed 30 years ago. I can’t recall if it was released in regular theatres or like a documentary. But I’m sure it was released,” she said. The actress revealed that she acted for free in Aval Appadithan, as did Sripriya. “We simply wanted to support him. To me, he was as talented as Guru Dutt, Sridhar, Mahendran and Balachander. It’s just that luck didn’t favour him. Whenever he found time, he would come to my office to discuss stories with me. All of his scripts would be mind-blowing.”
Director R Parthiban, a self-proclaimed fan of Rudhraiya, included an interesting scene in his latest release Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam as a tribute to the filmmaker and Aval Appadithan. “Whenever I watched Aval Appadithan, I always thought that I should make quality films. Ethavathu oru nalla pathivu senjittu poganum-nu aasai. But whoever was determined to make only good films disappeared from the industry,” observed Parthiban. “I wanted to thank Rudhraiya sir. Besides writing a scene as a gesture of thanks, I phoned and invited him for Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam‘s audio launch. He was doing farming in Salem then. He was glad that somebody from this generation remembered him.”
But Rudhraiya did not attend the launch. Parthiban added, “I told that I would love to produce a film for him. He smiled and said he would think of it. In a way, I’m guilty that I didn’t arm-twist him into making another film. Perhaps, if I had forced him to and if he had started working on a film, he may not have left us. For a filmmaker, what is more satisfying than making a film?”
Parthiban reckoned that the society is guilty of writing off filmmakers who are dormant. “Think of talented directors like Sridhar sir. We ignore them when they’re alive. Antha othukkuthal thappu. Apram oppari vechi enna payan?”
Rudhraiya, who was an avid reader, sent an SMS to SuRa recently after he re-read SuRa’s translation of a book on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. “I still can’t stop crying,” mentioned Rudhraiya in his text message.
SuRa ended his Facebook post with the note, “How could Rudhraiya live without making a movie for 34 years?”
It is the same question that is on the mind of everyone that has watched Aval Appadithan. The last few lines of poem that Kamal Haasan recites in the climax of Aval Appadithan appears to be Rudhraiya’s metaphoric answer to our question on his indomitable spirit to put up a fight even after each of his dream was shattered.
Erindhu pona veedu,
Murindhu pona uravugal,
Kalaindhu pona kanavugal,
Sumakka mudiyadha sogangal,
Meendum oru murai Manju irandhu ponaal,
Indha chaavai sagithukkolla Manjuvaal thaan mudiyum,
Aval pirapaal, irappaal,
Acknowledgements and sources:
J Bismi TamilScreen.com
Silverscreen’s interviews with writer Vanna Nilavan, writer and director K Rajeshwar, actor Kutty Padmini and director R Parthiban.
Saravanan’s translation of Vannanilavan’s old article from Aaraamthinai.
Pictures: The Hindu