The Queen & Kamal
Rajitha Kumar and N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras
The queen came, saw and was conquered.
At least, one presumes she was -- the British monarch, in her trademark skirt and hat outfit (blue and white skirt, blue hat) spent 20 minutes at the MGR Film City in Madras, launching Kamal Hassan's Rs 200-million mega project Marudanayagam. And left at the end of that time, en route to the temple town of Kanchipuram via the historically interesting tourist site Mahabalipuram, without any official reaction or comment for the assembled press.
The queen was reportedly desirous of witnessing, during her stay here, a film shooting involving any one of India's top actors -- Kamal Hassan lucked out by becoming the chosen one.
The VVIPs of Madras were on hand to welcome the queen -- who arrived with her entourage, but minus her husband Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Bombay. Kamal Hassan in his 17th century costume, and wife Sarika in a cream sari, performed the ritual Indian welcome of aarti and tilak complete with garlands, then led her to the rather overcrowded dais where the likes of state Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunandhi, Information and Broadcasting Minister S Jaipal Reddy, Tamil Maanila Congress leader G Karuppaiah Moopanar, maverick journalist Cho S Ramaswamy, Tamil cinema's resident icon 'Chevalier' Sivaji Ganesan, Hindi cinema's enduring baddie Amrish Puri, and a stellar line-up of political and celluloid VIPs were on hand to be presented to her.
It was an interesting sight, to see the queen go out of her way to speak a few words to each person she was presented to -- never mind that in most cases, the 'few words' consisted of, 'Oh really? That is interesting!'.
Then came the business of the day -- with Karunanidhi turning on the camera, Moopanar giving the clap and Kamal Hassan, in his capacity of director, calling for action before hopping in front of the camera for the inaugural shot. Which involved him, in the persona of Marudanayagam, a freedom fighter of Robert Clive vintage, hearing and reacting to an imperial announcement read out by veteran character actor Nasser.
Shot complete, Kamal then led the queen over to a multimedia computer installed on the set, and got onto the Internet to show her a special site that he had just set up.
A trailer or, more accurately, a pilot video comprising a battle scene of de Mille-esque proportions, was then shown to the queen on a giant screen. Interestingly, this one scene of a few minutes duration has, we were told, cost Kamal Hassan (who is producing the film under his RajKamal banner, as well as scripting and directing it and playing the lead role) Rs 15 million.
And that, as far as the queen's visit is concerned, was that -- the monarch and her entourage zipped away in their fleet of limousines, and the company got down to the serious business of speechifying.
Obviously, despite the simmering controversies in the background, the speeches of the day were uniformly laudatory of Kamal Hassan and his prestigious project. Karunanidhi called the star the pride of Tamil Nadu (it remains to be seen how well that will go down with fellow superstar Rajnikanth, whose support for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham-Tamil Maanila Kazhagam electoral alliance was one of the main reasons for its victory in the 1996 elections), Sivaji Ganesan called Kamal his kanmani (a literal translation would be 'eyeball', a more figurative one would be 'one who is as precious to me as my eyes'), while AVM's M Saravanan went into affectionate overdrive in calling Kamal 'our boy' -- a reference perhaps to the fact that Kamal's acting debut was under the AVM banner, in the film Kalathur Kannama.
Karunanidhi, in his speech, also saw some significance in the historical coincidences implicit in the date of the function -- to wit, October 16. It was apparently on this date that, way back in time, Marudanayagam was hanged by the British overlords. It was on the same day, too, that Veera Pandya Kattabomman -- a better known Tamil figure from the pages of India's freedom struggle, and for cine buffs, one of Sivaji Ganesan's best known roles -- was hanged to death -- though not, of course, in the same year.
The TN chief minister, thus, appeared to argue that in getting the British queen to launch a film about a Tamil freedom fighter on the very day of this double martyrdom, Kamal had obtained some kind of retrospective triumph over the British empire and, in the process, wiped out a part at least of historic hurt.
In his vote of thanks, Kamal shifted from history to mythology, recalling Ekalavya and talking of how he, like the character from the Mahabharat had watched and learnt all he knew from such eminent 'Dronacharyas' as Karunanidhi, Saravanan, Sivaji Ganesan... anyway, you get the idea.
End of programme. And the beginning of rumour, and not a little brewing controversy.
As of now, the Marudanayagam cast and credits are a long way away from being finalised. Thus far, what is known for certain is that Kamal will produce, script, act and direct. That Ravichandran will handle the camera, and national award winner Sabu Cyril will be in charge of sets. That the supporting casts will include the likes of Om Puri and Nasser. And that's it. At least, officially.
However, sources in the RajKamal camp indicate that Amrish Puri will also play a major role. That the music will be -- wait for this -- a collaborative effort between Ilayaraja, doyen of southside music composers, and no less than Andrew Lloyd Webber of Evita, Cats and suchlike fame. That legendary Carnatic singer M S Subbalakshmi will be singing for the film. That the choreography is in the hands of no less than Birju Maharaj (who, incidentally, was prominent on the dais for the function). That the technical and special effects experts who had assisted in films of the order of Passage to India and Gandhi will play major roles in this film. And so on, and forth.
And so on to controversy. There seems to be a body of opinion inclined to raise eyebrows at the appropriateness of the queen flagging off a project that shows the British empire in bad light -- but that is being generally dismissed as mere quibbling.
The more serious controversy centres around Kamal's choice of subject. The producer-director-star believes -- and said so in his thanksgiving speech -- that Marudanayagam's contributions to the freedom struggle have not been adequately appreciated, that he has not been given his due.
The star in fact believes that Marudanayagam was the pioneer of the freedom struggle, having done his stuff way before the First War of Indian Independence in 1857.
However, history buffs say that going by available records, Marudanayagam was in fact a bit of a turncoat, having been used by his employer the Nawab of Arcot and his British agents to put down rebellions by local chieftains in and around Madurai. Marudanayagam is also believed to have spearheaded the battle against the French, who were out to capture the East India Company's fort in Madras. And that it was only when Marudanayagam got a bit too big that the nawab and the Company instituted reprisals, forcing him to rebel. The rebellion ended in his capture and prompt execution. But, argue the ones holding the history texts, how does all this make him a 'freedom fighter'?
Adding some religious spice to the controversy is the question of just how Marudanayagam was. Kamal -- and some historians -- indicate that he was a Hindu, of the Vellala caste, who later converted to Islam and assumed the name Mohammad Yusuf. A section of Muslims in Tamil Nadu have, however, questioned this, claiming that Yusuf, who in their history books is referred to as 'Khan Saheb', was a Muslim all along and that any wrongful depiction of his role or antecedents will be stoutly opposed.
While that time bomb ticks on, the influential, and volatile, thevar community has now gotten into the act. With the argument that among the local chieftains Marudanayagam suppressed during his stint as the nawab's personal hatchet-man was one Puli Thevar who, thevar leaders say, was resisting the British oppression at the time. To now eulogise Marudanayagam, the community feels, is a gross travesty.
Interestingly, Puli Thevar has in fact been recognised by the TN government as a freedom fighter, and his descendants still draw largesse from the government -- a fact that seems to lend some credence to the Thevar community's arguments.
Kamal, meanwhile, has thus far been ignoring the dissenting voices, and is readying for a lengthy first schedule for the film which is expected to hit the marquee sometime in early 1999. And, incidentally, on British television screens around the same time, given that the BBC has expressed an interest in procuring a dubbed version of the film for simultaneous release on television.