Hold on a second. Let me wipe the sheepish grin from my face. I am quite amused with myself for choosing this topic. The reason is that I was born in June 1981. I have no right to be au fait with the 80s cinema to the extent that I am. But – okay, stop judging me! – I started watching thamizh movies in the theater when I was less than 7 years old! Plus, there were enough movies from the 80s that I caught later on video or TV that I feel like these films were an integral part of my formative years even more than they probably were! In this piece, I am not putting on an analytical hat as much as donning a nostalgic cap. I hope that at least some of these tropes and cliches bring a smile to your face, as you take a trip down your own memory avenues!
Note: I have embedded the videos such that clicking on play will take you to the appropriate place in the video. (Sincere thanks to all the youtube video owners.)
Begin with a bang – The 80s Titles
Much before Mani Ratnam decided that the titles would offer be artfully connected to the subject – a case in point is Revathi’s photos forming the backdrop of the titles in Mouna Raagam- loud flashy psychedelic colors were part and parcel of the title cards. I suppose there were graphics much before Shankar decided to collaborate with computer scientists!
Mike Mohan and Song Suresh – The singing heroes
Make no mistake - they definitely had some acting talent. Especially Suresh – he had a voice that was good enough to later dub for Nagarjuna (Shiva, Ratchagan) and Ajith (Aasai) but think of these two heroes, what come to mind instantly are their lilting romantic blockbuster songs set to tune by The King and sung by Mr. Dulcet Balasubramaniam!
PS: No, Suresh was not called Song Suresh the way Mohan had the ‘Mike’ prefix. That was just my goofiness taking over!
Exhibit 2: Kootathile Kovil Puraa… from Idhaya Kovil
Thamil Vaalga – Radha, Ambika, Nadhiya, et al.
I suppose Tamil cinema has always been flooded with heroines from outside the state. Padmini, Savitri, Saroja Devi were all yesteryear heroines but they all dubbed in their own voice. It was in the 80s with actresses like Radha, Ambika and Nadhiya was the voice artiste coming into prominence. But to their credit, they all lip synced perfectly. They all essayed a variety of roles from those of substance to being eye candy. (In my mind, Saritha was the best non-Tamil speaking actress of this generation. She dubbed for herself too.) Nadhiya shot into prominence with her memorable role in Poove Poochoodava and had a short but spectacular run from the mid to late 80s.
Exhibit 3: Chinna Kuyil Paadum…
Silk and her ilk – the item numbers
What thamizh cinema did to Silk Smitha was a tragedy. A travesty. She was pretty, and could certainly act – remember her role as Thyagarajan’s wife in AlaigaL Oivathillai? Yet she was made to prance around in skimpy clothing and dance to inane but super hit numbers like “Nethu rathiri yamma” (where Kamal was the dancer-in-crime). Supposedly the distributors used to insist on a song featuring her even in the films with top actors. Other ‘glamour girls’ followed in her footsteps but I don’t know if anyone made it as big as she did. (Of course, her real-life suicide was a tragic epilogue to her rags-to-riches-to-rags story.)
There were very few truly melodious numbers picturized on her, the song below being a striking exception.
Exhibit 4: Poove…Ilaya Poove…
No laughing matter – The Comedy Tracks
Comedians may come and comedians may go but Counder will go on forever! It is a testament to the evergreen nature of his comedy sequences that even present day youngsters are familiar with most of his famous punchlines. Though it was Karagattakaran that catapulted him to fame, there were several films in the 80s that had hilarious comedy ‘tracks’ (standalone sequences with a tenuous link to the main story). My favorite, by a mile, is Vaidehi Kaathirundhal.
Exhibit 5: The mantel comedy
Don, men and their den
Henchmen got such a raw deal in thamizh cinema in the 80s! The Peters, Davids and Kaalis were usually tasked with spouting the two most obedient words ever- “Yes Boss.” What’s worse, they probably were sweating profusely while doing this. They had to, in sweltering heat, wear figure-hugging jackets. They had vision problems too – I would too if I had to sport sunglasses in dark dungeons.
Exhibit 6: The 'thagudu thagudu' scene in Kaaki Sattai
Judiciatree – The Panchayat Scene
Did you think that Vijayakumar was the first nattamai in thamizh cinema?! Nope. Courtesy of Bharathiraja and his protégés, there were many judiciary matters resolved under humungous trees!
Exhibit 7: The intermission point of Mundhanai Mudichu
Photo finish – The post-climax group photo
The writers and directors wanted to have the carrot halwa and eat it too. They would kill off a character or write an intense, dramatic climax scene. Yet they wanted the audiences to leave the theater without a heavy feeling lest the masala quotient be diminished. So, what did they do? They would tack on a family photo scene where a character would crack a joke and just to offer a cue to the audience, the others in the scene would start laughing.
Exhibit 8: The final scene of Moondru Mugam