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How Tamil Cinema’s Sudhakar, Vijayan, Chandrasekhar, Shankar and T.Rajendar Transformed Northern Youths Into “Manmathans” in the Eyes of Jaffna “Rathis”

By

Anuja Prakash

It’s hard to believe that I was only 8 years old at the time. But a child is observant. Children are also curious. That’s what makes parents nervous.

My uncle was visiting with his family from the UK. In those days, families couldn’t fly back home every year. So every visit was celebrated gloriously. It wasn’t just a family affair. Households and tiny villages celebrated the return of their prodigal son or daughter. The most faithful local hiring car (taxi service) was enlisted pretty much for the entire stay. Visits near and far were planned, along with fun trips to the temple, beach, park and of course the cinema.

It was 1979. My uncle, being still young, decided to take in the latest Tamil movie that had hit the theatres. I was the youngest of all his nieces and nephews. Most times the younger children were kicked out of the group that went to the movies. But my very kind and ‘feeling very happy’ uncle decided that every single person in the family should make it to the movies. Yes!

And so I remember one of my first movies – “Niram maaraathe pookal”. I didn’t know at the time, how this movie would be the beginning of a revolution on our streets.

The movie centered around two couples. Two heroes – Sudharkar and Vijayan. Two heroines – Radhika and Rati Agnihotri. I didn’t like one of the heroes. I actually think I didn’t like both of them at the time. Suthakar was just too feminine. Didn’t fit the mold of a big and strong hero. So it happened that the real hero of this hit movie turned out to be Vijayan.

Vijayan was like no hero before him. He was far from the likes of MGR, Sivaji Ganeshan, Gemini Ganesan, Muthuraaman, Rajnikanth and Kamal hasan. Of these men before him, Rajnikanth was perhaps the villain turned hero who came close to rising out of nowhere but he had style and physique. He strutted on the big screen with half of the shirt buttons undone. He oozed masculinity. Kamal hasan was scrawny but fair skinned and good looking. He brought outright sensuality.

Vijayan was paired with the gorgeous Rati Agnihotri in the movie. There was nothing outstanding about him. His character was an alcoholic and a loser in the movie. He had long hair, combed to one side and tucked behind his ears. His thick glasses sat on a frame that covered half of his face. In all fairness to an 8 year old’s memory, he wasn’t attractive as a film hero. Tight white bell-bottom pants and tight white shirt with buttons undone revealed a not so sexy chest and a small pot belly. His voice sounded horrible. (Now I know director Bharathiraaja dubbed for him.)

But unattractive, loser Vijayan created a revolution. The next couple of years saw the rise of heroes in Tamil cinema that didn’t fit the mold of heroes at all. It also caused the emergence of local heroes in my town, Thinnevely, and all around Jaffna. Boys that had no hope till then, boys with their thick glasses, referred to in Tamil as ‘Sodaputti kannadi’, sesame oil drenched black hair that was now vigorously brushed and stretched long behind the ears; boys that used to not look up at all when they cycled on the road, their lack of self-confidence evident in the way they pedalled their bicycles, stumbling on the pedal if they accidentally happened to look up. All these boys now had hope on the prettiest girls in town; at tuition classes. These ‘Vijayan’ lookalikes, got a life. They got more than a life. They got noticed! It didn’t matter anymore that they were the weakest in class, slowest on the road, struggling when pumping air in to their bicycle tires. They were the new heroes.

I remember one from my own small town. He got the courage to go after one of the prettiest girls in our area. He truly believed in his hero looks. He didn’t give up for a long time. He pursued one beauty after another. All the Rati Agnihotris of Thinnevely, all the Radhikas and all the Cleopatras. He maintained the Vijayan look through it all. I do not remember if he eventually became an alcoholic or a villain, but I think he did quite alright.

Vijayan was soon followed by the likes of Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar romanced Suhasni in another hit movie called “Paalaivana cholai” that came out in 1981. Thus the slightly sluggish looking, thick-lipped Vijayan was over thrown by a rather skinny, slim waist hero with a new hair-do. He had a head full of curly hair, in waves. The new loser, I mean, hero, actually looked like a typical Jaffna Tamil boy. He was dark-skinned in a sun burnt way, chest caved in, gaunt looking in a beard though he also looked wiry in some ways. He was also a loser in most movies, but he was progressive and hopeful. His characters in movies reflected the educated, or philosophical loser. In the movie “Palaivana cholai”, there is a song called ‘Megame, megame’. In between that song, Suhasni stops singing abruptly and wonders why their relationship should move past that of a strong friendship and Chandrasekhar replies, “athai neeyo, naano mudivu seivathillai” – that is not up to us to determine.

So now all eyes turned to the students at the Jaffna campus (university). They were the new Chandrasekhars. Around that time, young men in the north began to sound revolutionary. Unkempt appearance reflected intellectuality. Checked (plaid) shirts with sleeves slightly folded to hide slim, long arms were in. Bell-bottoms were still the thing. Girls chose to ride along Sivan kovil road that connected Nallur to Thinnevely and cycle along Palaly road passing the university junction all the way to Thinnevely, Kokuvil or Kondavil, the route that housed most of the university students. Evenings were ideal as flocks of serious looking Chandrasekhars, silhouetted against dusk time, cycled along Palaly road, looking confident, holding hefty books in one hand that rested on their thigh while the other held the cycle handle. If you happened to catch their eyes, they looked at you long and boldly. Tuition centres cropped up along this stretch. Some university students also started teaching privately, to earn extra. Quite a few of them ended in marriages and the parents didn’t mind an educated groom for their daughter. Some Chandrasekhars won.

I remember this time as also when caste and class system in Jaffna perhaps began to be questioned amongst the youngsters. It was a time of agitation against existing discriminations. University students were emerging as a force, our local heroes.

But that didn’t mean in this period the quieter young men withered in humid, smoke-filled kitchens of their homes, brooding silently, wishing for their own super hero to emerge. I remember my sister, the mighty Cleopatra, having sleepless nights over this 1980 ‘sleeper-hit’ called “Oru thalai raagam”. Shankar and Rupa, the lead pair, filled the screen for over 2hrs without saying as much as 5-10 sentences. They occasionally looked side-ways at each other, or looked down at their feet. And so it became the most powerful medium of spoken-love in Jaffna, desires not spoken at all.

This expression probably lasted a whole decade, until the time I myself grew out of my teens. Shankar was the perfect student, perfect son. In appearance he was better-looking than Vijayan and Chandrasekhar. But his character had zero confidence on-screen, relying on his lady-love to make the first move, subtly hinting through song and monosyllables. She loved him deeply but was bound by tradition and family commitments.

Tuition centers in Jaffna had ample stock of front-row Shankars in the 1980s – they hardly lifted their head to look around, and broke out in a sweat if they happened to briefly glance towards the girls section. The quiet beauties of Jaffna saw many a Rupa, multiplying during this decade, silently suffering as young men began to slip away cloaked under the tropical darkness of the night. They harboured feelings that died without ever being shared. Their eyes spoke, and the Shankars of Jaffna stayed mute. I wonder if their play lists today still echo the forlorn lamenting of T. Rajendar’s hit songs from that movie.

And Cleopatra, seeing all of this, cried herself to sleep through her early teens.

July 1983 – our lives changed forever.

Young Tamil men, heroes and losers, all of their future changed overnight. Nothing would be the same again. All the remaining Vijayans left the country through Asia and Europe; All the Chandrasekhars went missing from our streets; All the Shankars were smuggled out of the country for higher studies in UK or the USA. Cinema became an illusion without hopes or dreams. Reality was too painful. The power of Sacrifice – it dominated and defined the Sri Lankan Tamils from then onwards.

In the depths of hopeless cinema, there was change too. One man stood out for his unique appearance, but garnered attention for his multi-faceted talents. He wrote dialogue and lyrics, he composed music and sang in his movies, he directed them and produced some and, he acted in most of them. To his credit, he brought new talent on board, introducing the likes of Amala and Nalini, all of whom are still contributing to the arts. This man, T. Rajendar, proved his might in the midst of super stars like Rajnikanth and Kamal hasan.

Rajendar’s hit movies were mostly made around 1980-1987, with the majority of them in 1986-87. His movie heroes portrayed the role of the loyal son, brother and lover. The hero most times made the ultimate sacrifice, for the sake of his mother or sister or lover. He very much owned this ‘sacrificial hero’ title, though Bhagyaraj and some other heroes later played similar roles they eventually had happy endings, unlike the characters Rajendar portrayed.

So it happened, the T. Rajendars of the north, came back on very short holidays from the gulf countries, mainly from Saudi Arabia. Sometimes for a week or two, or a few days, a month at the most. The elder brother, the work horse, the sacrificial lamb. He who built the house for his parents, furnished with fridge and colour TV, VCR. He who sent money for the younger brothers to be smuggled out of the island. He who sent the dowry for each of his sisters to be married ‘abroad’. He who worked and waited to fulfill all his obligations, and came home with grey hairs showing around his temples. Parents of the north no longer looked for handsome grooms and educated bachelors. They valued the T. Rajendars for their daughters. They saw loyalty, commitment, hard work and responsibility. They didn’t mind the age gap. They didn’t mind that physical attractiveness was long lost on most of them. Sacrifice and safety, these were two very meaningful words for Sri Lankan Tamils in that period. The safety of their daughters lay at the mercy of these men, who had sacrificed and therefore, risen above all their faults, like T. Rajendar’s characters in his movies.

I remember attending few such weddings in Jaffna during that time. Lesson learned as a young teenager. The heroes of our dreams became phantoms, far removed from our reach, destinations unknown. There was respect for the Rajendars and I wondered if sacrifices were rewarded richly, for in my young eyes, Rajendards were blessed with Amalas and Nalinis and Jyothis of Jaffna. I tried in vain to justify this step-down from Kamal hasan. I searched every aspect of the new groom to elevate him to the beauty he was betrothed to. I fervently read Charlotte Bronte’s classics.

I also remember the few local Rajendars, middle-aged men who ran family businesses because they hadn’t secured a way out of the country or they couldn’t leave their aging parents. They were better off staying back. And Rajendar gave them life! Proposals came their way, despite the slight pouch at the waist and the lack of style, they were good men. So I watched them all happily get married, shy smiles widen on their faces. Despite the tribulation around us, we had reason to celebrate.

Thus my teenage years went by in war-torn Jaffna, my 80s local heroes all stayed in my memories, the Vijayans, Sudharkars, Chandrasekhars, Shankars, T. Rajendars and many more, for all of whom a tribute now was aptly due.

Courtesy:The Social Weaver