The recent passing away of director K Subaash (Chathriyan, Ezhaiyin Siripil, Sabash and others) made me go on a youtube binge of scenes from some of his films. As I was watching clips from a few of his films – most notably, Kaliyugam, which led to my writing this piece – I realized that I was not fast-forwarding some of the action sequences. It dawned on me that there were two reasons for this – one was that the action sequences looked surprisingly slick for their time and had aged a lot better than I thought they would. And secondly, and this was important to me, the stunts seemed real. None of the unnecessarily rope-induced acts of gravity defiance. None of those computer effects that sometimes make the stunts look more like video game effects these days. They were just supremely well-choreographed and you got a sense of space, movement and more importantly, emotion. I say emotion because my mind went back to what Mani Ratnam once said about not shooting his song sequences outside India (in response to a question from Baradwaj Rangan). He talked about how songs, to start with, stand outside the story to an extent. To further transport – literally, I suppose! – the characters to alien lands would mean that the audience was being pulled further away from the milieu of the story. One could apply Ratnam’s logic to stunt sequences too – they are an accepted part of the grammar of Indian cinema. Grammar, by its nature, has boundaries. And, to the extent to which the boundaries are respected even as directors and stunt choreographers utilize modern technologies, the more arresting the stunts will be. So, without further ado, let me list a few action sequences from thamizh movies that I have really enjoyed over the years.
The underground sequence in Kaliyugam:
As mentioned above, one of the sequences that I had remembered from the Prabhu-Raghuvaran starrer Kaliyugam, more than two decades after I had seen it, was the stunt sequence in the underground tunnel, choreographed by the late Vikram Dharma. The lens work by YN Murali is quite stunning here, especially the moments where the theepandham is the sole source of light. Prabhu, for all his girth, is surprisingly quick with his movements and matches the stuntman (Ponnambalam?) for skill and agility.
Watch from the 1 hr 10 min point:
The Rajnikanth introduction scene in Thalapathi:
At the time of its release, Thalapathi was accused of featuring gratuitous violence. While that point could certainly be debated, what, to me, is hard to debate is the actual quality of the action scenes and their value as a storytelling tool. Rajnikanth’s introduction in this fight sequence in the rain was raw and brutal. The fact that the murder of the henchman comes back to haunt him later is a reason why this setup, where his rage is unleashed, is so important.
Watch from the 1:58 min point:
The climactic fight sequence of Thevar Magan:
Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam were probably the two people most responsible (or guilty, depending on how you look at it) for bringing bloody, realistic violence to tamil cinema with their Nayagan. Instead of choosing something from Nayagan, I wanted to choose this scene from Thevar Magan because I truly believe that Nayagan just marked the start of a period where Kamal went from strength to strength, exploring frontier after unexplored frontier in various facets of cinema. When it comes to action sequences, Kamal has been – and, not entirely unjustifiably – accused of just coming across as masochistic and bloody for the sake of it. But if you observe keenly, a lot of his stunt sequences do come with a sense of purpose. And, no better example of that than the climax of Thevar Magan. Just the sheer dynamics of it are awe-inspiring – the protagonist that just doesn’t want to fight versus a villain whose bloodlust has consumed him. This is brought out in gripping fashion by the action choreographer (Vikram Dharma, again) and the cinematographer (PC Sreeram).
Watch from the 2:30 min point:
The opening sequence of Gentleman:
The year 1993 witnessed two of the most stunning action spectacles to grace thamizh cinema. One was Thiruda Thiruda and the other was Gentleman. Both these films featured brilliantly shot sequences on a train. But I picked the sequence from Gentleman because the build-up to it (with the jeep chase) features some intelligent maneuvers and some scintillating background music by ARR - the score when Arjun takes off his beard is fantastic. Though this scene does have some gravity-defying moments like Arjun’s jeep flying over the train (yes, you read that right!), it is still a fine exhibition of perfect masala movie action that requires just a little bit – not dollops – of suspension of disbelief. What makes it even more impressive is that this grand sequence is what opens the movie. What a start for Shankar, the director, who made his debut with this movie. Wish he had retained his sensible instincts (with respect to action) from this movie and had respected the laws of gravity a little more in his latter movies! (Remember the ridiculous flying cars in the Prarthana theatre sequence in Sivaji?!)
Watch from the 5:40 min point:
The pre-intermission sequence of Baasha:
Rajnikanth once joked in an interview that he had a tough time understanding Mani Ratnam (while making Thalapathi) since the latter wanted him to showcase certain emotions even during the fight sequences. The intermission sequence of Baasha shows that whatever lessons Rajni may have learned from Ratnam certainly stuck! Because he is at the peak of his powers not only as a star but also as a forceful actor, bringing out the hitherto unseen (to his family and to us in the audience) side of the don. Simple lines like “Ulley Po” have become the stuff of legends! If you notice, the actual stunts themselves aren’t exactly novel but the sound design (my favorite being the train sounds that accompany Yuvarani’s stunned expression) and the cinematography (by the late PS Prakash) add to the amazing visceral impact.
Watch from the 1:40 min point:
The martial arts sequence in Anniyan:
I reckon that to fans of Shankar’s early work, Anniyan featured the best of him as well as the worst. While the crux of the story held intrigue and his usual commercial elements – especially the rollicking comedy by Vivek – were intact, one could argue that it was with this movie that Shankar started to take steps and then eventually, leaps out of the bounds of realism and even basic cinematic logic and started relying increasingly on visual splendor. While Anniyan contained some outlandish ideas (especially the huge conference that Anniyan assembles), one sequence stood out for me – the stunt sequence at the martial arts facility. Sure, he did include some over-the-top Matrix style effects but the hand-to-hand combat is stunning and even the time-freeze cinematography is used imaginatively without being overdone. My favorite moment was where the camera freezes mid-air and circles around Vikram and Sadha – not exactly the kind of realism that I crave but then again, with a Shankar film, I was thankful that with this sequence Shankar tried at least a little to rein in the urge to behave like a computer geek that had taken over Lucasfilm!
This video contains the entire sequence but my favorite part is the mano a mano duel at the 4:40 min point:
I sincerely hope that as filmmakers try to expand their vistas and break global boundaries (like "Kaaka Muttai" and "Visaranai" did recently) that action sequences are placed strategically within the framework of the movie and play out at a pitch that is not incongruous with the rest of the movie. Why not have special effects in service of the stunts that, in turn, move the story forward? The combination of realism and emotion-driven stunts would indeed be the most potent one-two punch that discerning movie goers would crave!