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The illusory ‘dishyum’ dishyum’ sounds in Tamil film stunt sequences get viewers going into an adrenaline rush. The choreography of stunts has been gaining more and more heft in the film industry, which explains why most heroes are vying to be typecast as macho action heroes.
How much space does stunt choreography grab in a Tamil commercial film now? What has been the pattern of stunt sequences in films spanning over nine decades? A look at the history throws up interesting facts.
Song or stunt?
Tamil cinema, after the silent era, began its journey in 1931. When mythologies and historical genres began dominating cinemascape, stunt sequences came with the territory. The Tamil film narrative at the time was filled with singing and stunt tropes, the former represented by M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and the latter by P U Chinnappa.
Chinnappa’s films such as Uthamaputhiran (the first ‘double role’ film), Jagathalaprathapan and so on released to rave reviews for their amazing sequences. The films reverberated with the clanking of knives, swords and long swirling blades and with the neighing of galloping horses carrying the hero in his acts of daredevilry.
In the 1940s, Battling Mani and S S Kokko were famous — if for a brief period — action choreographers. Mani’s film Madras Mail (1939) in which he donned the mantle of an action hero is officially the first Tamil action film. Kokko, a stunt artiste, doubled up as a comedian. The stunt scenes of yore were crafted to avoid blood and gore. The hero and the villain in most action films were content with clasping and pulling away each other. They made sure that their performances did not seem murderous or disgustingly violent.
Early films reverberated with the clanking of knives, swords and long swirling blades. In the 1940s, the hero and villain were content with clasping and pulling away each other. In the 1950 and 1960s, the stunts were inspired by silambam and wrestling mostly. Adventurous taming of bulls, lions and tigers were also added in to make the hero look larger than life
MGR, the topmost swashbuckling hero
Historical films of those times resounded with alliterative play on words and awe-inspiring play of swords. But when social stories set in, the trend changed, giving more importance to songs and dialogue rather than. MGR and Sivaji Ganesan emerged as the topmost duo on the horizon at the time.
While Sivaji films were often melodramatic tear-jerkers trying to bring out the deepest of human emotions, MGR films focused more on action and entertainment with a lighter dose of emotions and sentiments. Hence MGR’s films turned into crowd-pullers. They played to the gallery while Sivaji’s films appealed to the elite and sophisticated. Children and youth a few generations ago more often than not swarmed the theatres where MGR films were screened.
In the 1950 and 1960s action choreographers such as R N Nambiar (not the villain actor Nambiar), Shyam Sundar, M S Das, Madakkulam Alagirisamy, Dharmalingam and so on were in demand. Stunt scenes choreographed by them had the heroes gird up their loins, hop and jump, and twist and turn, tightening up their fists as dramatic music played valorous notes. The stunts were inspired by silambam and wrestling mostly. Adventurous taming of bulls, lions and tigers were also added in to make the hero look larger than life
After the 1960s, Hollywood style stunts made a big impact in Tamil cinema along with the South East Asian nations’ martial art forms such as karate, judo and kung fu. The hero began adopting defensive and offensive postures. The method of fighting looked as though the fighters were throwing about straight lines and brackets. Plus, the stunts included the hero jumping on to walls, furniture and even the enemies’ shoulders and landing in perfect gait.
At the start of the 1970s, heroes such as Ravichandran, Sivakumar and Vijayakumar were copycats of MGR insofar as their stunt sequences were concerned. Amid them, Jaishankar, hailed as the James Bond of South India, used to roam about, shooting at trigger-happy bandits and matching his stunts with ‘dishyum’ dishyum’ sounds mingling with gunshots.
After the advent of Rajinikanth, stunt scenes began looking more like robotic movements. His action sequences came across as unique, enriched by his particular mannerisms and his favourite stunt master Judo K K Rathnam’s acumen.
In contrast, stunt master Kripa’s action choreography felt like a natural fight. His assistants attained the status of principal stunt masters only after getting beaten and thrashed in scores of films. The noteworthy feature of the careers of both Kripa and Judo Rathnam was that they debuted in cinema only after long years of training and practice in martial arts.
After the 1960s, Hollywood style stunts made a big impact in Tamil cinema along with the South East Asian nations’ martial art forms such as karate, judo and kung fu. After the 1970s, motorcycles and cars started “taking off” in film stunt sequences. Most of the time a few action heroes did not mind taking risks and themselves took on such adventurous stunts in vehicles
There were times in stunt choreography when all, right from the heroes to the villains to the stunt artistes flew up, somersaulting midair and landing like water gushing out of pipes. As if proving Newton’s law of gravitation wrong, in a moment of magic they flew up and kept on flying, refusing to fall down. Nowadays, in an echo of such past gimmicks, motor vehicles fly up to the level of a towering palm tree with a 10-inch-thick wooden log penetrated into one of the tyres!
In fact, after the 1970s, motorcycles and cars started “taking off” in film stunt sequences. Most of the time a few action heroes did not mind taking risks and themselves took on such adventurous stunts in vehicles. For other heroes, dupes helped set the tempo of the stunt scenes that earned the heroes fans.
In some films fire-emitting scenes hit the spot. The spectacle of a blaze dancing in yellowish-orange flames inspired awe, as stunt artistes and even animals such as goats, horses, buffaloes were shown as braving the fire. Similarly, scenes of fights along long stretches of sand and in surging water bodies were shot at 90 degree angles.
Bruce Lee effect
Indian movie stars who had hitherto fought like James Bond were bowled over by Bruce Lee and later Jackie Chan whose fight scenes broke new ground in the martial arts displayed on celluloid.
As it was near impossible to cultivate a physique like Bruce Lee’s and Jackie Chan’s, Indian heroes just borrowed some of their steps and sounds. Thus the sounds of ‘hoo… hee.. hi…’ figured in Tamil stunt sequences. Then props such as tanks, benches, tables, vendor carts etc were used in fight scenes. Street markets and shopping malls were frequently used as locations to shoot fights. Doors, windows and walls were demolished to show the hero’s muscle power. Thus, commercial action films began popularising unbelievable action scenes that had more ‘magic’ than logic.
In the 1980s, stunt masters – Ambur Babu, Super Subba Rayan, Vikram Dharma, Rambo Rajkumar, Thalapathi Dhinesh and Ponnambalam – descended on the scene, creating new patterns in stunt sequences. It was during these times that Vijayakanth lifted his leg up to the level of the villain’s face and thrashed him with it. It evoked a good response among the action-loving audience. Then several heroes followed suit, making the stunt masters a big success.
After the advent of Rajinikanth, stunt scenes began looking more like robotic movements. His action sequences came across as unique, enriched by his particular mannerisms and his favourite stunt master Judo K K Rathnam’s acumen
In Telugu movies, duet scenes between the hero and heroine tended to feature flying flowers, fruits and veggies as if they were messengers between the lovers. These props became part and parcel of fight scenes too. Then for a while it was raining fruits, flowers and veggies on the screen. Bored with these props, later the lead pair sprinkled Holi coloured powder on each other. Fight scenes too followed this pattern.
In the latter half of the 1990s, the heroes, feeling they had had enough of knives and machetes, started toting guns and doting on heroines. They slowly advanced in gun culture over the years. At present they are showering us with bombs, slithering musically from rocket launchers and machine guns they hold the way Arnold Schwarzenegger did.
Today’s trend in action choreography is quite breathtaking. With technology shrinking geographical barriers, any stunt master worth his salt in South Indian cinema can go places, working in various language films. The advent of OTT is a great boon for them. It has earned celebrity status to stunt choreographer Supreme Sundar, whose nuanced stunt ‘art’ energised the Malayalam film ‘Ayyapanum Koshiyum’ and of Anbariv brothers whose action choreography fueled Kannada KGF films’ glory. Shah Rukh Khan’s latest, Pathaan, has interesting action scenes thanks to the Tamil stunt master Anal Arasu as well.
Now, skilled action choreographers are used and celebrated regardless of age and budget constraints. Even a small budget film gets a good reception if its action sequence is substantive and sophisticated. The success of ‘Uriyadi’ released not long ago is a good case in point.
But on the flip side, today’s filmy stunt scenes hogging the youth’s riveted attention do also cause grave concern over the mental health of the society as a whole. Stunt artistes jumping to the floor and rebounding in an instant, and hopping from roof to roof atop the high-rise concrete building, all in the style of parkour, are no less spell-binding than Houdini’s magic. After all, they are a part of a world of make-believe that demands your transient willing suspension of disbelief. But does our younger generation understand this? Not all do. A student in a school down south, was reported to have lifted his classmate up above his head and thrown him down, killing him. It is anybody’s guess what motivated this macabre action.
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