Shankar wasn't the first Tamil filmmaker to mix animation and live action in a song sequence. SP Muthuraman got there with the Rajinikanth-starrer Raja Chinna Roja, in 1989. But see the two music videos today, and you see the difference between a safe, efficient filmmaker and one with balls-out vision and drive. The Raja Chinna Roja song imagines the Superstar with a bunch of children, in a forest, as Disney-esque animals scamper around them. The most that happens is that they get trapped in a fire, which is put out by an enterprising elephant. Cute is the word that comes to mind. Or saccharine, if you're more of a grouch. But 'Chiku Buku Rayile', from Gentleman, is something else. Prabhu Deva opens his jacket and sends hearts to Gautami. She squishes them like you'd clap a mosquito dead. He shoots arrows at her with his eyes. She drops one of them in a dustbin. He then sheds giant, comical tears, that plop on the ground with a tiny splash. Many words come to mind. Overkill. Overreaching. Tacky. But also: Fun. Crazy. Unexpected. Larger than life. Like nothing else out there.
That's Shankar for you. Someone who's always out to wow you. Someone whose imagination has always exceeded what the practical realities of Indian budgets and effects houses can give him – but also someone who doesn't let this stop him. He's someone who wants to build the Taj Mahal with bricklayers. And someone who's utterly unapologetic about his reputation as a size-matters showman. To understand why all of this is a good thing, we have to consider the two kinds of filmmakers that have made their name (and subsequently become legends) in Tamil cinema. On the one hand, you have the "classy" filmmakers: Sridhar, K Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, Mahendran, Mani Ratnam… They were all mainstream filmmakers, of course, and perhaps you could label them "commercial", too, for they did have many hits. But their aesthetic was governed by a kind of narrative artistry, not spectacle.
On the other hand, we have the out-there entertainers, the directors who wanted to show you the seven wonders of the world for the price of a movie ticket. You'd begin, of course, with SS Vasan. His Chandralekha (1948) came with hundreds of giant drums, on which hundreds of dancers danced, and from inside which hundreds of rebel soldiers emerged at the end. A few years later, he produced (but did not direct) Avvaiyaar, where hundreds of elephants overcame hundreds of soldiers and brought down a fort. But these films still fell under the mythology/fantasy rubric, where larger-than-life was the way of life. If a movie was set in Indra's realm, as Manaalaney Mangaiyin Baagyam (1957) was, or if it was set in Shiva's abode, as Thiruvilaiyaadal (1965) was, the pomp and pageantry wasn't just expected, but necessary. What about BR Panthulu, you ask? He didn't make only mythology/fantasy, and yet, his films were still big. But Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1959) and Kappalottiya Thamizhan (1961) were still historical epics, not contemporary stories. Even the genie in a "social" story like Pattanathil Bootham (1964) isn't just expected but necessary, owing to its roots in the Arabian Nights.
To get to the forebears of Shankar, we have to consider directors who sought out spectacle in "regular" (as opposed to historical or mythological or folklore/fantasy) films. In the 1970s, there were the odd Jaishankar-starring wannabe-Bond capers, with "never-before-seen" helicopter stunts, or MGR's Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban, a fantasy-adventure woven around a missing scientist. (Sivaji Ganesan, in the late sixties, made a similar globe-trotting thriller in Sivandha Mann.) In the eighties, we got the movies by Abavanan and the Film School techno-brats, who attempted to scale up the masala entertainer with huge set pieces, like the rekla race in Uzhavan Magan (1987) or the mountainside action set pieces in Inaindha Kaigal (1990).
But it's only when Shankar came along in the nineties, with Gentleman, that the "social" spectacle really took off – and I don't mean just spectacle set in contemporary society. Sure, the action was huge. The songs were huge. The story's sprawl was huge. But more importantly, the social angle was huge. Earlier, a "socially relevant" film came mainly in the form of drama: say, a Vedham Pudhidhu (which was about casteism). Shankar fused the mission statement of those films with a Hollywoodian bigness: think Vedham Pudhidhu plus masked-hero vigilantism. Gentleman was the story of an ordinary man who fights an "issue" (corruption in the education sector) by turning into a "masked superhero". I'm tempted to call the film Tamil cinema's first "social epic."
And I'm tempted to call Shankar Tamil cinema's first real "social" spectacle director, someone who makes stories set in our age, in our neighbourhoods, in our physical world (Enthiran being an exception, of course), addressing our problems, but with the pomp and pageantry of Indra's realm or Shiva's abode or the Arabian Nights. At a time people think twice about heading out to the theatre to watch a movie, Shankar makes the decision a no-brainer. You have to see his films on the big screen. Before him, a film mounted on a huge scale would be described as being "like a Hollywood movie." Now, we just say it looks… like a Shankar movie.
11. I (2015)
Is there another filmmaker as fascinated by the double role (or the leading man playing two versions of himself) as Shankar? Where other directors employ this trope as simply a means to magnify the hero – see two stars for the price of one! – or maybe to flesh out the separated-at-birth scenario so popular in the masala format, Shankar uses the device to split open the protagonist's psyche: id and superego, hunchbacked avenger and handsome victim. Vikram delivers a ferocious performance, but the film is a tired, bloated rehash of Shankar's now-patented Vigilante Template™. A story this pulpy should have been way more fun.
10. Kadhalan (1994)
The yo-o-o-u background cry for Raghuvaran (the villain) was the shro-o-o-v of its time. But the only place this bubblegummy love story (with Prabhu Deva and Nagma) has in pop-culture history – okay, apart from Vadivelu's "jil jung juk" categorisation of women – is due to AR Rahman's explosive soundtrack and the way Shankar shot these songs. The music videos were so novel that we went in droves and didn't mind that the story was going nowhere and was taking an awfully long time to get there, with little Shankar-esque detours like the virginity test performed on the heroine after her night away from home. Kadhalan is notable, today, mainly for the fact that nobody had mounted a love story on this scale earlier.
9. Jeans (1998)
By this time, a pattern had emerged. The odd-numbered Shankar movies were the good ones, the even-numbered ones were the ones you endured with gritted teeth until the next odd-numbered one. Sandwiched between Shankar's No. 3 (Indian) and No. 5 (Mudhalvan) was this OTT (even by Shankar's standards) story where the leading man (Prashanth) plays a double role and the leading lady (Aishwarya Rai) pretends to play a double role. A terrific Rahman soundtrack (kinda goes without saying in Shankar's films) struggles to save this plotless plot. (Botched brain surgery? Come on!) But what I like is the way Shankar handles his now-patented Second-Half Flashback™. For a change, it's not about why a man turns into a vigilante. It's about how a shrewish woman (a magnificent Radhika) plays havoc with a family. Shankar showed he had a real flair for sixties'-style melodrama. Too bad he doesn't go there more often.
8. Nanban (2012)
The most perplexing, un-Shankar-like film in this director's oeuvre. To those familiar with the original (3 Idiots), this is a shockingly faithful remake — "shocking" because major filmmakers do not usually choose to make movies where they have nothing to do but make sure that the shots are canned and the music is recorded and the publicity is mounted. Shankar's stamp is in a mere handful of scenes and song sequences that feature computer graphics (and he gamely makes fun of his fondness for the same). Otherwise, you feel a first-time director could have ended up with the same product, working off the same template. The coming together of Shankar and Vijay should have been something else, though I guess the film is a competent-enough entertainer for those who haven't seen 3 Idiots.
7. Sivaji (2007)
Vivek unleashes this line, here: "Six-ukku apparam seven da, Sivaji-kku apparam yevan da!" Very little of this cleverness finds its way into the writing. One of the weakest major Shankar films (I think of Jeans, etc., as minor ones), it's about an NRI/vigilante who wants to do good for the poor. Too messagey to be an all-out Rajinikanth entertainer, and too worshipful of its leading man to be an effective Shankar potboiler, the film just hangs there, throwing various things at us in the hope that at least something will stick. Well, the "comedy" doesn't. It's painful watching Rajini slather his face with bleaching products, or run to the bathroom with a case of the runs. But his opening scene (in jail) is terrific, and the Bigness™ really works. The picturisation of Rahman's smashing 'Athiradee' comes across like the most explosive music video Robert Rodriguez never made.
6. Boys (2003)
This slice-of-life dramedy, top-lined by Siddharth and Genelia D'Souza, is a genuinely bold film, a more hip companion piece to Selvaraghavan's Thulluvadho Ilamai (which was released a year earlier). It portrays youngsters as aimless and seriously sex-obsessed, and it could have redefined the "youth movie". But Shankar overstuffs this small, coming-of-age tale with gargantuan screenplay "items" (earthquake, Naxalites, a marriage-breaking sex worker). Is this an Azhiyadha Kolangal-like drama of hormonal youth? A Maro Charitra-like problem-romance, with unyielding parents? A Pudhu Vasantham-like journey of musical ambition? Shankar's answer, of course, is (d) all of the above. Sometimes, less is more, but then, that's not why we go to a Shankar film, right? And okay, Vivek rocks.
5. Anniyan (2005)
This time, Shankar throws three roles at Vikram, who lunges at them like a hungry lion. He is whiny and annoying as Ramanujam, put-on and wannabe as Remo, and a deadly Tamil-cinema stud as Anniyan. The film is never less than watchable, a high-energy celebration of lowbrow kitsch. (A karate-school free-for-all plays like Kill Bill meets The Drunken Monk meets The Matrix.) Harris Jayaraj's foot-tappers are filmed beautifully, and minor tricks and twists keep the narrative interesting. Had this film's Formula™ not been glimpsed earlier in Gentleman and Indian, who knows, it may appear fresher and more fun than it does.
4. Indian (1996)
What happens when a director with a penchant for double roles meets a star who's made a career out of them? A terrific twist, that's what. Kamal Haasan (who, oddly, won the National Award for his efforts; he's solid, but the roles aren't much of a stretch) plays both father/hero and son/"villain" – the latter is not really a bad guy (merely an unscrupulous one), but in the father/hero's eyes, he deserves to die. The moment was truly shocking when I first saw the film, and it works even today. The inane heroine portions (with Manisha Koirala and Urmila Matondkar) make you wonder why Shankar doesn't bother with female roles as much as he sculpts his leading men, but the British-era flashback, the murders, the cat-and-mouse between Kamal Haasan and Nedumudi Venu, the mysterious "varma kalai"… Shankar adds the right amounts of spice to this vigilante thriller.
3. Enthiran: The Robot (2010)
The second collaboration between Rajinikanth and Shankar is much better, and truly unique in the way the director's fondness for the "double role" is taken ahead. For the first time, the second role isn't that of a vigilante or a do-gooder out to clean up society, but a confused, gone-berserk manifestation of the protagonist's id. Also, a "child" abandoned by its "parent". This mix of myth and sci-fi doesn't take off for a long time (the scenes with Aishwarya Rai are ridiculously boring), but once we get to Chitti's "rebirth" in the garbage yard, Enthiran turns sublimely entertaining. It's fantastic to see Rajinikanth as the "villain" again – no other Tamil star has made badassery so cool, so fun. And the Effects-filled Action Stretches™ towards the end are why the big screen was invented.
2. Gentleman (1993)
Shankar's first film, starring Arjun and Madhubala, is still one of his best. At the time, its appeal was the never-before mix of social message and Hollywood treatment. Today, it's testament to the fact that the Shankar Movie™ is most effective when the (vigilante) story beats aren't overshadowed by the grandeur – or rather, when the presentation is merely an extension of the content (and doesn't become the content). Seeing 'Usilampatti Penkutti', today, comes as a bit of a shock (a pleasant one). No graphics. No major sets. Zero costume changes. Just a pleasant location, a catchy tune and lively choreography. On the other hand, you have the visual effects and the innovations of 'Chiku Buku Rayile'. The film exists in a perfect balance between these two modes, part extravaganza, part emotional saga, all Shankar.
1. Mudhalvan (1999)/Nayak (2001)
Well, well, well. So in my list, the Arjun-Shankar films are the best. I am a sucker for political fairy tales, and this is The. Best. One. Ever. Made. In. Tamil. Cinema. (The Hindi remake, with Anil Kapoor, is close but no cigar.) The film is filled with classic Big Moments™ (like the interview scene, with Raghuvaran, or even the big conceit of the one-day CM), but the screenplay (with dialogue by Sujatha) never loses track of the smaller things that make us root for characters on screen: the relationship between the hero and his parents, the reason the heroine's (Manisha Koirala) father won't marry her off to the hero, or even the clever use of cartoons. This big film has a big heart. It's Shankar at his best.