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In every period of Tamil cinema, there has been a stunt master whose work is sought after for a time and earns him wealth and accolades, but would get replaced by someone else after he burns out. In such a scenario, working in a world-record 1,200 films spanning over three decades and leaving a legacy behind is a fabulous feat. That’s what Judo K K Rathnam, who recently passed away, achieved.
Being an expert in martial arts is one thing and an action choreographer another. Displaying one’s prowess in martial arts in real life is different from choreographing action sequences in a way that is captured well by the camera to translate it into entertainment for a movie-watcher. This means a good stunt master would have not just expertise in martial arts but a sense of what filmmaking and camera angles entail.
Yet, breaking this unwritten rule, Judo Rathnam, who had no knowledge of camera angles, breezed into films purely because of his knowledge of martial arts.
Hailing from Gudiyatham in Vellore district, Rathnam was lanky as a boy. Over the years, he developed a strong and robust frame, following a strict regimen of eating nutritious food made by his mother and completing a rigorous set of exercises.
In his youth, Rathnam leant silambam, wrestling, meditation and various workouts from experts as well as a form of wrestling known as ‘kuthu varisai’ in northern Tamil Nadu. He won trophies and laurels in the district-level wrestling and silambattam tournaments
In his youth, Rathnam leant silambam, wrestling, meditation and various workouts from experts as well as a form of wrestling known as ‘kuthu varisai’ in northern Tamil Nadu. He won trophies and laurels in the district-level wrestling and silambattam tournaments. His hard-earned success led him to get introduced to film director Muktha V Srinivasan, who scripted his entry into the film industry. Rathnam made his debut as an actor and as a dupe for actors in the film Thamaraikulam in 1959.
Midair gimmicks and stunts
In the 1960s, stunt sequences in Tamil films had an unchanging template, bordering on the boring and hackneyed. With period stories getting outdated, sword fights and adventurous horse-riding skills that used to keep the audience hooked had made an exit. So in their place, rural martial arts such as silambam started gaining popularity. This new trend synched with Rathnam’s flair.
Having got introduced to Modern Theatres proprietor T R Sundaram, Rathnam figured in the credits for the film Konjum Kumari where he worked under the tutelage of stunt masters Sivaiya and Banu. Consequently, he gained experience working as an assistant action choreographer in films Amma Enge, Yarukku Sontham, Chithranki, Vallavanukku Vallavan and so on. An experienced Rathnam got his break as a principal stunt master in Iru Vallavargal.
The stunt pattern that had been in vogue then had the hero clasping his hands or legs on the villain’s head. Deviating from the model, Judo Rathnam made stunt sequences heavily animated using the offence and defence moves of celebrated martial arts such as karate, judo.
Later in an interview, he gave credit for such innovations in film stunts to his understudies Super Subbarayan and Vikram Dharma. With the help of his assistants, Rathnam crafted the scenes showing the heroes and stuntmen literally jumping into a tailspin mid-air and indulging in awe-inspiring gimmicks. He created magical moments marked by adventure and bravery in the hero-villain face-off scenes of films directed by Vittalacharya and Peketi Sivaram.
The stunt choreographers who emerged in the 1970s such as Pepsi Vijayan, Ambur R S Babu, Rambo Rajkumar, Jaguar Thangam, Indian Baskar and so on were once Judo Rathnam’s assistants. His son Judo Ramu is also an action master like his father.
Over 1,000 films
Judo Rathnam earned a great deal of experience working with heroes from Jaishankar to Rajini, Kamal, Vijayakanth and Arjun. He was Rajini’s favourite stunt master and worked in 46 Rajini Tamil films. He also did six Hindi films with Rajini. The scene in Hindi film Geraftaar (1985) which showed Rajiini throwing a cigarette up and lighting it in its downward course became hugely popular.
Another Rajini blockbuster Murattu Kalai (1980) had an iconic stunt scene on the roof of a running train which brought Rathnam national name and fame. Though similar to a scene in Sholay, the sequence had been shot excellently in a short span of time. Having worked in Rajini blockbusters such as Kaali (1980), Payum Puli (1983) and so on, Rathnam worked for the last time in Pandian (1992) before calling it a day.
The stunt pattern that had been in vogue then had the hero clasping his hands or legs on the villain’s head. Deviating from the model, Judo Rathnam made stunt sequences heavily animated using the offence and defence moves of celebrated martial arts such as karate, judo
He had worked with director S P Muthuraman in 54 films. It is said that it was Judo Rathnam who taught T Rajendar the art of acting in stunt scenes.
As for Kamal Haasan, Judo Rathnam got unique praises from him for the film Sakalakala Vallavan. The stunt choreography he crafted, using a tea-stall bench as the only prop in Thoongathe Thambi Thoongathe was distinct.
In Hindi, Judo Rathnam worked with heroes such as Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Jitendra, Mithun Chakravarthy and so on.
An incident reported from the shooting of Hindi film Jeisaa ho Theisaa produced by AVM illustrates how Judo Rathnam was in the good books of producers. The hero Jitendra had a dual role. As one of the two characters was innocent and naive, Judo Rathnam designed a humorous stunt scene. But Jitendra refused to enact the scene, saying it would be out of sync with his image. Not ready to buy the hero’s argument, producers AVM Kumaran and his brother took sides with Judo Rathnam, trusting his judgement and told the hero bluntly that if he was not willing to act, he could quit.
Having worked in about 1,200 films as a stunt master, Judo Rathnam earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records in 2013.
Tamil and Telugu were his main film industries but Rathnam later shifted to Kannada and Malayalam films in the 1980s where he continued to sweat it out tirelessly.
With the intention of ensuring steady income and a stable career for stunt artistes, Judo Rathman became instrumental in setting up the Association for Stunt Artistes and Trainers, which fixed the salaries for them. He was the president of the association and also held some vital posts later.
Rajini blockbuster Murattukkalai (1980) had an iconic stunt scene on the roof of a running train which brought Rathnam national name and fame
Rathnam was a pioneer in that he paved the way for Tamil stunt trainers to also work in Hindi and Telugu blockbusters. He had played a major role in getting today’s stunt choreographers Silva, Anal Arasu, Anbariv, Stunt Siva and Peter Hein national glory.
In the 1990s, Judo Rathnam went back to his home town and led a peaceful retired life. While he led a full life with his family with his sons and daughters, he faded from filmdom.
Tamil cinema refreshed their memory of Judo Rathnam when he died on January 26 this year at age 93. As per his wish, his body was kept at the premises of the stunt artistes’ association for the public to pay their respects and remember his achievements.
Judo Rathnam left behind a legacy in an industry where a tiny misstep would result in death. In his prime, he used to do exercises in a pit dug up to nine feet in the ground. Asked about this practice in a later-day interview, he said, “In the olden days there were regular rains that would not fail us. So, in order to enable my body to sweat, I would do exercises in a room below the earth.”
The reply reflected the attitude of a generation that did not take things for granted even when they had become prosperous but worked hard and went about their profession with integrity — setting an example for younger generations.
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