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December 12, 1997


V Gangadhar

Through the looking glass

A collage of black and white film stars We now have the police commissioner's office in the open space in front of our home. No, it is not the genuine one, but part of a film set. Made from plaster of Paris and wood, the set looks impressive and is being used for a film which has popular heartthrob, Shahrukh Khan in the lead. Everyday, huge crowds assemble at the site to have a darshan of the film stars.

Many of my neighbours spent long hours outside the 'police commissioner's office' to watch the shooting and, if possible, collect autographs from Shahrukh Khan and his co-star, Jackie Shroff. The heroine had not turned up so far. Perhaps she was not needed for these particular shots. There was enough drama when the expensive and elaborate sets were put up. One section collapsed, resulting in the death of a worker. Ambulances and fire engines raced to the spot. We all thought it was part of the film shooting and only learnt much later that the death was real, not filmi.

The shooting is likely to last a week. Perhaps, this could be the only opportunity for me to have a look at Shahrukh Khan and Jackie Shroff from close quarters. Some of my neighbours even invited their relatives and friends to come and watch the shooting in the hot sun. I doubt if I will follow their example. Film heroes, these days, bore me.

Perhaps, this is the result of age and wisdom. In my younger days, I indulged in more than my fair share of hero worship. We did not watch many movies in those days; it was difficult to convince father and other elders in the family that films were meant to entertain, not corrupt our morals. Occasionally, father relented (once a month or so) and we all trooped to the makeshift tents which screened the long, song-laden, melodramatic Tamil movies.

Oh, I had my heroes those days! T R Mahalingam, for instance. He was one of the leading romantic heroes and, according to me, the handsomest young man on earth. Mahalingam, like other heroes of his age, sang his own songs, some of which became the rage of the town. Normally, the old Tamil films had about 25 to 30 songs, mostly in dance dramas which had nothing to do with the main plot.

Mahalingam acted in mythological (Sri Valli), social (Naam Iruvar) and fantasy films like Vedala Ulagam which was supposed to be located in demon land.

Some months ago, when we watched Mahalingam's films on the video, I told my wife and daughters that he was my boyhood hero. They were quite astonished. "Oh, look at his clothes, his hairstyle! And why does he burst into song so often?" they asked.

But then, Mahalingam was only following the fashion of those days, which included glittering costumes. The hair was long and was plastered down. The songs, of course, were appreciated by the audience. After nearly five decades, I can still hum numbers from films like Adithan Kanavu (Adithan's dream) where Mahalingam sang popular songs, one of which extolled the virtues of paal gova (a popular sweet made from milk).

When T R Mahalingam died somewhere during the late 1970s, I wrote a tribute to him. The Times of India refused to publish the article on the grounds that Mahalingam was not a national figure. It was then published by a Calcutta-based magazine. The response was satisfactory. More than 20 readers wrote to the editor, appreciating the tribute to the great Tamil hero.

If Mahalingam was a romantic hero, M K Radha was the action-oriented one. Under contract to Gemini studios in Madras, he appeared in dozens of box office hits including the blockbuster, Chandralekha and Apoorva Sahodarargal, which was an adaptation of Alexander Dumas' Corsican Brothers and one of the most expensive films ever made in India. Radha had swashbuckling roles in these films and, as a boy, I remember staging similar mock fights with my friends. We used to cut branches from trees and made makeshift swords from them.

Unfortunately, I never met Mahalingam in real life. But one of my childhood ambitions was realised when I met and talked to M K Radha while doing an article on the late Gemini boss, S S Vasan. When I met Radha, my disappointment was keen. The flamboyant hero of my boyhood was bent with age and had lost most of his hair. But my disappointment faded as we talked. It was exciting to discuss the making of such epics as Chandralekha and the Gemini film on the famous Tamil poetess, Avvaiyar. Radha was articulate and talked animatedly about an age when movie making was not governed by greed.

I think it is better to meet one's heroes when they are in their prime. During the past few years, I have interviewed a number of few great film stars from the earlier eras. Whenever I went to meet them, I had images of handsome, young men and attractive women in my mind. But the passage of time has been cruel. Begum Para, the 'sex bomb' of my time is now bloated and sickly. Shyama, another beauty of yesteryears, has suffered a similar fate. The menacing screen villain, K N Singh, is blind while Bhagwan Dada, who produced that immortal musical, Albela, is living in poverty in a dirty Bombay slum. Producer-director Hrishikesh Mukherjee who had, in his heyday, given us memorable films like Anand, Anupama and Chupke Chupke is laid up with gout and back trouble.

Come to think of it, it is not been a good idea to come face to face with my heroes in their old age. So I've decided to watch Shahrukh Khan in action. Especially since he is available right in front of my flat.

Collage: Dominic Xavier

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V Gangadhar