Kalai Arasi (1963)

Kalai Arasi

Post Tik Tik Tik, I’d read a few articles that mentioned Kalai Arasi, which may have a better claim to the title of Tamil cinema’s first space film. Kalai Arasi was released in 1963 and features M.G.Ramachandran, P. Bhanumathi and Rajasree in an adventure that does indeed go to the stars and back (even if the stars look suspiciously like the inside of a film studio). There are some excellent ideas here and good special effects, especially considering the age of the film, but what make it worth watching is a well-told story that ties everything up into a satisfying conclusion by the end. It’s definitely a simpler time as no-one seems to worry about why the aliens all speak Tamil so well, or why they decide to target India either. However with the charming Bhanumathi and MGR in double roles, all you need to do is sit back and watch the space ships fly through the sky and death rays blow stuff up! Note: Kalai Arasi is available on YT, although a number of scenes appear to be missing (in both available versions although the one with the most annoying water mark has 3 more minutes), the quality is poor and of course there are no subtitles, but it’s still watchable and lots of fun.

The film starts with farmer Mohan (MGR) singing on a bullock cart with his sister as they wend their way back home. They come across Vaani (P. Bhanumathi) and her friends whose car has broken down, mainly because Vaani drove it into a pot-hole and ran out of petrol. Needless to say, Mohan is all over the rescue, and it turns out that the pair are already a couple, although all is not plain sailing since Mohan is a poor farmer and Vaani is the daughter of a rich man. Worse still, her father is trying to marry Vaani to her cousin Kannan (P.S. Veerappa) a nasty man with anger management issues, but at least Vaani seems able to cope. There’s a cute scene where she pretends to faint after he shouts at her, and then winks at her maid to let her know she is really OK. Vaani has plenty of personality, and also a great voice which turns out to be her downfall.

A wandering spaceship, on the lookout for musicians to kidnap and take back to their planet happens to see Vaani on their TV surveillance instrument. The leader of the expedition, Thinna (M.N.Nambiar) and pilot Malla decide she is exactly what their planet needs and head off to kidnap Vaani.  On the way they use their ray guns to explode a bear that attacks, emphasising they’re dangerous and aren’t likely to take no for an answer if Vaani resists. Plus ray guns – cool!

The spaceship is really rather wonderful too. It is a bit reminiscent of Flash Gordon but there are lots of panels and dials with flashing lights and mysterious screens.  The space ship’s travels through space are pretty good too, there is even a large asteroid they have to dodge, but who knew that there was so much steam in space! Once in the Earth’s atmosphere the flight becomes a bit shaky but I like how the spaceship is shown flying over temples and fields of workers to show that they actually have reached Tamil Nadu and not some random planet. Scenes shot inside the space ship are jerky with the camera moving erratically as Thinna and Malla walk around stiffly in their shiny and embellished spacesuits. This is explained later. Thinna is wearing a pair of shorts which I don’t think would provide much protection from space, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern, although they are both wearing helmets, goggles and masks.

After kidnapping Vaani, Thinna zooms off in the spaceship while Malla is left behind. Vaani’s disappearance is blamed on Mohan as he was the last person to see her, and Kannan arranges for him to be put in jail. As if this wasn’t enough, Kannan then throws Mohan’s mother and sister out of their house, leading his sister to end up dancing and singing in a brothel. Kannan is also convinced that he’s found Vaani, although he’s really found Valli (Bhanumathi again), a poor mentally ill girl whose father is unable to convince Kannan that she isn’t Vaani. This is Sixties Tamil cinema so Valli is played for laughs, but Bhanumathi is excellent as she portrays Valli’s instability, veering between innocence and violence and always not seeming quite aware exactly where she is or what she is doing. It’s a great performance and a good contrast to her portrayal of Vaani who is confident and poised, even during an alien abduction.

Meanwhile, Vaani has reached the alien planet and is teaching the world to sing, or at least teaching the princess Rajini (Rajasree) dancing and singing. This goes down well with the locals and Thinna heads back to pick up Malla, who doesn’t seem to have done anything useful, so I’m not sure why he was left behind. By this stage Mohan has been released from jail and has also rescued his sister, although his mother appears to have vanished. Thinking that Vaani has married Kannan, Mohan is wandering through the wilderness when he sees Malla and for no apparent reason (there isn’t even any dialogue) he attacks and kills him. I’m presuming that there is a missing scene here, which explains why Mohan attacks and why he assumes Malla had something to do with Vaani’s disappearance. That would explain why he then sneaks aboard the spaceship too, but maybe he just thought it was a good idea.

Once on the alien planet, Mohan has to deal with different gravity which is brilliantly shown in a sequence where he appears to be almost weightless. This is cleverly done and still looks fantastic, mainly due to MGR’s facial expressions and physical contortions. Even though the background isn’t particularly alien or outlandish, MGR makes it look as if he’s completely out of his depth and struggling – great acting and beautifully filmed too. Luckily for Mohan he meets a minstrel/joker character (also played by MGR) who helps him, and whose place in the palace Mohan is able to take when the joker is unfortunately killed. Once in the palace Mohan finds Vaani, but before they can escape he has to deal with the Princess Rajini’s amorous advances towards him, and Thinna’s murderous tendencies, as well as work out how to pilot the space ship and get Vaani back home.

Kalai Arasi works well because it’s a good story that’s simply been transported into space. The various devices added, such as Mohan’s weightlessness and the aliens’ difficulty with Earth gravity, are cleverly done and show that you don’t need CGI and splashy special effects if you have good actors and clear vision. Some of the things I really liked are that the flunkies on the alien planet rise up onto their toes rather than saluting their superiors, while Rajini has a very impressive suite of furniture that pops out of the wall whenever she presses a button. Director A. Kasilingam keeps everything moving along, as there is a lot to fit in, while writer Raveendar adds some novel ideas that refresh a relatively standard story. There is plenty of good detail, even in the secondary plot lines, which still all reach a satisfactory conclusion by the end. The costume department obviously had a great time dressing the aliens with capes, half capes, shorts, flouncy trousers and lots of embellishments and hair ornaments. I wish this had been filmed in colour to see exactly how OTT everything really was, particularly since Mohan’s borrowed shoes look wonderfully glitzy when paired with the joker’s outfits.

There are couple of really good songs from K.V. Mahadevan, including one featuring Valli and a beautiful duet between Bhanumathi  and Mohan. My favourite though is the very first song with Bhanumathi performing on stage. It’s not all about the singing and dancing either as there is an excellent sword fight and also some standard fisticuffs for those who prefer their fight scenes more traditional.

Although Mohan is the hero of the story, Vaani gets to keep her composure when she’s abducted too. She’s no damsel in distress as she first of all sizes up the situation and then does the best she can. She seems assertive and confident, even on the alien planet and in the end it’s Vaani who successfully pilots the spaceship back to Earth. In fact, none of the women in the story come out of it too badly compared to modern day heroines. Even Mohan’s sister takes action when faced with a life of prostitution, and Princess Rajini may be useless in a sword fight and a drama queen, but she’s sensible enough to lock Mohan in chains when Thinna suggests he might be a flight risk.

It’s not just the women who fare well either. MGR is wonderfully heroic, switching between his simple farmer persona, to confident trickster once on the alien world. His fight scenes are good, and his character is sensibly capable of dealing with every situation as it arises. This is a film where he really does get a chance to show off his acting skills and he nails it every time. I thoroughly enjoyed Kalai Arasi, it’s a real find and I wish someone would consider restoring and re-releasing it with subtitles. Even without the missing scenes it’s a film that does have something for everyone and the space theme is much better than expected. One that’s well worth tracking down if you’re a fan of old B&W movies and want something a little different. 4 stars.

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Baghdad Thirudan (1960)

Baghdad_Thirudan

The opening credits play over an orchestral overture, jaunty and melodic, setting the scene for an adventure in the magical land of exotic fairytale cliche. Baghdad Thirudan is in the style of a Hollywood swashbuckler, and T.P Sundaram directs this rollicking yarn written by A.S. Muthu.

The film is on Youtube in pretty poor quality and without subtitles. There is no shortage of plot, but once you identify the Goodies and the Baddies (not hard) the story is easy enough to follow and bounds from incident to episode with great spirit. There is the kingdom that must be restored to rights, justice for the oppressed masses (maybe), a love triangle of sorts, DIY special effects and stunts, abundant songs and lots of excellent outfits.

Baghdad-Thirudan-Helen probably

The action opens with HELEN! Or someone who looks a lot like HELEN! She dances and a gaudily dressed man (T.S. Balaiah) can barely keep his hands off her. He and his wife scheme to depose the king and queen and take over the kingdom. He really has no impulse control.

Baghdad-Thirudan-S N Lakshmi

The king and queen are captured and the maid taking their baby son to safety has to get past…a leopard! She actually fights and kills a leopard barehanded. Without mussing up her outfit. But that’s not all. She duels with soldiers with the baby still tucked under her arm – finally being stabbed in the back and dropping the baby from a tower into the waiting arms of a fellow retainer who completed the rescue and drew the pursuit away. Awesome stuff. I read that actress S.N. Lakshmi was afraid of the leopard (and of cats in general) but still had to get in there without the luxury of a stunt double.  The baby (who never stops screaming, making stealth next to impossible) is eventually discovered and adopted by a group of people who are either forest dwelling thieves or a socialist dairy farming collective.

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They thoughtfully provide a clear view of his significant birthmark. Meanwhile baddies, assisted by their mole in the palace (S.A. Asokan) obtain an imposter baby to raise as the prince and legitimise their takeover as regents who will never retire.

The baby grows up to become Ali (MGR), a Robin Hood figure of laconic charm. He crosses paths with Zarina who is also a thief. Hijinks ensue as he tries to steal back his takings and Zarina matches him move for move in a game of wits. While trying to evade Ali’s pursuit she is mistaken for a dancing girl by the Pretend Prince, leading to a flimsy excuse for Zarina to dance for her life.  Which is absolutely excellent since she is played by Vyjayanthimala.  Not a purist classical number by any stretch of the imagination – but Vyjayanthimala dances with her customary precision and strength. MGR confines himself to comedic fumbling, posing as her backing musician along with his sidekick (T.R Ramachandran).

Ali sets up an accident so he can rescue the Pretend Princess (M.N Rajan). She is quite full of herself and the wrong kind of sparks fly.  But when he duels his way to freedom she is so impressed by his swordsmanship that the other kinds of sparks are evident, at least on her side.

Zarina seems to be living with a thief master type who demands she hand over money each day or else. He sells her at auction and Ali (in a bad disguise) buys her.  She doesn’t see through the face putty and tries to escape but is foiled – luckily his moustache falls off during a song and she realises she is not unhappy at all. However there are other baddies at large and one day, she is taken prisoner and used as a target for axe throwing practice. Zarina often gets herself out of trouble, but when she can’t she is fortunate to have the ever vigilant Ali.

But Ali is still wooing Pretend Princess, a woman of nasty temperament and a love of hats (even her maid is suitably bedizened). She shows him a secret treasure box hidden behind a door of spears and concealed in a fireplace. With all that security it must be something good! He ties her up – maybe just for fun – but then seems to tell her who he really is and gags her as she screams for guards and he escapes. Theirs is a crazy mixed up kind of relationship thing. The box contained the antidote for poison that had been spread into the water supply. So rather than being a duplicitous flirt it seems Ali was taking one for the team. He saves the people! And marries Zarina! So much to be happy about, and yet so much time left for things to go wrong.

I liked Ali and Zarina. They had a nice dynamic in their relationship, and while Ali was clearly The Hero who would save the day, Zarina wasn’t dumbed down. She wasn’t very skilled with a sword, but she would still have a go at hacking her way through guards and other obstacles. It was nice to see the couple so playful and happy to be together, and the actors’ rapport came through in their less fraught scenes. I think the secret of their happiness might just have been that MGR refrains from much dancing and wisely lets Vyjayanthimala do the choreographic  heavy lifting. MGR has a nonchalance that makes Ali likeable and not too overbearing. He does leap onto the soapbox and speechify a bit, which suits Ali’s character as the man of the people, but he isn’t too pompous. Vyjayanthimala gives Zarina feisty energy with a resilient core, a good match for MGR.

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In the latter part of the film he changes his look and gives up the fez and harem pants in favour of jolly little Elizabethan style breeches so that was amusing.

The Pretend Princess allows herself to be kidnapped with an eye to getting her claws on Zarina. Zarina ends up in the dungeon but Ali gets wind of her situation. There is much plotting, and a wonderful Batman-esque wall ‘climb’ to rescue Zarina that has MGR using all his overacting skills.

Not to be out-emoted,  Zarina paints his portrait in blood as she sings a dirge. And the baddies celebrate I’m not sure what exactly with a big tribal production number featuring Gopi Krishna.

The final action sequence takes place in almost every room of the palace.

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There is an excellent pointless clockwork contraption that can have no function other than being a Masala Death Trap.

Baghdad-Thirudan-Princess and Zarina

The Pretend Princess is delighted to find out that Ali is the real prince, and fancies she is in with a chance at keeping her tiara and getting her man. Will he forget Zarina? As if!

See this for the vintage charm, the ripping story that requires little analysis, and the pleasure of seeing MGR and Vyjayanthimala take on all comers and emerge victorious. 3 1/2 stars!

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