Editor’s Note: RK Shanmugam, veteran script and dialogue writer, passed away on Tuesday. Silverscreen did an interview with him in 2014 where he talked about working in some iconic Tamil films. Excerpts of the interview:
Some films entertain. Some preach. Some pass without leaving a trace.
June 22, 2014 was the 101st day for MGR’s Aayirathil Oruvan; the movie had been digitally restored and released on March 14. Albert Theatre ran a full-house. The audience whistled and clapped. Chants of ‘deivame’ could be heard over and over again.
Not a soul would have believed that the movie was actually released 49 years ago.
Die-hard fans of MGR basked in the moment. Every dialogue from their idol was met with applause. Some danced to Adho Andha Paravai Pola. Some screamed ‘once more’ after those trademark one-liners.
RK Shanmugam, the writer of those memorable dialogues wanted to be a part of the event; relive memories of working on the iconic film. But his health played spoilt-sport, and his daughter went to the show. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she made mental notes of the celebration.
“Indha kaalathula punch dialogue-nu solraanga. Appo paarunga, padam fulla punch thaan,” she had heard the audience talk amongst themselves.
RK Shanmugam smiled, hearing his daughter recount her experience. He always knew Aayirathil Oruvan was timeless.
MGR had told him long, long ago: “Indha padam saga varam petradhu.”
We meet RK Shanmugam at his modest house in Royappetah. He welcomes us with a measured smile, and leads us to his study – a table laden with pictures of him with MGR and Jayalalithaa. He sinks into a chair behind it.
Every wall in RK Shanmugam’s home has photos of him and MGR together.
RK Shanmugam is now 84.
We thank him for agreeing to meet us.
“I’m relaxing and resting all the time,” he says reassuringly, “And, I can never say no to discuss Aayirathil Oruvan.”
Shanmugam’s career began with Aayirathil Oruvan. He had earlier worked as an assistant director to director-producer-actor BR Panthulu. Shanmugam still fondly calls him ‘muthalali’. “I worked on 15 films as an AD – a lot with Sivaji Ganesan. We made movies like Karnan, Kappalotiya Thamizhan and Veerapandiya Kattabomman. One day, out of the blue, Banthulu got hold of an action script (Aayirathil Oruvan), and we knew only MGR could do justice to the role,” he remembers.
Despite having worked with Sivaji Ganesan on back-to-back films, Shanmugam recalls that Banthulu wanted to make a movie with MGR. His decision, though, shook Sivaji, for the two actors were silently competing with each other then.
Before the cast and crew could be finalised, Banthulu and Shanmugam discussed the story of Aayirathil Oruvan for two months, and “treated” the screenplay for another three months.
On the first day of shoot, Shanmugam remembers eagerly awaiting the arrival of MGR on the sets. The movie hadn’t been named then. “I was sulking because I wasn’t sure if I would write the dialogues for the film. Banthulu then confirmed that MGR was happy to rope me in. He suddenly said, ‘give me a title for the film now!’ I was quite happy that my position was confirmed, and in that mood, I answered ‘Aayirathil Oruvan!’ Everyone was pleased.”
A few days into the shoot, the crew began filming the heroine’s portions – song sequences. “Jayalalithaa was about 14, I think. Everything about her was stylish, elegant, and sometimes, mysterious,” recalls Shanmugam. The actress, though a teenager, was quite unlike other heroines. She came alone. Her mother never accompanied her. “I’m not exaggerating at all. She was very different. Arattai adikradhu ellam irukkadhu. Once, when a shot was ready, I asked her to join the team. She was reading a book. When she closed it, she said, ‘I’m reading Aayirathil Oruvan’s story.’ But she was reading an English novel. I was taken aback. I checked with Banthulu and he told me he took the crux of the story from the book and modified it for Tamil.”
The “English novel” was Captain Blood.
Aayirathil Oruvan was predominantly shot in a sleepy coastal town near Goa. The cast and crew sailed to the sets everyday. “There were a lot of stunt men and they were unhappy that only vegetarian food was served. They wanted me to bring this to MGR’s notice. He laughed and arranged a non-vegetarian feast for the whole team. When he found out that we loved crab, he instructed the cook to make crab and served the food himself. The stunt men were visibly pleased,” says Shanmugam.
After the success of Aayirathil Oruvan, Shanmugam was a regular feature in MGR’s films. He penned dialogues for Rikshakaran, Neerum Neruppum and Nalla Neram. His one-liners played a pivotal role in making MGR a favourite of the masses. “MGR would often say that my dialogues took him close to his fans. But the lines would have sounded empty if MGR hadn’t spoken them.”
MGR, Shanmugam, adds, was also very considerate towards the other members of the crew. When actor Nagesh found out one day that Shanmugam was struggling with a personal problem, he had informed MGR about it. “MGR immediately gave me Rs 10,000. He was upset that I didn’t tell him myself. He also gave me three days off from the shoot and advised me to spend time with my family,” Shanmugam narrates, and asks rhetorically, “do you know what a huge amount that was back in 1965?”
But that’s not all, Shanmugam says. MGR would insist that he make the same effort to write dialogues for other artistes too. “MGR’s favourite dialogue was the one I wrote for KR Vijaya for Nalla Neram. When Vijaya’s father questions her for marrying MGR, an average daily wager-earner, she says, ‘moonu kaasu kuduthu vaangara kungumatha nethila vechikkarom. Velai koduthu vaangara seruppa kaalla thaanpa podarom.’”
While everything about Aayirathil Oruvan is etched in Shanmugam’s memory, sailing on the Arabian Sea with MGR and Jayalalithaa is particularly memorable. It also makes him quite poetic. “At dusk, we would board the boat every evening from Goa. The sky would be painted orange and pink. It was the fishing season and a lot of fish would jump into our boat. MGR would be sitting near the bow. And after a long, tiring day, the sea breeze and conversations with MGR would rejuvenate us. We always looked forward to our boat ride the next day.”
We prod him a little about his favourite dialogues. It’s unfair to make him choose, he says, but gives us a few lines (from Aayirathi Oruvan) all the same:
Nambiar: Madham konda yaanai enna seyyum theriyuma?
MGR: Sinam konda singathidum thorthu odum.
Nambiar: Tholviye ariyadhavan naan!
MGR: Tholviyai ethirukku parisalithey pazhagiyavan naan!
The RK Shanmugam interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.