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    Ravi Barnard was Sun TV's answer to Tim 'Hard Talk' Sebastian.
    Top notch television interviewer, with a probing style and a capacity to cut through the crap his subjects sometimes spewed out, and politely, but firmly, persist with his question till he got a relevant answer.
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    During one such interview, the person at the receiving end, squirming under the heat, burst out, "It is easy for you to sit there and ask questions. You try sitting in my chair and doing what I have to do, and you will find out soon enough the difference between criticising and actually getting something done."

    Watching that programme, that day, was Shankar, the hotshot director who, at the time of writing, has the enviable record of making five films -- three certified hits (Gentleman, Kadalan, Indian), one okay-ish money spinner (Jeans) and one film zooming in on hit status (Mudalvan, now running).

    The incident set Shankar thinking. And when he got thinking done, he had the storyline of his next film in place -- Mudalvan, to give it a name.

    Arjun plays the reporter. Raghuvaran plays a venal, my-seat-first-and-the-devil-take-the-rest chief minister who agrees to being interviewed, live -- and finds himself squirming as fact after fact is brought forward to demolish his facade of a people-friendly head of government.

    Finally, Raghuvaran bursts out: "You can talk -- try sitting in my chair, if you have the guts, and find out how hard it is!"

    "I had no other way out," the chief minister later explains to his outraged party colleagues, "I was looking like a fool, our popularity would have gone way down if I hadn't hit back."

    Arjun sweats for a bit -- and then, out of sheer helplessness, picks up the gauntlet. For 24 hours, he will play chief minister. Which is not as improbable a scenario as it sounds -- ask Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi. All Raghuvaran has to do is give the governor two letters, the first is his resignation, the second a letter naming Arjun as his successor as leader of the largest party in the Assembly.

    That is the platform, on which Shankar builds his latest. Raghuvaran tells his party colleagues that it takes months to understand the ramifications of administration -- ergo, there is no way anyone can make a difference in just one day.

    Arjun has other ideas. Acting from the gut level instinct that characterises the common man, he targets corruption. Every pending file of corruption case involving public servants is called for -- and sight unseen, Arjun orders that every official with a case pending against his name be forthwith suspended.

    Then he goes to the public, via a hotline, for an hour. Citizens call in with problems, he solves them on the spot. Problems of eve-teasing at a local college, and slum dwellers who have been allotted flats but haven't been able to occupy them, are similarly solved with quick strokes of the pen -- and, in the former case, with his fists.

    With just one hour to go for his term to expire, Arjun cuts the ultimate Gordian knot. Why has corruption been allowed to flourish? Because the corrupt are patronised by the ministers. He tells his cops, arrest all ministers. And finally, he lands up with a warrant for Raghuvaran's own arrest.

    "No can do," the chief minister gloatingly tells him, "to arrest a CM takes an order from the governor."

    "Can do," Arjun ripostes, "you forgot that you have resigned as CM, and are now just an ordinary citizen."

    What follows is a re-election. And a mass clamour for the one-day-CM, as Arjun becomes known, to take on the job on a permanent basis. Which, in turn, sparks in Raghuvaran and his mates, a desire for revenge. And so the story unfolds to a logical conclusion.

    "I am," says Shankar in unabashed fashion, "a middle-class person. And the movie-maker in me is also a middle class person, with middle-class values. Mine are middle-class movies. Though they talk so much about the huge budgets of my films, the final result is a very middle-class view of the world I am dealing with."

    Mudalvan is an example in point. It is a middle-class dream, born out of middle-class frustrations, to be able, for once, to be top dog, to take charge of the world, to re-order it along a more simplistic, eminently workable fashion.

    Shankar's movies work because he is dealing with a character he knows best -- himself. The passions that imbue his lead character are his own passions, the angst his own. A typical example is the scene where a student boards a bus at a traffic signal, gets into an altercation with the bus driver, and before you can spell the word, you have a full-blown race riot on your hands.

    And yet, when you discuss a Shankar movie, the first point that occurs to you is his scope, scale and budget. Shankar's movies bear a huge price tag -- and a good bit of that money goes into his song picturisations. It is typical of the man and his style, though, that they don't stand out, but blend seamlessly into the story.

    The Shak-a-lak-a baby number, featuring Sushmita Sen in a dance-only appearance, is a classic example. The song itself is used as an establishing sequence to tell you what the hero, Arjun ,does for a living. A professional videographer, his assignment of the day is to shoot that particular song video.

    Sung by Vasundhara Das, who interestingly plays a major character in Kamal Haasan's Hey! Ram, the song has been spectacularly picturised by K V Anand to A R Rahman's music and Vairamuthu's lyrics. "In a Spike Lee film called Clockers, there is this technique used, called cross-process. It involves what we call a negative bath. In the film, it was used to depict a drug-addict's vision. I liked the technique, here we used it to give an added dimension to the dance, and to Sushmita's beauty," says Anand.

    Another song -- Kurukku sirithavale -- which is used to delineate the growing romance between Arjun and Manisha Koirala, has the lyricist, Vairamuthu, using the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether to depict the different shades of love. Each set of lyrics has been shot against that particular element, and again, the results are spectacular.

    Shankar, for his debut production under his S Films banner (R Madesh co-producing) has, as always, taken responsibility for story, script and screenplay besides direction. "I like working to my own stories, rather than directing someone else's," says Shankar.

    Arjun and Manisha head the star cast. The former starred in Shankar's directorial debut, Gentleman, while Manisha's earlier outing with Shankar was Indian. Raghuvaran plays the other major character, of the villainish chief minister. Rahman's music, Vairamuthu's lyrics and the cinematography of K V Anand (who, you will recall, won a national award for his very first film) are the other highlights.

    Interestingly, there was some talk that if Mudalvan became a hit -- which it has, in Tamil, Telugu and even in Kerala -- it would be remade in Hindi.

    A M Rathnam, who bought the distribution rights for the Telugu version, was reportedly keen on producing the Hindi version. For commercial reasons, the idea was to have Shah Rukh Khan heading the cast. The reigning superstar was ready to give all the required dates, in bulk (Shah Rukh is in fact understood to have told Shankar that he would like to work in a film under the latter's direction, and will gladly give bulk dates at any point, that all Shankar has to do is ask).

    Last heard from, the director is not willing to remake his film in Hindi, however. Sources in the Shankar camp indicate that what he is balking at the choice of hero.

    According to these sources, Shankar's view is that a star of Shah Rukh's stature does not fit the requirements, because his presence will overshadow the actual character he is playing. And Mudalvan, Shankar believes, works because in the lead character, the predominantly middle-class audiences that make a film a hit can see, relate to, and identify with their own selves.


    The war within

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