It's not uncommon for older films to be re-released in Chennai. MGR and Sivaji Ganesan films hit screens even today, perhaps for the 100th time, but there was something amusing about seeing 1999's Amarkalam listed on a ticket booking app.
No, it wasn't that I doubted the film's ability to still pull crowds, knowing very well the importance of Amarkalam in Ajith's ascent to stardom. (It was his 25th film.) It was the theatre where it was playing that set the listing apart. West Mambalam's Srinivasa Theatre is old and run-down and it survives almost entirely on re-releases. But that's not it. Amarkalam is a film that is set, for the most part, in Srinivasa Theatre.
Wouldn't it be trippy to watch a film in the same theatre where much of it was shot? Isn't it a bit like watching Cinema Paradiso in Cinema Paradiso?
So I rushed to the theatre before the lone 11:30 am show to just… geek out. The theatre and its surroundings, though, didn't seem to share my enthusiasm. Tickets hadn't yet gone on sale and the projectionist, on a cigarette break, double-checked with me to make sure I was at the right place. "I need at least 15 people to start the show," he warned. "Go have a cup of tea and come back. We'll start by 11: 45 if some more people come."
I decided to skip tea and walk around the theatre instead, counting every man that walked in, hoping it added up to the magic number. It was 11: 40 and there were still just four of us. I looked worriedly at the projectionist, but he was busy evaluating the strength of my umbrella.
And that's when it started to rain… heavily. Half-a-dozen men who had assembled outside the tea stall adjacent to the theatre ran in. Tickets, all classes at under Rs.50, make the theatre affordable, even if it is to just wait out the rains. The maintenance staff, too, is extremely generous — smoking within the premises and 'outside food' don't seem to be an issue for them. The count added up to eleven now.
The projectionist walked up the stairs to the projector. An old-school bell went off and the show began. It's a late 'Thala' Deepavali miracle.
The theatre might not be fitted with the latest Dolby Atmos system, but the atmosphere was incredible. The auditorium, with broken seats and wobbly ceiling fans, really added to the experience of watching a 20-year old film. And when the film began, with Ajit(h) being credited as 'Lucky Star' and Shalini as 'Love Star', my teleportation to 1999 was complete…I could almost hear Ricky Martin playing.
My memory of Amarkalam wasn't perfect. I had watched it many years ago and felt it would be nice to see if the film had aged well. And if it hadn't, there were always Barathwaj's great songs to keep me entertained.
Two minutes in, when the Love Star went, 'Ta ra ra ra ra, ta ra ra ra…, I was sold. I noticed how seamlessly this song ('Sontha Kuralil Paada') transitions from a 'nature-loving heroine intro song' to a beat-heavy theme befitting the entry of Ajit. He gets an intro fight where he beats up a bunch of partying teenage yuppies. And as we wait for him to lay his final punch, the fight cuts away to an action scene from one of MGR's old films. And guess where that film was playing, according to the screenplay! I was now watching a film (Amarkalam) in Srinivasa Theatre where the screen was showing a scene with another film (the MGR one) playing in Srinivasa Theatre. The Srinivasa Theatre shown in Amarkalam looks far more cheerful, with neon lights and an actual crowd.
Srinivasa is where small-time gangster Vasu (Ajith) stays, also providing protection to the theatre owner. It's also where he stashes the yuppies he kidnaps, so he can broker deals by blackmail. Vasu is shown sleeping on a pile of posters, with Thevar Magan being his 'bed-sheet'. A scene later, it's Kamal Haasan's Nayakan that's playing when Raghuvaran makes an ominous entry in slow motion and there's a scuffle between him and Dhamu (Vasu's buddy). Later, Dhamu sees Raghuvaran hugging the theatre owner, when he says, 'Paatha Baasha padathile villain madhiri irukku' (he looks like the villain in Baasha) — which Ragahuvaran was, and the fourth wall was broken again.
When Vasu returns, he notices that Tulasidas (Raghuvaran) has taken his place on that pile of posters. A drunk Vasu asks 'Thambi enna ooru?' (Which town are you from?) The camera pans down and the bed sheet is not Thevar Megan anymore… It is now Rajinikanth's 1984 film Thambikku Entha Ooru.
But this, again, is common in Tamil cinema. A Rajini punch dialogue here or a clever Kamal Haasan reference there in any film is just a safe way to appease fans of all stars.
The film played on. It's Annamalai that's playing in Srinivasa now. So the crew, along with Vasu, head out to get the reels of the Rajinikanth starrer. But the climax reel alone goes missing as Mohana (Shalini) drives away with it. They start the show anyway, waiting for Dhamu to return with the climax reel. But when they cut to the theatre to show people watching Annamalai, they don't use a cult scene or a shot where Rajni makes a dashing entry for fan appeasement. Instead, Amarkalam shows a bit from the song 'Kondayil thaazham Poo, nenjile vazhapoo, koodayil enna poo?', and that exact moment when Rajini pauses to look at the audience for them to complete the line with…of course Kushboo. The fourth wall is, thus, broken. Again.
Now this couldn't have been a co-incidence. Come to think of it, isn't 'Sontha Kuralil Paada' (sung by Shalini herself) about Shalini wanting to sing in her own voice? That too while acknowledging playback singers of the time (hello Susheela aunty, hello Janaki aunty, kuyil paatu Chitra, ellorum enna manniyingal)?
Is there more to Amarkalam than meets the eye?
I sat up and started watching with refreshed energy. In the following scenes, it's interesting to see how the film builds tension using our knowledge of another film. Like a ticking time bomb, we understand how important it is for Vasu to return with the climax reel because we know how far into Annamalai the audiences in Srinivasa have reached. And later, Mohana's (Shalini) parents use the listing of Annamalai to track down Vasu.
But if there were any more doubts about Amarkalam's meta ambitions, it's cleared when the song 'Kaalam Kalikalam' starts playing to the steps of Lawrence Master. It begins with Lawrence and his team of extras dancing in front of the theatre to celebrate Vinayaga Chathurthi. But a minute later, the group runs in to the auditorium and (wait for it) jumps into the film that's playing there, joining a bunch of female extras dressed in yellow. Later, the same dancers from the movie pop out of the film screen, too, to dance in front of Srinivasa… until it's time for them go back into their movie.
It's also interesting to see how so many of the scenes are staged within the auditorium. As I was watching the scene where the Vinu Chakravarthy character confronts Vasu for ruining himself by drinking, I realized that I was sitting in that exact seat in which Chakravarthy sits in the film.
And later, when Mohana confesses her love to Vasu in front of the screen in Srinivasa, it eclipsed my experience of watching them in the same theatre. For a moment, it's like they were there in sweat and blood, with a movie turning into a live performance.
Even in the scene before, when Mohana tries out the theatre's fortune-teller machine, her prediction reads, 'neengal kadhulukku mariyadhai kodupadharkagave pirandhavar' (you were born to give respect to love). Didn't Shalini act in a movie called Kadhalukku Mariyadhai?
Amarkalam's self-awareness doesn't stop there. In a chat between Tulasidas and Vasu, the former convinces the latter to 'act' like he's in love with Mohana. Tulasidas says, 'Nee pannitirukkaradhu villain vesham, nee hero-va nadikiriya? (You've been playing the villain so far, would you like be the hero now?). And that's the point that sets off a transformation in Vasu's character. He's no longer the anti-hero of this movie. He even romances Mohana with the lovely 'Unnodu Vaazha' song a scene later.
It's not just the theatre setting or the dialogues that make Amarkalam a meta film. It's the music, too. Observe the scene in which Mohana discusses her innermost feelings for Vasu with her blind friend (Charlie). It's a deep confession and naturally, the background score uses violins to convey her feelings, like in most films. But when the camera moves from right to left, we're shown a group of violinists playing the Amarkalam theme. With one movement of the camera, see how beautifully the violins move from non-diagetic to diagetic sounds.
And later, when Mohana confronts Vasu for 'acting' like he's in love with her (Nadigan is now playing in the theatre!), her dialogue is 'Ippo naa pesinadhu ellaam indha theatre screen layum varum, kaithattal kooda kadaikalaam, anaa unna porutha varaikum idhu ellaam sentimental pethalukku dhaana?. (Whatever I'm saying will come on theatre screens. It might even get applause, but all this is just sentimental bullshit to you.)
By this point, I realised that my 35-rupee ticket had paid for itself many times over. And when a heart-broken Vasu watches Ek Duje Ke Liye alone in the theatre to understand the true meaning of love, my mind was blown. Do you remember what Kamal Haasan's name was in that film? Vasu!
As I left Srinivasa theatre after the film, I realized this had been one of my life's most surreal and certainly one of the weirdest experiences. It's not to say that Amarkalam suddenly makes Saran our Kubrick, but it certainly makes Amarkalam a film made with a lot of love and an incredible amount of thought.
Oh yeah one last one. Doesn't Amarkalam also mean first-class? Like the theatre seating?