The coolest film of 1970 was R Sundaram’s CID Shankar: within the first 10 minutes, a politician in a Jeep is assassinated by a suicide bomber. She’s originally a terrified woman, abducted by this gang headed by a man addressed only as “Leader”. But she’s injected with something, and voila! — she turns into a robotic obeyer-of-commands. I can only imagine what a change of pace all this must have been to audiences after a decade filled with sentimental melodramas that revolved around the family unit. The same year, the film’s hero, a young star named Jaishankar, would be seen in another retro-cool film: R Karnan’s Tamil Western, Kalam Vellum. (Do not not miss the “epic fight scene” in the clip below.) At first, he’s a farmer with a kudumi. A few reels later, he’s an outlaw with a stetson. By the climax, when he surrenders to the police, he’s wearing a sombrero and a poncho. Viewers used to bajji were getting a taste of burrito.
When Sridhar’s Kadhalikka Neramillai became a blockbuster in 1964, there was the sense that a “youth culture” was waiting to consume movies that reflected their lives and concerns, which had little to do with the political-propaganda films or the Sivaji-Gemini-starring melodramas or the MGR action/sentiment adventures, filled with mother love and philosophical songs. Here, finally, was a movie that cared about nothing more than the fate of two young couples, and the fact that the audience should be smiling throughout. There are earlier examples of this kind of cinema, of course: Vedantam Raghavaiah’s Adutha Veettu Penn (1960), or the glorious Sabapathy (1941), directed by AV Meiyappan and AT Krishnaswamy. But at least for me, they are a generation removed. Kadhalikka Neramillai, on the other hand, I have heard a lot about, from aunts and uncles who were in school and college at the time. I almost feel it’s a “my generation” movie.
Anyway, the point of bringing up Kadhalikka Neramillai is that its success changed nothing. You might point to small ripple-effects, like a certain “cool”-ification of Tamil cinema — say, in the Tanglish lyrics of ‘Enna vaegam nillu Bama’, from Kuzhandaiyum Dheivamum (1965). But the film is a remake of The Parent Trap, which was about a separated couple and the twins that bring them back together. If not melodrama, there was still… drama. And despite the relative success of younger stars (Jaishankar, Sivakumar, Ravichandran), it wouldn’t be until the late 70s that the MGR/Sivaji Ganesan dominance would be toppled, by two young stars named Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. So despite experimental one-offs like S Balachander’s Nadu Iravil, a pure genre exercise based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, 1970 was still a year, a time that belonged to the Makkal Thilagam and the Nadigar Thilagam.
That year, MGR had five releases (Maattukara Velan, En Annan, Thalaivan, Thedi Vandha Mappillai and Engal Thangam). Sivaji Ganesan had an incredible nine, if you count his appearance in Dharti, a remake of his own Sivandha Mann. (Rajendra Kumar played the character Sivaji Ganesan played in Tamil, and Sivaji played the character portrayed by Muthuraman. See clip above: Sivaji speaks Hindi.) The other films were Enga Mama (a remake of the Shammi Kapoor superhit, Brahmachari), Raman Ethanai Ramanadi, Vilaiyaattu Pillai (the last film written by the legendary SS Vasan), Ethiroli (the only time the thespian teamed up with K Balachander), Engirundho Vandhaal, Sorgam (from which you may recall the song, ‘Ponmagal vandhaal’), Paadhukaappu (the last of the actor’s ‘Pa’ series of films with director A Bhim Singh) and the best-remembered of them all, Vietnam Veedu, directed by P Madhavan.
Sivaji Ganesan plays ‘Prestige’ Padmanabha Iyer in Vietnam Veedu, which was released on April 11. The film feels like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman crossed with Vaazhkai (1984). From the former, we get an existential flavour, courtesy a middle-aged man faced with the prospect of a career that’s going to end soon. Unlike Miller’s protagonist, however, Padmanabha Iyer is a success, a General Manager at a “vellaikaaran” company. But the constant conversations he has with his wife Savithri (Padmini), the son who’s seen as a disappointment — these are reminiscent of the great American play. And from Vaazhkai, we see the ungrateful children, who either do not want to take care of their father or dash his hopes in various ways.
First, what does the title imply? It’s a reference to the bickering in this large joint family. “They are always fighting in Vietnam. We are always fighting here. So let’s call this house ‘Vietnam Veedu’,” says Padmanabha Iyer, when there’s a discussion about what to name their bungalow. The news of the day was clearly casting a shadow on Tamil cinema. If the house is a miniature world in Vietnam Veedu, it’s a miniature country in K Balachander’s Navagraham, released the same year. In a scene, Nagesh tears up a map of India and asks Lakshmi to piece it back together. She struggles. When she asks him to do it, he succeeds easily. How? The back of the map had the picture of a man. Nagesh pieced the face of the man together. The map on the other side got built automatically. “Manushan-a onnaa saethen! India onnaa poachu!” he exults. Thus, by focussing on the individuals, he plans to fix the problems in the household. “Veedu-ngardhu oru miniature naadu dhaane!”
In many ways, Vietnam Veedu feels as far away from us as the Vietnam War feels from today’s world events. The film is based on the stage play of the same name by K Sundaram (who later began to be called ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram), and the “screenplay” is essentially a stage play. In the opening minutes, every character is defined with a trait, or three. For instance, Padmanabha Iyer’s all-encompassing worldview is established by the fact that he welcomes to his house both “Mr Rodricks” and “Mr Sharif”. The lines, too, are of the time: Padmanabha Iyer says that once his children are successful in life, “vaazhkai-ngara novel-a successful-aa mudichiduven.” Looking at his mother’s photo on the wall — she was a cook, who struggled to raise her son — he says, “Paavam! Sediya maramaakki-naale thavira nizhal-ukku kooda odhungama poyitta!”
This florid style of dialogue-writing survived well into the 1980s. Take the line that Padmanabha Iyer says when he realises that his daughter was about to elope with her boyfriend. After discovering her in a railway station, he drags her back home and screams, “Thaththi thavazha vendiya vayasula nadakka aarumbichutte. Adhanaala thaan nadakka vendiya vayasula vazhukki vizha paakkare!” Some version of this sentiment is seen in K Bhagyaraj’s Dhavani Kanavugal (1984), which, incidentally, features Sivaji Ganesan. The Bhagyaraj character is an extra in the films, and he finds himself at the shoot of a scene where a brother who has arranged his sister’s marriage comes home to find that she’s pregnant. The writer is simply not able to write lines that satisfy the director (Bharathiraja, in a cameo). The shoot is cancelled. A little later, Bhagyaraj tells Radhika (another extra) how he’d write the brother’s dialogues: “When you were in the first standard, you got a double promotion and went straight to the third standard. I was happy. Then, at 12, even before you came of age, you started to wear the pavadai-dhavani. Again, I was happy. But now, when you say you are pregnant before marriage…”
So the lines are not really an issue. Despite Balachander 2.0 (who, overnight from Arangetram, became a more ‘cinematic’ filmmaker, compared to the stagey one he’d been earlier), despite Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra and Mahendran, Tamil cinema was still in some sort of Vietnam Veedu mode long after Vietnam Veedu came and went. (What are the Visu films if not Vietnam Veedu, but where the problems are fixed with a splash of comedy!) But Vietnam Veedu itself has not aged well, even with the time-machine you strap yourself into while watching older movies. In other words, even if you accept the pace of the film (the inciting incident doesn’t occur until the halfway mark, until which the screenplay is mostly filler), and even if you are convinced by the the premise of the film (‘Prestige’ Padmanabha Iyer loses his prestige, and finally regains it), it feels false and overwrought.
If you want dynamic father-son theatrics, Gauravam (1973) — directed by ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram himself — does it better. Even today, the emotions hit you like a ton of bricks! If you’re looking for a Sivaji Ganesan acting vehicle, you just need to go back to the earlier decade, to classy melodramas like Uyarndha Manithan (1968) and Motor Sundaram Pillai (1966). In Vietnam Veedu, the great actor showed what a great over-actor he could be — and the success of the film (and the ensuing accolades) ensured that he’d be stuck in this mode for most of this decade and the next one, too. You’d have exceptions, of course, like Mudhal Mariyadhai (1985). But when I think of Sivaji Ganesan in the 1970s and 80s, I recall the paunch, the broad belt bisecting that paunch, the hideous wigs, and the high-pitched performances, which are now the stuff of troll videos and memes. (See clip above.)
This is not to mock the actor, whose work in the 1950s and 60s is often exemplary. He was stylish as hell. He could play Veerapandiya Kattabomman. He could also smoke a cigarette in Santhi (1965) as though making love to it on a velvet bed. So what happened? Vietnam Veedu — today, and at least for me — is a great place to begin looking for Sivaji Ganesan’s transition point from an actor who elevated a scene to someone who needed to keep acting far beyond the requirements of a scene. I realise an older generation may not agree, just as I realise the Kamal Haasan performances from Moondram Pirai and Nayakan may appear similarly overcooked to audiences a few decades from now. Everything is of its time.
But time was moving on in Tamil cinema, and Sivaji Ganesan didn’t catch on. A small bunch of new filmmakers was ushering in subtler ways of storytelling, and even his old ‘Pa’ director Bhim Singh was making films like Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal (1977), from Jayakanthan’s radical story. But Sivaji Ganesan stuck to his regulars, giving one HUGE performance after another. The audience of the time didn’t seem to care. He was still loved. He was still giving blockbusters like Thirisoolam (1979). And there are those that still swear by his performances in films like Vasantha Maaligai. I watched the re-release last year, in a theatre, and the audience hooted and howled as though for a Vijay or Ajith film. He was their Vijay or Ajith. I’ve heard a story about the time he was asked why he overacted so much. He apparently played the same scene very subtly, and said: “It’s not like I cannot do that. It’s just that the audiences want this.” Time hasn’t been kind to this decision, or to Vietnam Veedu.