Revisting Kamal Haasan’s 1986 Vikram!

This piece was originally written for the news portal “The News Minute” and was carried on the 15th of May, 2022. The link to the piece is here:

There may not be frenzied requests for daily “updates” on social media like the kind we saw for Valimai but, in terms of audience expectations, Kamal Haasan’s upcoming Vikram is not far behind. And there are multiple reasons for this. Beyond the obvious it being a Kamal starrer, the star teaming up with young and exciting director Lokesh Kanakaraj is another. A cast that also includes powerhouse performers like Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi is yet another. Ever since the project was titled “Vikram,” the name of another Kamal film that hit the big screens in the summer of 1986, the intrigue has only heightened.

Just like the promos for the new Vikram have promised, the original Vikram was also a full-fledged action film with Kamal in the lead and was the first production venture of his own company – Raaj Kamal Films International. Kamal’s first production was Raaja Paarvai (1981) but that was under the Haasan Brothers banner. For easy reference and understanding, I am calling the 1986 film Vikram 1.0 and the forthcoming film Vikram 2.0 in this piece. With the theatrical release just a few weeks away, the hype Vikram 2.0 has created is palpable. Looking at all the excitement, I could not help going back 36 years, when Vikram 1.0 was released.

Much before Vikram 1.0 was released in theatres, its story was published as a serial (Thodar Kathai) in popular Tamil weekly magazine Kumudam. In the pre-social media days, this was one way of creating expectations around a big film before its release. Typically, in this format, the story goes on for a few weeks and stops abruptly somewhere at the three-fourth point with this exasperating statement – “Meedhi viraivil velli thiraiyil kaanga” (Watch the rest soon on the silver screen)! I remember even K. Bhagyaraj’s super hit film – Mouna Geethangal followed this route.

The Vikram serial story authored by ace writer Sujatha followed the same technique, and I must say it worked really well. It was a time when Sujatha was extremely popular. His serialised stories were being lapped up by film makers to be adapted to the big screen. But I suspect that Vikram was his first effort in writing a story specifically for a film. I am not surprised that Kamal, who always relishes collaborating with talented writers, worked with Sujatha on this film, which kicked off the latter’s active writing innings in films.

To a large degree, Vikram 1.0 was a novel attempt in Tamil cinema. Reports say that it was the first Tamil film to use the Steadicam just a few years after it was employed in Hollywood. Kamal in the lead, writer Sujatha behind the script, music by Ilaiyaraaja who was also at the peak of his career then, were all enough to set off an unprecedented anticipation for the film back then. I must add here that the title song “Vikram, Vikram…” which incidentally features in Vikram 2.0, used computer-modulated voice alongside Kamal as the main singer and became a huge hit before the release itself.

I vividly recall that when a group of us, avid fans of Kamal’s work, went to watch Vikram 1.0 in the theatre, we were blown away by what saw in the first few minutes. Right from the opening credits, which had Kamal doing a solo breakdance sequence shot in silhouette, to the very opening close-up shot of a rain-drenched pigeon perched on a gate on a cloudy day, we knew we were in for something different in terms of filmmaking in Tamil cinema. The film was directed by the late Rajasekhar who had built his reputation as a maker of good masala films like Thambikku Entha Ooru, Padikathavan and Kaaki Sattai just before this.

Unfortunately, the excitement did not last too long. The film started unravelling soon. The story, which was basically about this intelligence sleuth Arun Kumar Vikram (played by Kamal obviously) on a mission to save the country from a missile attack, went all over the place. Looking at the ensemble cast that included Amjad Khan – the biggest baddie of Bollywood then, the super glamourous Dimple Kapadia, Sathyaraj as the main villain, Janakaraj, Malayalam actor Lissy apart from Kamal himself, does anyone have any doubt that Kamal was making a “pan Indian” film back then itself? But the screenplay as it played out, went above the head of the common filmgoer even in Tamil Nadu. Result – the film had a particularly good opening but was panned by critics and audiences alike. Though it might have done commercially, it cannot be counted among Kamal’s best films.

I’m certain that when Kamal and Sujatha ideated on the film, they wanted to make the first and one of the best Sci-fi/Crime/Spy thriller films in Tamil in the “Bond” film genre. The characterisation Vikram as a spy who was unemotional and had multiple girls pining for him while he displayed a “don’t care” attitude, is a page straight out of the Bond series. Not to mention of the overload of action, chase sequences and plethora of guns on display. From paper to screen, the film got lost in translation.

What let the film down were three things, in my opinion. First, the screenplay. While the chase for the stolen missile was set in India, the film wanders into some medieval desert kingdom called Salamiya where people spoke the Salamiya language. Even for 1986, a Raja-Rani interlude was a yawn. By the time the story returns to the original theme of missile hijack, the interest was already lost. Second, the making. In the absence of VFX/SFX tools and technological aids that we have today, the making left a lot to be desired. The director himself was new to this genre and was probably overwhelmed by the task in hand. Years later, Kamal would opine that he wished Vikram 1.0 was directed by Mani Ratnam, who he felt would have done greater justice to the subject. Third, probably the subject itself was ahead of its time. Now this is not the first time a Kamal film suffers on this count. His Aalavanthan, Anbe Sivam, Uttama Villain which did not do well at the box office all had the same problem.

I felt that years later when Kamal wrote and directed Vishwaroopam (1&2), it was a kind of atonement for Vikram 1.0! Vishwaroopam is also a spy thriller film in the “Bond” template in which, in my view, Kamal fixed all the issues, we saw in Vikram 1.0.  There are many obvious similarities such as the subject (an intelligence agent on a mission to save the world), two ladies coming to Kamal’s aid, story spanning many continents, Afghanistan instead of Salamiya and if the Vikram 1.0 climax had computer expert Lissi helping to alter the direction of the missile, in Vishwaroopam it is Pooja Kumar as an oncologist who uses Faraday shield to diffuse the caesium bomb. And not to forget the opening shot of pigeons in both the films. With a much better screenplay, superior craft and overall filmmaking, Vishwaroopam, in particular the first part, can count among the top 10 of Kamal’s films.

Back to the present, what does Vikram 2.0 hold for us? One hopes that this Lokesh Kanakaraj’s Vikram explodes” on the big screen “fires” on all cylinders and comes out “all guns blazing” as among the best of Kamal’s films. The film is set to release worldwide in theatres on June 3.

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