Monday, October 24, 2011

Malaysian Masala

Although locally-made Indian movies are not a dime a dozen, there have been inroads made into the scene.

TO trace the colourful trail of Malaysian made Indian movies, we must go back to the 1960s. One could consider Rathapei (Bloody Lust) as the first Indian film made by a local production as it had been done by a dance troupe who recorded their performance on stage while touring India.

Two more projects would follow suit in the 1970s. One was by Felix Anthony, a producer from Ipoh with Thun Bangal Urangu Vathillai (Worries Don’t Stop) and Anbe En Anbe (My Love).

One was a disaster. The other two never saw light of day due to lack of funding.

He’s the man: M. Suurya, a newcomer to the silver screen, plays the quintessential Indian hero. The actor, who is director M. Subash’s cousin, helped to produce Pensil in 2005.

So, credit for the first locally-made Indian movie to become a success has to go to Panchacharam Nalliah, better known as Pansha, who directed Naan Oru Malaysian (I Am Malaysian) in 1991.

Pansha, an established film distributor who then shot to fame in Adutha Veedu, a TV3 Tamil drama about hostile neighbours in 1984, recalls what spurred him on.

“During the 80s, many production houses from India did their filming in Malaysia. Every time they came, there was a lot of talk about collaborations with Malaysian artistes to encourage the film industry. But as soon as they finished production, these people went back and nothing more was heard. So, I decided to do something about it by making my own film,” says Pansha who wrote, directed and played the hero in the movie.

Naan Oru Malaysian made its run in three locations and raked in RM150,000. Pansha recollects that it played to full house in Kuala Lumpur’s Federal Cinema during its week-long run and even reckoned that it would have done better if not for the turmoil between two bickering political parties who had forced the authorities to cordon off the town area which affected attendance at the Coliseum Theatre in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, KL. But in all, the man has no regrets.

Haani Shivraj and Gana Pragasam in Appalam, directed by Afdlin Shauki.

In 2005, Deepak Menon made Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road), a Tamil film with English subtitles. The film was shown at a number of film festivals across the world including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, San Francisco International Film Festival, Pusan International Film Festival, Korea, Nantes Festival 3 Continents, France and the Fukuoka International Film Festival in Japan. A few years later, he released another film, Chalanggai (Dancing Bells). These were not your average Tamil movies, but rather stories portraying the daily life of people as humanly and realistically as possible, and met with a promising reception. However because they were made in digital format (which is not yet a recognised medium), the movies were not classified as locally made films.

What made Naan Oru Malaysian different for Deepak’s films was that it was shot on 35mm film. According to Pansha, the director and producer of Naan Oru Malaysian from Berjaya Film Production, shooting on film is a giant step for the industry in terms of cost as it requires a huge budget. A can of film which has a screening time of five minutes can cost RM500. So, a full length movie spanning two and half hours can take up to 100 cans. In truth, this means that last year’s production of Appalam was indeed only the second Malaysian-made Indian movie after Naan Oru Malaysian to be shot on 35mm film.

Malay director Afdlin Shauki’s Appalam was produced by Tayangan Unggul, a sister company of Astro, and released with much hype from the media.

Pansha (middle) with well-known local actor Ramesh (right) in a scene from Naan Oru Malaysian.

Interestingly, Gana Pragasam, the actor who played the hero in this movie was also the first producer to come up with the Tamil VCD.

Hello, Yaare Peserathe (Who Is There?), a comedy about prank calls, was first released as an audio cassette in 1999, before it was adapted into a two-hour VCD movie.

“There was no Indian movie VCDs back then except for the Kollywood imports. I wanted to create a new market,” recalls Gana.

The start was not encouraging. When he bandied the idea to local producers, one told him point blank that no one would want to see his face.

Unperturbed, Gana went ahead. A stall at Batu Caves, Selangor, set up during the Thaipusam festival, became his first sales outlet. Eleven VCDs and RM2.5mil later, this prolific producer, director, script writer and actor is best known among Tamil movie fans as the local comedy king. His latest project, Budak Estet, an animation is due for release in 2012 as a 26-episode TV serial.

M. Subash in Pensil, about a disabled boy’s unconditional love for his drunkard father. The success of the film shows that an Indian movie can do without the song-and-dance formula.

Having forged his own path into showbiz, the former Toshiba copier technician is also the industry’s most fiery advocate.

In a letter to Astro in August this year, Gana who is also president of Malaysian Indian Art Activist Association, voiced that the current practice of the broadcasting station in producing local Indian content on an in-house basis was no help in encouraging the industry to progress.

“Allocations to produce documentaries and 26-episode dramas should be given to private production companies to help the industry expand. Local stations should have at least one Tamil channel airing 100% locally produced content,” he says.

The National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas), he added, should also play its part by allocating grants to deserving companies.

So is the Indian movie scene in danger of extinction? A personal observation at a DVD store in Brickfields, KL, shows that it is still progressing at a healthy rate. This year alone sees two film releases.

One is Garuuda, directed by M. Subash. Released in August. It features actor M. Suurya in his first starring role. In this action-packed movie, the fight choreographer is none other than national taekwando champ, Selvamuthu Ramasamy, who made headlines in the 1989 and 1991 SEA Games with his gold medals.

Another is Anusthanaa a thriller starring Anaantha the THR Raaga DJ, and Haani Shivraj. Shot in Kampar (Perak), Fraser’s Hill (Pahang) and Kuala Lumpur, it promises plenty of suspense and drama and should be released at the end of the year.

Another new movie, anticipated for the Deepavali season according to Pancha, is Vilaiyaatu Pasanga (The Tuff Nuts) directed by Vimala Perumal

Being Malaysian-made, the local Indian movie naturally has a muhibbah feel.

For example, in Singakottai, a GV Media VCD production of a comedy about a royal court that has isolated itself from the modern world, the king receives a letter from the Kuala Lumpur City Hall! Audiences are quick to recognise the palace as the Sultan Abdul Samad building in front of Dataran Merdeka.

In Undercover Rascals, starring C. Kumaresan of Gerak Khas fame and Jasmine Micheal, the hero’s best friend falls for a Chinese girl, lending a unique touch to the song-and-dance routine.

So, since we are brewing our own productions would it be possible for an Indian movie to go without the song and dance for once?

Subash, who directed Pensil, a story of a disabled boy’s unconditional love for his drunkard father which was shown over Vaanavil in 2005, gives a ready nod.

However, he points out that one of the trials of making Pensil was a rejection slip by a station because there was no song and dance. But after sinking more than RM25,000 of his and his partner’s hard earned savings into the making of the film, they were not going to let go.

The perseverance paid off because when it finally made it on Vaanavil, the response from the media was huge.

“I got people calling to ask how they could help the boy in the movie and I had to tell them that it was a fictional character,” says Subash, who played the lead role. (In 2008, Pensil was made into a Malay film and screened at cinemas, with Subash reprising his role as the lead character.)

But one thing that no Indian movie can miss is the love story and one of my favourite love scenes is in Undercover Rascals.

This is where the hero enters into the line of fire with his Mitsubishi Evolution IV to rescue the damsel in distress. Seeing the baddie go for his gun, hero swings heroine to safety and in that split second, their eyes meet and they fall in love. How dramatic!

Meanwhile, plots continue to simmer and boil, enveloping everything in an aroma of drama and suspense.

Only this time, the cooking is happening right in our own backyard.

As for what’s in store for the future, trends show that the dream of “making it big in India” remains popular. But there are those who prefer to break away from the pack.

Currently, Gana is collaborating with partners from Bangladesh for Foreigner, a movie chronicling the life of a migrant worker abroad.

“Compare the Malaysian population of 28 million, Bangladesh has 180 million. You can do the math from here, I guess,” concludes Gana.

Published in The Star Monday 24 October 2011