30 years of Karakattakaran - Gangai Amaren: The Vazhapazham comedy track was based on a similar sequence in an Adoor Bhasi film
On the 30th anniversary of Karakattakaran, the filmmaker talks about the Ramarajan-Kanaka-starrer that became a huge hit back in the day, and is grateful that its scenes have stayed in pop culture
When Karakattakaran released on June 16, 1989, director Gangai Amaren didn't expect it would be such a big success. "It ran for over 100 days in 25 centers, one year in seven-eight centres and clocked 400 days in four theatres," says the lyricist-turned-director. Thirty years later, the film, an inversion of Sivaji's Thillana Mohanambal, still remains in popular culture, thanks mainly to its comedy tracks, featuring Goundamani and Senthil, and the songs composed by Ilaiyaraaja.
The accidental director
"I don't know why but anna (Ilaiyaraaja) only asked me to take up direction and even suggested the title of my debut film, Kozhi Koovuthu. I only ever wanted to be a lyricist. That I would direct the films I did, would be successful at it, and we would be sitting here, having a chat about one of them, is something I didn't think would happen."
Genesis of Karakattaran
"I love V Shantaram films. Both anna and I always wanted to do films like his, and that is one of the reasons why he took up Kaadhal Oviyam. While that was more classical in nature, Karakattakaran was more rooted in the folk music we grew up with. Pallavaraayanapatti near our home used to host such folk shows that would run well past midnight. They wouldn't have great dialogues but had such lovely sounds. Anna could bring the more festive sounds of thavil and pakkamelam in songs like Podhuvaaga Emmanasu Thangam, but we wanted to include instruments like Urumi, Shehnai, Nadasawaram, and Muga Veenai. So we decided to do a film about village dancers and singers whose stories hadn't been told."
The essence of Karagattakaran
"Truth be told, the lives of karagam dancers are sadder than what I have depicted. I took a gentler tone, but I did not compromise on two things: Music and comedy. The musicians have some of the best humour sense I have come across. Take, for example, a famous classical vidwan called Sammandhachaari. His tune for Mandhira Maavadu Neeru was adapted as Singara Velane Deva which subsequently became a hit. Now, people from Music Academy called him for felicitation, and when he went on stage for his speech, he sang a keerthanai that began 'Evaru Raa Seppinar' and cheekily asked if the audience recognised it. Nobody did because as the man later revealed, the keerthanai didn't exist. Similarly, at a rural level, if performers see a wealthy person, they would surround him, praise him and then say, 'Ayya ippo pathu rooba ellarukum kodupaar' and then start singing keeping the man in the centre. The man, embarrassed, couldn't do anything but part with his money. I guess all is fair in music, comedy, and hunger."
The Goundamani-Senthil connect
"We have all been working together since Sangili Murugan's drama days when Goundamani would act and Senthil helped get us refreshments. Even though it was their 100th film together, they still weren't the stars they would be after this film, when they couldn't give more than a week's call sheet. In Karakattakaran, they were able to stay a full 28 days on set (which was our entire schedule) and play cards with the producers during break time. It was such a congenial atmosphere, consisting of not just them but also Comedy Veerappan, Kalaignanam, Kalaimani plus my assistants, and that led to the birth of the Soppanasundari and the Vaazhapazham comedy tracks."
The terrific comedy
"Soppanasundari was a modified take on Chinese whispers. It just came on the spot. What elevated it was the car, I guess. I had asked for a big open car but didn't imagine I would get the one I did (a 1960's Chevrolet Impala). While Soppanasundari is a dream character who nobody had a relationship with, the car belonged to someone in Madurai." (laughs)
"The Vazhapazham comedy track was something we had seen in an Adoor Bhasi film. There it was done only once but here, I sat with Goundamani and Senthil for rehearsal and told them they had to do multiple variations of it — soft at first, slightly angry next, and then ending in a tear-filled take. At this point in time, we had kept one key shot for the verandah and the entire place was buzzing with sounds of people who had come to see us shoot the comedy portions, but Goundamani delivered spectacularly, retaining full concentration on the scene. (Venkat) Prabhu has challenged me that someday he will also take a scene like this that will last a lifetime."
"We wanted a village that could tell the story we wanted to tell. We found it some distance off of Madurai Pandiyan hotel on the way to Alagar Kovil. We shot everything there except the panchayat scene with the banyan tree and the climax. Those were shot in Arunachalam Studios and Ambica Studios, respectively. I also have to give credit to Goundamani when it comes to the climax because originally, I wanted Ramarajan to walk the fire for the entirety of the song but he told me that it would be boring. He was right and it was that divine ending that set cash registers on fire."
The Ilaiyaraaja factor
"If it is a musical, it has to be Ilaiyaraaja. There was no other choice. Till this day, I am so proud that Karakattakaran remains the only film that anna made songs for without listening to the story. I just asked him to give me songs and told him I would build the film around it. After we finished the film, he did what he usually does — set aside one separate day to watch the film fully and then compose music for it. The moment he saw our film, he composed the quintessential Karakattakaran theme. I would be remiss not to gush a bit about the genius he is. In one scene, love would blossom between the two leads, and we would have cut off to the next scene. But anna asked for an empty roll of three feet and composed a theme for that. Similarly, the climax that I talked about earlier comes alive when the strings section begins. It was all his doing."
Ramarajan and Kanaka
"Ramarajan was an assistant director to Ramanarayanan for whom I used to score music. Incidentally, when he turned hero, I scored music for that film too. My first association with him as an actor was Enga Ooru Paatukkaran, which was a huge hit. I still remember when they brought him in front of me with full makeup. I laughed and told them to get rid of it. He was a hero with no airs at that point of time. But then again, he wanted to be like MGR, his idol, and used to wear the colours he did for that reason. So by the time Karakattakaran happened, he had started to flavour his dialogues with political messaging. I had to edit that out. But as a professional, he was ace. Enna, dance avlo aada vaaradhu. Also the karagam he used to wear, would pinch his head through the wig and that also took a toll. Thankfully, we had Lenin who edited the out-of-sync dance moves to go with anna's music."
"As far as Kanaka is concerned, it was my wife who recommended her. We did the makeup and look test and she looked really good. It also helped that she was also a good dancer."
"The second film cannot exist without the original cast. I have a story idea, where the children of Ramarajan and Kanaka, and Senthil and Sarala, come together for a good family drama. In Andhra, there is a huge folk thiruvizha that happens. So I was thinking we could finish the film with a karagattam show-off, a true representation of the art form, of the original Karakattakaran, as opposed to the more vulgar kind that is prevalent."
The unfulfilled dream
"I want to create an art village where folk instrument players and dancers and the ilk have their own space in which they are trained and housed. They should also have a 300-400 acre land they can use for farming during their lean times. Anna has plans for a musical university. I wish all of this doesn't just end as a dream."