The film industry is on an ongoing -- and increasingly desperate -- search for box office gold, in the form of a 'winning formula'.

Meanwhile, one director has, almost unnoticed, apparently hit the mother-lode with four superhits, and one commercial success, in his first five films.

Could Shankar be the answer? Or is he, as one southern superstar recently told me, merely a 'false messiah'?

To understand that, you need to take Shankar's films apart and put them back together to find out the ticking heart of his art. Consider, then, the kernel of each of his movies in sequence:


The director's debut was built around a fact of academic life -- reservation of seats in professional colleges.

The arguments in favour are well-known: the backward classes, too long given short shrift, need to be uplifted and the best way to do that is by giving them preferential treatment in educational institutions.

Shankar, however, stepped back a pace and looked at the picture from another angle, asked another question. If, he asked, a 'backward' student getting 35 per cent marks is automatically entitled to a seat in say a medical college, who suffers?

The answer, he realised, is the 'forward' class student who, with 98 per cent or more marks against his name, fails to get admission. This dichotomy, and the resulting angst, triggered Gentleman.

The upshot?

When Shankar found himself in a Brahmin-dominated interior Tamil Nadu town recently, he was surprised to find the locals receiving him with garlands and with aartis, clamouring for his autographs, photographs, and elevating him to icondom by a community that saw him as the only person who had, thus far, managed to understand their feelings, their anguish.


"I am an ordinary-looking fellow, lots of us are. When you are in college, this ordinariness can be a burden -- being young, you naturally dream of being loved by the prettiest girl in class. But, at the same time, you know that your looks weigh against you.

When you are older, more mature, you realise that love is not about good looks alone, but for the young, ordinary looks can be a terrible burden," Shankar once said, while explaining the kernel of this Prabhu Deva-starrer.

The film touched a nerve among the youthful audience -- and they reciprocated by giving Shankar his second successive superhit.


The Kamal Hassan-Manisha Koirala-Urmila Matondkar starrer (dubbed in Hindi as Hindustani) completed the hat-trick.

For this one, Shankar swung to the other extreme of the age spectrum -- advanced middle age. This time round, his eye hit on those who, in their youth, had taken part in India's struggle for freedom, who had gone on to make careers in Independent India and who, in the evening of their lives, looked around at the callousness, the corruption, the sheer uncaring that had pervaded all elements of polity and society, and who asked themselves, "Is this the freedom I fought for? Is this why I abandoned my home and loved ones, why I put my life at risk? Did I help free India from the British, only to see it raped on the altar of greed?'

Around this thought, this feeling, Shankar built the story of a one-time freedom fighter who, disgusted beyond bearing by rampant corruption, turns cold-blooded vigilante.


This one was the aberration -- a comedy caper revolving around twins.

Two Prashanths. Two Aishwarya Rais (albeit one of these was merely a virtual twin, a concoction). Two Nassers. Too much!

Though the film was a commercial success in Tamil Nadu and a superhit in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the industry perceived it as a failure -- because, for the first time, Shankar had failed to touch an emotive nerve in his audience, he had failed to push the right buttons and, therefore, while the film was seen and its comedy enjoyed, it failed to create the kind of lasting impression his three earlier films had done in the minds of his audience.


With his fourth outing, Shankar went back to what he knew best -- finding the right buttons to push.

Once, while discussing his art, the director -- who insists, incidentally, that he will direct only his own stories, that he will never be a hired gun fronting someone else's creativity -- said, "For me, it all starts with one little thought, or one question. I am essentially a middle-class man.

"Today I am successful, I've earned a lot of money, but somehow, I am still middle-class -- if not in terms of bank balance, then definitely in terms of my mind set.

"And as a middle-class man, I ask myself middle-class questions. Out of the questions I ask myself, are born the stories I tell."

Mudhalvan was no different -- in this, Shankar is Everyman.

The Everyman who goes to a hospital and is shocked by the apathy of doctors who do not care a fig for non-paying patients, the Everyman who enters a police station to file a complaint about a small loss and finds that the cop couldn't care less, the Everyman who stands helplessly by while his sister, his daughter, is abused and manhandled by goons operating under political license.

And, finally, the Everyman who, out of the depths of his frustration, tells himself, "I wish... I only wish... that for one day, I could have the power, I would then teach these bastards a lesson they will never forget."

That is Everyman's dream -- and in Mudhalvan (now released in the remade Hindi version as Nayak), Shankar took that dream and dreamed it on the big screen, large as life and twice as natural.

Part II