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Some Ramblings - Sivaji (the boss)
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

K.Viswanath had a mighty mountain to climb announcing a movie with Chiranjeevi, who was then on a commercial success spree when everything he touched turned into box-office gold, right until that fateful union. "Aapadbaandhavudu" is a difficult movie to categorize. It could be termed as a mainfare feature, for its widescreen format, which was a first for Viswanath, the commercial orientation of the choreography which is a must for all Chiru's movies, the obligatory fight sequences even if they are benign in nature. It could as well be dubbed as a regular Viswanath mark movie for its subtlety and toned down approach. The dances were pleasant, the lyrics, meaningful and the words, touching. There was situations that were vintage Viswanath, and the same could be said about some of the sequences involving Chiranjeevi. However, the whole still seemed inferior to the sum of the parts. In the end, it ended up being neither a Chiru's movie nor a Viswanath's movie, quite contrary to what was promised as a "Viswa-jeevi" movie. So much for the tags! Image is always at odds with the ideals. What kind of story would befit an actor who has long since shed his image as an actor and taken up the tag of a star. In such situations, should the story serve the star or should it be the other way around? The star who professes his allegiance to the fans instead of the story, more often than not, works against the cause of the story, unduly burdening it with the demands of his image. So, naturally, what is expected of the star - his trademarks, his antics and his punchlines - dictates the tone of the movie. And once the tone is preset, before the movie had even begun rolling, the rest of his demands would automatically fall in place - a high energy introductory song, singing paeans about his heroism, a forced love/comedy track however much it feels out of place with the tone, and song and fight sequences that become outlandish just to keep up with his image. And long before, the character of the movie becomes a caricature of his image.

So who is at fault here? The star? his image? the fans? or the makers, who want to cater to his image, instead of serving the story? It is certainly a conscious choice on the part of the maker as regard to which path he would choose when dealing with a high profile star. And if the celebrity of the director is also thrown into the mix, the choice of the path becomes even more important and even more difficult. Stranded in a similar situation a few years ago, Mani Ratnam made a wise choice - strip Rajni of his trademark mannerisms, his pet dialogues, his other Gemini Circus antics, and instead make him a part of the story than letting his star image control the story. For all its limitations, "Dalapati" was a better representation of the skills of Ratnam as a director and Rajnikanth as an actor. It still had all the necessary scenes and sequences that would cater to his image without dumbing down the content and pandering for cheap thrills and easy targets. The challenge of the playing to the image, certainly spurred Ratnam into pushing his boundaries as a filmmaker with shrewd sensibilities, with one hand firmly feeling the pulse of the commercial medium. The innate tension of the story elevated the image of the character. Putting the lead character right in the path of strife - dealing with issues of abandonment, allegiance, loyalty and relationship - alone built up the necessary momentum to carry the character forward without having to resort to falling back on the image of Rajni, the star. Consider a similar situation and a similar conscious choice of a director to come out of the existing mold and present the same star as a good actor he originally was. Kranti Kumar's "seetaa raamayya gaari manavaraalu" is an exercise of audacity and brilliance, as he presented ANR, who came with a baggage of pre-conceived notions, trademark expressions and emotions, in an entirely different light, challenging the actor to respond to the character and not to the image. In both the above situations, the directors, by not appealing to the pre-existing image did more to enhance the image of the actor, than they would had done, by directly pandering to it.

Would it have mattered if "Sivaji" was directed by other regular commercial directors, who would jump at the opportunity of directing a Rajnikanth movie, and not Shankar? The other directors too would have played it to the galleries, pumping up the levels of craziness, peppering illogic in just about every other scene, made Rajni indulge in antics that would only evoke laughter for all the wrong reasons, and hide it all behind the word "STYLE". Shankar's movies, specially ones dealing with the social messages, set themselves apart from the rest, in that, even within the mainstream format, they dealt with the central theme - be it capitation, corruption or mis-rule - in a very sincere and a serious manner, never letting that the rest of the commercial elements interfere with it. Arjun's anguish was heartfelt in "Gentleman", Kamal's tirade against corruption was genuine in "Indian" and ARjun's frustration against red tape didn't seem out of place in "Mudalavan". In each of the above movies, the stars portraying the lead characters were never allowed to dominate the theme of the movie, and thereby the movies were identified more as Shankar's movies, than either Arjun's or Kamal's. Continuing in the same vein, what is "Sivaji"? Is it a Shankar's movie or a Rajni's movie? or more importantly, in the context of Shankar's movies, what is the movie even about? What did Shankar even set about doing? Was the intention to talk about the ills of black money on the development of a society or was the aim to make a Rajni's movie? Again, like "Anniyan", Shankar fails to realize the lack of impact (dramatically) that a tepid issue like black money (just like apathy, lack of (civic) concern, in "Anniyan") could have in a commercial format. Compare it to the other issues like corruption, education or red tape, that can impact lives at a very personal level. And in trying to marry a non-issue to the starry image, all that Shankar ended up was an irrelevant Rajni movie.

Despite its failings, and its non-performance at the box-office, "Baba" was at least a sincere attempt. The sacrifice of an individual of his attempts to seek inner peace by renouncing his God-given gifts, only to be pulled back into the worldly affairs in the better interests of the society, was depicted in an honest manner, however much the seriousness of the venture ran against the popular choice. Rajnikanth should be appreciated for going out of his away to break free of his image, and offer something that he truly believed in. Sincerety is the key issue here. A look back at Shankar's movies highlights the same pattern, that the maker truly believes the impact of each of those above issues of the society and therefore, the solutions that he offers do not seem far-fetched, even with all commercial constraints. Instead, Shankar treats "Sivaji" as a Rajni movie and steers clear of any real problems and real solutions, and indulges in commercial friendly elements aimed solely at box-office returns. With not much material to go with, Shankar relies heavily on the star power of the actor concentrating primarily on the walk, talk, mannerisms and so-called STYLE, that soon overstay their welcome, and drag the movie to a dead halt. And what is this fixation/fascination with STYLE? What has popping a mint into the mouth by rebounding it off another surface, or catching a cigarette by throwing up in the air, got anything to do with STYLE? There is a viral video floating around on the net of Vijaykanth out-shocking the electric current, blasting away the electrodes attached to his temples, by his sheer will power. If throwing up a cigarette in the air and blasting it with a revolver and catching it in the way with business end perfectly lit accounts for STYLE, so does out-shocking the electric current or out-running an airplane on the runway. There comes a point when silly things stop being silly and wander into the realm of ridicule. And these things have a way of taking out the seriousness of a scene or undermining a theme. What Shankar did by stuffing an entire movie with such borderline ridiculous STYLE elements, was play down his own script, tacitly accepting that the only things that can save his social theme come from the fantasy world.

More Ramblings on films
The Grindhouse
Casino Royale
The Departed
Lage Raho Munnabhai
Superman Returns
The Da Vinci Code
Sri Ramadasu
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Jai Chiranjeeva!
Munich (English)
Sarkar (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Kaadhal (Tamil)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Radha Gopalam
Mughal E Azam
Virumandi (Tamil)
Lakshya (Hindi)
Yuva (Hindi)
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Nuvve Nuvve

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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