Think Shaji Kailas, the King of action flicks in Malayalam cinema, and immediately your mind flashes to regressive films, with swashbuckling heroes making mincemeat of villains, cheered on by vapid women who know no better and an audience who should have known better. Nonetheless, as the craftsman of action entertainers and all-time favourites such as Ekalavyan (1993), Commissioner (1994), The King (1995), Aaram Thamburam (1997) , Narasimham and Valliettan (2000), full credits to Shaji, along with the likes of director Joshiy and scenarists Renji Panikker, Ranjith, T. Damodaran and S.N. Swami, for steering Malayalam cinema into the realms of mass entertainment, forever changing the face of the industry.
“In his heyday, Shaji's films were very appealing to the masses and for good reason too. He introduced a style of his own, where the making was terrific and drastically different from the bucolic ones the audience was used to. There was a fantastic pace to the storytelling and he introduced a thrilling play of action, sound and effects together with music, hitherto never attempted on screen. Shaji brought a much-needed briskness to Malayalam cinema,” says Renji Panikker, a long-time associate of the director, who scripted some of the director's biggest hits such as Dr. Pasupathy (1990), Commissioner, Ekavalyan and Mafia (1993), to name a few.
Over the years, Shaji has made 41 films in Malayalam and Tamil and one of his biggest contributions to the industry is action hero Suresh Gopi. With breakout roles in Commisioner, Thalasthanam and so on, the director helped the actor muscle his way to superstardom, cementing his place alongside the two Ms.
As the director gets ready to step into the big leagues, after a long gap, with an high stakes action thriller starring Mohanlal and scripted by Renji, here are a few of our take-aways from the reel world of Shaji Kailas.
The man knows his comedy
Shaji might have got on the bandwagon with thrillers News (1989) and that psychopathic Sunday7 pm (1990) but it was the comedy Dr. Pasupathy that really set him on track in Mollywood. Who would have thought, right? Starring the irrepressible Innocent as a conman under the garb of veterinarian and set in the idyllic Pokanamkodu panchayat that’s peopled by a bunch of loveable villagers, Dr. Pasupathy remains one of Malayalam’s finest ever comedies. Shaji soon followed it up with wonderful little rom-coms Souhrudam (1991) and Kilukampetti (1991). Incidentally, Kilukampetti, starring Jayaram and Suchitra Krishnamurti, was also a brave new attempt at showcasing a ‘modern’ Malayali heroine – a successful architect, the boss of her own home and a single mum to boot.
“It’s endearing to see that Shaji can handle vulnerable stories and characters like UDC Kumari, Uthpalakshan, Ammukutty and Pappan (in Dr Pasupathy) with the ease with which he handles a power-packed Induchoodan (Narasimham) and a Bharatchandran IPS (Commissioner),” says an award-winning young Malayalam filmmaker. Unfortunately, Neelakurukkan (1992), which follows the antics of a bunch of college students was Shaji’s last real attempt at comedy, not counting that forgettable ‘action-comedy’ Jayaram-starrer Ginger (2013).
Crafting action with clarity
Watch any of his blockbusters and you’ll quickly figure out he is one of those rare directors who have a sound technique, which comes via clarity of craft. “Shaji sir uses fairly complicated shots to convey the story. For instance, an action scene might start with ice-cubes falling into a glass, which then pans to the characters. Here he is not filming a scene but choreographing a scene. Also, he rarely takes unnecessary shots. He came into the industry as a cinematography assistant and I think that training has helped him look at a film as a visual package. And, remember, that was the time when scriptwriting was spontaneous and filming began before scripts were locked in, which shows how remarkably adaptable he is as a director,” says another filmmaker. No wonder that for long now newcomers in industry have been flocking to Shaji’s sets to learn the craft.
Enter the hero
With his alpha male heroes oozing machismo, Shaji made hero worship into an art form on screen. We saw glimpses of it in Sthalate Pradhana Payyans (1993), about an ordinary guy, essayed by a miscast Jagadeesh, who ends up being the Home Minister of Kerala and also in Thalasthanam (1992), where Suresh Gopi’s character avenges the murder of his brother.
It’s his partnership with Renji that really helped Shaji take hero worship to the next level, namely the slick political thrillers Ekalavyan, Mafia, Commissioner and The King. All these films showcase hot shot bureaucrats (or wannabe bureaucrats) taking the law into their own hands, battling unscrupulous politicians and an even more corrupt system. That they remain relevant even now is a testimony to the skill of the director and his writer. The films also set the standard for the ideal bureaucrat/police officer, particularly the characters of Bharatchandran IPS (Suresh Gopi) and Joseph Alex IAS (Mammootty in The King), until young Nivin Pauly broke the trope with ordinarily extraordinary Action Hero Biju.
Hero worship eventually reached stratospheric heights with Aaram Thamburan, Narashimham, both starring Mohanlal, and Valliettan, with Mammootty in the lead. All three films were scripted by scenarist-director Ranjith. In a television interview aroundabout this time, Shaji himself explained the trigger for his alpha hero (presumably) Arackal Madhavanunni of Valliettan thus: “In Arayannangaludey Veedu (2000), when his brother tries to hit him, it’s his wife who slaps the brother. Mammootty simply stands. I felt he really needed to come out of such an image now."
The three films are full of Ranjith's now-cult bombastic dialogues that are a signature of Shaji’s films too. From now on Shaji’s heroes are not mere heroes but larger-than-life demigods, unabashedly breathing feudalistic Hindu fire. They are now judge, jury and executioner, all for the common good.
Like everything else there’s only so much of hero worship one can take and soon it starts to go downhill, from which the director has never really recovered. Shivam (2002), Thandavam (2002), and Natturajavu (2004), The Don (2006), Alibhai (2007), Simhasanam (2012) and the like take heroism a bit too far. Most of them failed to keep the interest of the audience – not even the magnum opus The King and the Commissioner (2012). And that's despite the double dose of Bharatchandran and Joseph Alex. In fact, Shaji’s only silver linings in the past two decades appear to have been Baba Kalyani (2006) and Chintamani Kolacase (2006) both slick investigative thrillers and both with more intellect at play than bravado.
All that arm candy
Shaji’s heroes occupy so much space on screen, sometimes quite literally (you Mr. Kasinathan of Thandavam and you Mr. Poovalli Induchoodan for all your charm), that we suppose it’s only natural that there’s no space for a woman of substance too! That’s why, perhaps, almost all of Shaji’s heroines and female characters are afterthoughts on screen, arm candy for the heroes to lust after or props to fawn over the heroes as wives, girlfriends or sisters at appropriate times. The vacuous Anuradha (Aishwarya) in Narasimham, Indu (Shobana), who gets too little time in Commissioner, Nancy (Ramya Krishnan) in Mahatma (1996), Devi (Shobana) in Valliettan, Meenakshi (Kiran Rathod) in Thandavam, Zaheeda (Gopika) in The Don, Maya and Katrina (Meena and Nayanthara) in Natturajavu…. Show a bit of gumption woman and you will be in for a tongue lashing! Recall the ‘Ormayundo Eee Mugham’ scene in Commissioner, where the suave Bharatachandran has no qualms publically humiliating the wife of a politician with her not-so-sterling past, all for being imperious to him.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. None more so, perhaps, than the fiery Unni Maya, enacted by the irrepressible Manju Warrier in what is one of her finest performances ever. The wonderfully naïve U.D. Clerk Kumari (Kalpana) in Dr Pasupathy, who handles the attentions of three lovelorn acquaintances with panache, is worth a mention as is the brave Hemambaram (yesteryear actor Chitra) in Ekalavyan. Anura Mukherjee (Vani Viswanath), the gutsy trainee IAS officer in The King, also gets a bit more screen time than is usual for a Shaji film but is cut short all too soon.
ODing on misogyny
It’s hard not to talk of the glorification of misogyny when talking about Shaji’s filmography. Not so hidden in almost all punchlines spouted by Shaji’s heroes, particularly those that also involve women who are not arm candy, are sexist remarks. There’s perhaps, no bigger (or more obvious) MCP – and it so pains us to say this for we love him and the film – than Induchoodan. If Induchoodan, supposedly one who would have been a bureaucrat had things not gone awry, was to say that same dialogue in the climax of the film these ‘feminichi’ times, the director would have been strung up on social media much like one of his protégés was more recently for Kasaba. The same is the case with everyone’s favourite reel collector bro, Joseph Alex in The King. Out of his mouth came the stunningly chauvinistic dialogue ‘nee oru pennaayi poyi; verum pennu’ (you are a woman; just a woman), said to a subordinate officer and that too, ironically, right after his applause worthy sense-sensibility-sensitivity dialogue! Not to mention the ‘Aanenna vaakinte artham’ (The meaning of the word man) dialogue spouted by Bharatchandran in The Commissioner, the ‘Ahangarathinu kayyum kaalum vakkuka, ennittu pennennu perum…' (arrogance thy name is woman) by our very own Kanimangalam Kovilathe Jaganathan Thampuran in Aaram Thamburan…. Even in tame-in-comparison Kilukampetti, Jayaram’s character, an architect in disguise as a house help, comes off as rather sexist; one who can’t bear that a woman architect can be as good as or better than he is. Need we say more?
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Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...