June in 1992 was a totally different time for Tamil cinema. The superstars of today, Vijay and Ajith, hadn’t yet made their debuts as lead actors. AR Rahman’s first film had not hit theaters yet. Fourth-wall breaking wasn’t a regular occurrence. And on the last Friday of that June, there came a film that would not just change the future of Tamil cinema but give birth to trends that would come to be followed even three decades later. It was on that month—27 June, to be specific—that Annamalai hit the screens.
Here, we get director Suresh Krissna and actor Sarath Babu to reminisce on this memorable film.
“We didn’t expect Annamalai to become a generation-defining film. I give my best to every film that I direct, and that was exactly what I did for Annamalai too,” says Suresh Krissna, who expresses astonishment that it has been three decades since his first collaboration with Rajinikanth. This is a sentiment also shared by Sarath Babu, who played the iconic Ashok, Annamalai’s friend-turned-adversary-
Fascinatingly, the legacy of Annamalai has grown with every year. The iconic opening credits for Rajinikanth have come to be emulated by actors across the country. The importance of an opening number in which superstars speak directly to their fans has been well-established. Tea Annamalai model became a template for star vehicles. And of course, the rags-to-riches story, interspersed with moments of style and mass, became its own template.
Ovvoru vidhaiyilum, vruksham olindhulladhae (There is a tree hiding in every seed…)
“Annamalai might give the impression of having been made from a watertight script, but that was hardly the case,” says Suresh Krissna with a hearty laugh. “We started off with just the seed of a script and worked on the screenplay while filming. It is funny in retrospect, but we just winged it at times, and trusted God to take us through the film.” The filmmaker is quick to add that Rajinikanth’s implicit trust in him helped too. Sarath Babu attributes the trust to the all-important KB factor. “We all came from K Balachander’s school of filmmaking, and to know that KB sir trusted Suresh i was enough for us.”
In fact, Suresh Krissna was roped in to direct the film just a couple of days before the film was set to go on floors. “I had just returned from Mumbai after completing a Hindi film, and KB sir asked me to start working on Annamalai.” In fact, Suresh goes on to add that his previous credentials made Rajinikanth a bit skeptical about his credentials. “Before AnnamalaiI had barely met Rajini sir a couple of times, and our first real conversation was on the sets of Annamalai. Considering I was from KB sir’s school and had worked with Kamal Haasan sir on films like Sathya and Indrudu Chandrudu, Rajini sir wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of me. After seeing me direct for the first week, he developed trust and believed that I had the sensibilities that he looked for from a filmmaker entrusted with making Annamalai.”
Paaraigal neenginaal, Odaikillai sangeedham (Success is sweeter when it is hard-earned)
Annamalai is the official remake of the 1987 Hindi film, Khudgarz, even if the Tamil adaptation exudes originality about itself. “It is important to stay true to the basic plot of a remake and yet, make it a completely different film. In the original, Ashok is the ‘hero’, but here, we made changes to the Annamalai character to suit the image of Rajini sir.” The character of Ashok, then, became a bit of a selfless role—apart from Sarath Babu has often played in Rajinikanth films. The actor ascribes his comfort to the real-life friendship the contemporaries shared then. “We came into films at almost the same time. We were all young, and something just clicked, and we were friends in real life. That’s what contributed to the rather realistic portrayal of our friendship on-screen,” says Sarath Babu. “This offscreen friendship and the super-strong story ensured that the audience never saw me as a villain. While I may have done 40-odd films as a hero, I find it gratifying that we are talking about Ashok even after 30 years. Ashok might not be the ‘hero’, but everyone who remembers Annamalai will always remember Ashok. Strong characters always have a long shelf life.”
Suresh Krissna’s directorial legacy owes a lot to the success of Annamalai. “For a young filmmaker like me, who had seemingly unsurmountable odds ahead of me, the only way Vetri became nichayam was with the invisible hand of God. When adversity was piling on, we just plowed on with only one thought: ‘Paathuklaam’.” Pointing out examples, Suresh says, “We initially had permission to shoot the escalator scene for four-five hours, but we only got 30 minutes in the end, and yet, we managed. Now, look at the legacy of that scene. Similarly, I randomly wanted a red car and cows on the hilltop of Ooty for an emotional scene, and voila! a cowherd was taking his cows after grazing, and a guy with a red car had come up to the hills to watch the shooting. After filming that scene, I went to a solitary spot amidst the trees to cry my heart out. The universe came together to bring my vision to life.”
Vervai mazhai sindhaamal, vetri malar poovaadhu (Hard work country… always)
Suresh Krissna still remains awed by how the rest of the Annamalai star cast trusted him, including actors like Khushbu, Radha Ravi, Manorama, Rekha, Nizhalgal Ravi, Janakaraj, and Tiger Prabhakar. “Back during the day, actors automatically respected filmmakers, and trusted in their vision.” And once again, this is a sentiment that is echoed by Sarath Babu, who says, “We were just Ashok, Annamalai, Subbu, Panchu, Gangadharan, Sargunam… We all played roles that were older than us. We were in an electrifying atmosphere because the story was so strong. And that is what matters at the end of the day. For instance, even when returning from schedule breaks, we didn’t need to be reminded of our scenes or the emotions. Today, generations of people recognize me as Ashok. They watch this film on TV every single time it gets played!”
Having seen success with his previous films, Suresh Krissna today is able to acknowledge the difference in the degree of success between those films and Annamalai. “I remember watching Annamalai on the fourth or fifth day at Maris Theatre, Trichy, and the fans garlanded me and lifted me on their shoulders and carried me till the entrance. It was euphoric to deliver a film that charged up the fans to this extent,” says the filmmaker, who ensured that these fans got their paisa vasol moment right from the first frame when he envisioned the now-iconic ‘SUPERSTAR RAJNI’ opening credits. “Over the time I spent with Rajini sir, I understood why he is so loved by people. I too became a fan of the Superstar and wanted to do something to express my adulation for him. Rajini sir was not interested, and he was only at KB sir’s insistence that he relented. Deva sir’s magic and editor Ganesh Kumar’s persistence got us those iconic james bond-inspired opening credits. The first time Rajini sir saw the letters whoosh past him, he had goosebumps. We knew we had a winner in our hands, but what we didn’t know was how this would become a symbol of Rajini sir’s legacy.”
Vetri nichchayam, idhu vedha sathiyam (Success is inevitable)
Not every actor becomes a hero, not every hero becomes a star, not every star becomes a superstar, not every superstar becomes a demi-god, and most importantly, not every demi-god becomes Rajinikanth. To paraphrase a quote from his dear friend Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan“Adhukkellaam vidhai… Annamalai pottadhu…”
Happy 30, Annamalai.