Singeetam Srinivasa Rao doesn’t believe in past glory — he hasn’t revisited his movies after their release. “The moment I’m done with a film, it’s over. Thirty years ago, I cracked a joke and you laughed. But the same joke may not work today,” smiles Singeetam, slouched in his chair at his home-cum-office, which has been his creative space, paving the way for path-breaking films.
One of those is Apoorva Sagodharargal, which, he says, was a result of madness. Kamal Haasan was wrestling with the idea of playing a dwarf and told Singeetam about it. “I remember him playing a dwarf in a small scene in K Balachander’s movie (Punnagai Mannan).”
Not many know that Kamal and Singeetam had initially planned to make a tragic story — of a dwarf who works in a circus and falls for a woman who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. “He realises that she left him for another man only in the climax, with a tear-inducing ‘lala lala’ song by Ilaiyaraaja. We even shot for a week,” he recalls, adding, “But I was sceptical…because Kamal was a superstar and people wouldn’t accept him losing.”
When Singeetam and Kamal hit a roadblock, it was producer Panchu Arunachalam, who later produced their cult-comedy Michael Madhana Kama Rajan (MMKR), who came to their rescue. “If you are unwell, you go to a doctor who would diagnose your condition. One such doctor was Panchu Arunachalam,” he laughs, “When we consulted him, he said, ‘you have a unique character — the dwarf; make him the hero and your picture is a hit’.”
Arunachalam made alterations to the script, suiting the sensibilities of Kodambakkam audience, and suggested that Kamal play a double role — as twins. “We already had Raja, who ‘satisfies’ the popular audience and Appu, who makes the actual story.”
Though Singeetam was convinced by Arunchalam’s calculative approach, he was still worried about the danger of the other character fading out. “Appu was an interesting character, who was an instant hit. But I was unsure about Raja. If your script has a peculiar character, the chances of the other becoming insignificant are highly possible,” he explains, “I was very particular that Raja had the best scenes. Which is why we brought in the whole mistaken identity, tiger dance and romance.”
The filmmaker believes that Apoorva Sagodharargal was possible because of a passionate producer — Kamal Haasan, “I’ll rank Kamal, the producer, above the actor for this film. Sometimes, an artist requires a little madness. In that sense, Kamal is next in-line to masters like Hitchcock, Orson Welles, V Shantaram and Raj Kapoor.”
The camaraderie Singeetam shares with Kamal is quite evident, when he talks about their long association. “We never had ego clashes and used to laugh at each other’s jokes. Maybe that’s why our friendship continues even today.”
A roller-coaster ride
Singeetham remembers shooting in Cochin for the circus portions. “The circus people there joined our production and made it easier for us. But we couldn’t complete the shoot. So, we brought lions, tigers and elephants to Venus Studios, forming our own little circus,” he jokes. Thirty years on, the technique employed in portraying the dwarf remains a mystery. Mention this to him, and the filmmaker is dismissive of the techniques. According to Singeetam, the film’s greatest achievement was: “the ability to convince audiences that Kamal was a dwarf”. He elaborates: “People would talk about how we made the film since then computer graphics was absent. Families thronged in large numbers… because they believed Kamal was a dwarf.”
He goes on to add, “Technique is a minor thing. Recently, there have been films about dwarfs. Everything is available today; technology, budget and star, but the soul is missing.”
Apoorva Sagodharargal also paid a hat-tip to Mera Naam Joker. Was Singeetam influenced by the Raj Kapoor directorial? “Not knowingly, but yes, I was subconsciously influenced by the film. But even then, it wasn’t a shameless rip-off.”
Apoorva Sagodharargal never took a patronising tone or body shamed its protagonist, despite having a vertically-challenged person as its hero. “We were conscious that Appu shouldn’t be humiliated.” Even when the film came remotely close to doing that, Appu transforms into a beast. A scene that comes to mind is the one where he’s on the verge of committing suicide, “Appu wears a joker’s mask, but beneath that there’s sorrow. It’s slightly Chaplinistic,” he says, adding, “The film worked because these scenes weren’t concocted and put. When you do that, it becomes inorganic.”
Scripting a cult
- Apoorva Sagodharargal was dubbed and released in Hindi as Appu Raja.
- Veteran actor Prem Nazir was the initial choice for Sethupathy’s character, which was eventually played by Kamal himself.
- In the film, Appu uses a Rube Goldberg Machine to kill Francis Anbarasu (Delhi Ganesh). The scene became so popular that it was parodied in Thamizh Padam (2010).
- Singeetam Srinivasa Rao and Kamal Haasan were planning to make a documentary on the making of Apoorva Sagodharargal. Unfortunately, the project never took off.
- Rao loves to binge-watch TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime. He recently watched 96 and says he loved it. He’s also a fan of Game of Thrones.
One of the underrated aspects of Apoorva Sagodharargal was its terrific casting — that included names like Nagesh, Srividya, Nasser, Manorama, Jaishankar, Janagaraj and Delhi Ganesh. It wasn’t a surprise that Nagesh outperformed them all, agrees Singeetham. Shedding light on the unusual casting, he says, “At times, an unexpected person will be a bigger hit than a conventional villain, provided he’s highly talented.” He speaks highly of Nagesh, who gave life to the character of Dharmaraj. “It was again the Nagesh who played a corpse in Magalir Mattum and Avinashi in MMKR. He’s one of the great actors we’ve had.”
Singeetam shares an interesting anecdote about how he approached Prem Nazir to essay Sethupathy’s role. “He (Prem Nazir) was very unwell at that time. Having done two roles, I asked Kamal to do one more,” he jokes.
Ask him about the brilliant wordplay — thanks to Crazy Mohan — where Appu says, “Sethupathi ku poranthathu rettai…adhula onnu kuttai” and he says: “Certain things come up after you lock the script, just like this one. Had it featured Prem Nazir, probably this wouldn’t have been there.”
Memories of murder
One of the highlights of Apoorva Sagodharargal, apart from the performances and songs, was its innovative way of delivering vigilante justice. “He was a highly intelligent dwarf and also a circus artiste. More than taking revenge, he wanted to entertain himself. If you look at Appu’s cruel smile in the climax, it’s peak narasimha avatar.”
Singeetam has a new perspective about the character. “If you watch closely, Appu never killed anyone,” he shrugs, “Any normal person would finish them off in a split-second, but not Appu. Killing was a cheap thing for him.”
When Kamal shot for the last scene, the entire unit was moved except for Singeetam. “He was brilliant, but I wasn’t able to accept him sobbing in the climax. I told him: ‘Put on a straight face. Because, you’re sobbing deep inside’.”
Kamal re-shot the scene, but this time, though, people didn’t clap for him. They were stunned, as was the audience.