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Polandine Patti Episode 12

Last updated on September 22, 2022

In Episode 12, we continue our look at Action Films in Malayalam cinema. This time, we look at the two actors who are considered actual action stars:  Suresh Gopi and Jayan.

Spoiler Alert! We try to remember to alert listeners to spoilers, but just in case, know that we talk about the films in-depth, so be sure to watch them first if you’re concerned about spoilers!

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Episode Twelve Highlights:

[00:00:20] We begin after having talked about terrorism and democracy in the US and Canada.  Harsha notes that it’s always interesting to watch Indian films from the pre-liberalization period because they’re a reminder that Indian democracy is a very recent thing, and that there was a period in history when India wasn’t democratic at all.

[00:02:00]  We segue into today’s episode, action movies with two actors who are firmly considered action stars:  Suresh Gopi and Jayan.

[00:02:30]  Because Suresh Gopi lived longer than Jayan he’s had time to move beyond simply being an action star, even if what he became a star for was police or military action movies.

[00:03:00]  The first movie we look at is Kashmeeram from 1994.  Suresh Gopi imbued a very definite idea of masculinity in this movie.  Harsha reminds us that he was her crush as a little kid.

[00:03:20]  Once again, Katherine is at a disadvantage, as three of the four films today were unsubtitled.

[00:03:50]  Kashmeeram is a very classic action story in which a secret service agent has to protect a prominent political/judicial figure.

[00:04:45]  Harsha feels that this is the movie in his filmography that made him a definite action star.  (But don’t quote her on that.)

[00:05:45]  How do we best protect someone, and what are the lines around that protection?

[00:06:00]  Harsha finds it a very massy movie and a fun film to watch.  She enjoys Priya Raman in it as the spoiled, bratty daughter of the judge (played by the excellent actor Sharada).

[00:06:25]  Sharada started in Malayalam cinema playing heroines opposite Prem Nazir, and then moved to playing mother or grandmother roles, so it’s nice to see her in this part of her career playing this important character.

[00:06:50]  It’s an important role, too, a judge in a terrorism case. As Harsha notes, it’s absolutely not a disposable character.

[00:07:05]  Even though the women in 90s roles are still in films soaked in patriarchy, Harsha feels there are some strong female characters, prior to earlier periods where we don’t see many female characters with strong agency.

[00:07:25]  The songs in the movie are really fun and enjoyable to listen to.

[00:07:45]  Katherine feels that even in the action films of these two actors, films have long stretches without action, and much is defined by a strong on-screen presence.

[00:08:20]  Harsha finds with Suresh Gopi there’s a different demeanor he adopts in his action movies.  Mimicry artists for decades have drawn on his action demeanor for their imitations of him.  He uses lots of English as well – and his punch dialogues are almost always in English.

[00:09:00]  The last ten minutes or so of the film are full on action.  Things explode and go flying, it’s very artistically done.

[00:09:25]  Harsha notes that the portrayal of the terrorists in the film is extremely racist.  It also makes political points that uphold the Indian state as “this big holy thing”, and people in conflict with the Indian state as the bad guys.  It’s a constant in 90s films.  (See article about Dil Se)

[00:10:35]  The film seems to be saying there’s no difference between Kerala and the power centre in Delhi.  It’s a very jingoistic film.

[00:11:05] That kind of statement, that “we, Malayalees, are no different from the centre of the country” – Harsha is not sure that Malayalam cinema can truthfully make a statement like that.  She suggests perhaps that someone like Major Ravi, who is so associated with military service might make a film like that, but she doesn’t think that there’s any sense in Malayalam cinema that Kerala is the same as the centre at this point, and that distance has only grown in the three decades since the movie came out.

[0:00:12:00]  Katherine tries to understand the frustration of a family chafing at being guarded by Suresh Gopi’s Black Cat character.

[00:00:12:15] The motivations of the characters in the film are fairly understandable.  Harsha speaks about Madhupal’s duplicitous character as one of his more memorable roles in a movie.  These days he’s probably known more as a director and a screenwriter than as an actor.

[00:13:15]  We turn to a discussion of the 2007 film Nadia Kolappetta Rathri.  Harsha suggests that even though it’s billed as a Suresh Gopi film, the main character really is the one played by Kavya Madhavan.  Katherine notes that’s another reason she was interested in it.  She plays a duel role, sisters who are a dancer on one hand and a sharp-shooter on the other.

[00:13:55]  Katherine feels the film has a kind of Agatha Christie-esque feel.  Three attacks take place on a train.  Suresh Gopi’s character is an encounter specialist.  He’s railway police.  It’s not as cool as they’re making it sound in the film, but, well, it’s Suresh Gopi.

[00:15:00]  Suresh Gopi’s character is with the RACT – The Railway Anti-Criminal Task Force.  Harsha notes it’s a very silly name.  But they make it sound very impressive in the film.

[00:14:35]  An encounter specialist is essentially a glorified movie term.  It does exist, but basically encounters are extra-judicial killings, so if they’re a specialist, it’s a specialist in doing something extremely illegal.

[00:15:40]  Harsha felt it was Agatha Christie inspired, too, and looking it up, she found it was, indeed, based on a Christie novel, Elephants Can Remember

[00:16:05]  Katherine notes that the film is less about action, and more about Suresh Gopi’s style and persona (I mean, he is literally playing Hercule Poirot, yes?).  He does get an action hero introduction in the film, though.

[00:16:15]  Kavya Madhavan probably gets more action to do in the film than Suresh Gopi does.  The climax has more to do with her than him. 

[00:16:55]  Katherine notes that one of the things she likes about the film is that Suresh Gopi’s character, Sharafuddeen, has two colleagues:  his assistant Sudarshan, played by Shammi Thilakan, and Selvan, played by (as Harsha notes) a very young Joju George.  It’s always fun to see these actors, especially in this low period in Malayalam cinema, and see that they now have much bigger careers.

[00:17:45]  You have to look for the joys of watching cinema in this period in the oddest thing.

[00:17:50]  Harsha notes we also have Madhupal playing another random creep in this movie.

[00:18:15]  Harsha feels that saying it’s an Agatha Christie inspired movie encapsulates how she felt about it.  The beats are familiar, there are lots of tropes. 

[00:18:40]  Katherine wanted to include this film because we have the female actor taking on some of the action, which rarely happens.  Harsha was surprised to see it in Kavya Madhavan’s filmography, because it’s not like the characters she is synonymous with.

Please note:    Listeners who have followed us through all our episodes know that we rarely talk about the actor we refer to as That Guy, or The Actor Who Shall Not Be Named, in particular because of the sexual assault of the actress Bhavana Menon (we are using her name here because she very purposely revealed her identity in order to tell people about what she’d been through in the five years since the assault took place.  We also know that Kavya Madhavan, the wife of The Actor Who Shall Not Be Named, was questioned in connection to the case, and that a memory card with pictures of the assault was allegedly kept in the office of her business.  We want to be clear that we understand these connections, and we aren’t trying to give her a pass on this because she’s a woman (particularly as we make a point not to discuss her husband’s films).

[00:20:20]  Harsha has the sense that Suresh Gopi in this film is trying to recapture the glory days of the 90s.  We’re supposed to recall our affection for him in older movies.  Katherine wonders if there’s supposed to be a call-back to Kashmeeram here.  Harsha thinks that Suresh Gopi has played a number of Black Cat commando characters by this point in his career, and they’re all stemming from Kashmeeram.

[00:21:45]  Siddique.  And his wig. And Katherine’s Theory of Siddique’s Wigs.  Harsha points out that Malayalam films have a history of actors wearing terrible wigs.

[00:24:10]  We turn next to the late Jayan.  Neither of us was very familiar with his films, though Harsha was familiar with his punch dialogues, especially his “We are not beggars, we are coolies” speech from Angadi.

[00:24:55]  The first movie we discuss, Prabhu from 1977, is not so much a Jayan movie as it is a Prem Nazir movie.

[00:25:05]  Katherine only heard about Jayan when remembrances were written up, but couldn’t find any of his films.  She also notes that Siddique’s character in Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan is a huge Jayan fan.  She is frustrated that Scube did not put Angadi on their YouTube channel as originally intended.

[00:27:44]  There are a lot of complicated family connections in this movie.  It’s also a gangster film, so there’s smuggling and land mafia stuff going on, and the film is essentially about the two heros ganging up to save the day.

[00:28:10]  Kaviyoor Ponnamma plays Prem Nazir’s mother.  She is much younger than him.  Sigh.  We can’t figure out why she didn’t get cast in heroine roles instead of mother roles.

[00:29:20]  The benefit of playing the mother is you don’t have to be sexualized – and Seema is extremely sexualized in this movie.

[00:30:05]  Harsha thinks this may be the first time she’s seen Prem Nazir dance.  He’s like Mammootty, he’s not a dancing actor.

[00:30:35]  Katherine thinks it’s unfortunate that this is the first Prem Nazir film we’re talking about.  Katherine loves some of his films from the 60s, especially when he’s paired with Sheela.

[00:31:35]  Katherine’s experience is that the only time you’re going to find Jayan films with subtitles is usually where he’s starring alongside someone else, like Prem Nazir in this film.  And it’s unfortunate for Prem Nazir, because Jayan is young and vibrant.  This is very clear in the action scenes:  Jayan was known for doing his own stunts.

[00:32:30]  Jayan is, like Suresh Gopi, an actor with a definite demeanor and screen presence.  He’s very charismatic to watch, even when he’s in a smaller role like this alongside Prem Nazir.

[00:33:20]  It’s great to watch Jayan doing his own stunts, but it’s also unfortunate because he passed away because he was committed to doing his own stunts.  But him doing his own stunts brings real value to this movie.

[00:33:30]  There’s nothing in the plot that requires Jayan to be there.  But it’s like what we’ll see later with Mammootty and Mohanlal films of the 2000s, a younger hero is added to do the action and dancing portions.

[00:34:05]  Jayan doesn’t even get to do any romancing in this movie.  Prem Nazir does a lot of romancing in this movie, which is his forte.  But, as Katherine notes, he’s also reached a point in his career where the heroines are getting younger and younger. 

[00:34:25]  Katherine finds it sad, and notes she enjoys Prem Nazir’s movies from the 60s – he has a matinee idol look that makes her understand why he was so popular.

[00:34:45]  An unanswerable question:  what would have happened if Jayan had survived?  Harsha finds it an interesting question.  His career was so short – less than a decade.  What kind of actor would he have been in New Generation movies?  How would today’s directors have re-invented him, as, for example, they’ve re-invented Suresh Gopi?

[00:35:25]  Harsha feels that when Jayan plays romance, there is often a lascivious tinge to it – it’s not like a “pure” Prem Nazir romance.

[00:36:00]  Harsha’s experience of the film is coloured by the people who have imitated Jayan and Prem Nazir.

[00:36:35]  Katherine’s reading on Jayan has her noting that when he died, people did feel there was this sudden gap in the industry.  There was a perhaps apocryphal reference that Mammootty had been pegged to fill that action gap.

[00:37:20]  One of the things the film highlights is that we’re at the twilight of Prem Nazir’s career, and people are trying to find the next hero who can take it forward.

[00:37:40]  Jayan’s death was so shocking, and it gave rise to a number of “ghost of Elvis” stories, that Jayan is still alive somewhere.

[00:37:50]  This is still a period where films were shot on soundstage, and acting is very stylized, staged like in theatre.

[00:38:30]  Katherine would hestitate to recommend a Prem Nazir film to people unfamiliar with old cinema, whether Malayalam or Hollywood.  We haven’t reached the era of more naturalistic acting.

[00:39:05]  Jose Prakash, who plays the villain, is famous for playing villains in Malayalam cinema.  He’s such a familiar face.

[00:39:45]  This movie is a bundle of familiarity for Harsha in a lot of ways.

[00:39:55]  We end with a discussion of the final film for this episode, Sarapancharam.  If we could tell that Nadia Kolappetta Rathri was based on an Agatha Christie novel, we can also tell that Sarapancharam has its roots in a 19th century European novel (in this case, Lady Chatterly’s Lover)

[00:40:23]  Jayan plays the lover, and Sheela plays the Lady Chatterly character.  It has more artistic merit than Prabhu does.  And Jayan just hams it up royally in this film.

[00:40:40]  Jayan’s character is a lascivious creep, and Katherine was there for that.  And once again, a film she’d love to have subtitles for.  Do we sense a theme here?

[00:41:05]  Katherine likes the fact that, in the first part of the film especially, the film is dealing with the female gaze.  Sheela’s character plays a woman whose husband is impotent, so she turns to the stable boy for physical satisfaction.  Sadly, she’s punished for this.  Jayan’s character was only there for her money.

[00:41:30]  Harsha notes that there are so many scenes in the first half where Sheela is just staring at Jayan lustfully from her balcony.  Even if they haven’t seen Sarapancharam, people are still familiar with the famous scene where he flexes his muscles as he rubs down a horse.

[00:41;55]  Harsha has never seen such tiny shorts and tiny skirts in Malayalam movies.  Katherine notes there are also a lot of cleavage shots.  It’s a very horny movie.

[00:42:10] Katherine notes that it’s not really an action movie until right at the very end, but it is this action star idea of a heightened masculinity.  It’s interesting to see that transferred into a very non-action film.

[00:42:45]  The horse is literally a stand-in for Jayan’s character.  Every time his step-daughter beats up on a horse or a picture of a horse we know it’s really because she’s angry at Jayan.  It’s tied to masculinity, to virility.

[00:43:05]  Jayan’s character represents a kind of toxic masculinity so prevalent in 19th century European literature.

[00:43:20]  When Sheela’s character finds him cheating on her, spending her money, bringing his mistresses home, she sends her daughter away to boarding school out of this toxic environment, but the child grows up extremely resentful of her mother and step-father.

[00:44:20]  We note the presence of house fave Shankar.  But once again, there’s a boy who has vengeance to seek, who tries to take out Jayan.

[00:44:25]  At the end of the day, it’s still the female characters who drive the story, and the Chekov’s gun goes off in Sheela’s hands.  She’s the one that brought this problem into their lives, and she’s the one who’s going to deal with it.

[00:44:50]  Katherine struggles to describe the confrontation between Jayan’s character and the step-daughter’s boyfriend, and Harsha tells it like it is:  it’s an extremely homoerotic scene.

[00:45:10]  We all know if you’re going to have a man-to-man fight, they’re going to have to strip off their shirts.

[00:45:15]  The gaze objectifies everyone in this movie.

[00:45:35]  Sheela’s gaze and her desires are taken very seriously.  Harsha respects that about the movie.  Yes, her character is punished, but she is not really judged (except by her daughter and brother) for cheating.  It doesn’t feel like the servants judge her; mostly it feels like they sympathize with her.

[00:46:05]  It is interesting to consider as a film.  And Harsha raises the SRK film Maya Memsaab, based on Madame Bovary, to see how it treats female sexuality in contrast to Sarapancharam.

[00:47:00]  Inevitably, the woman has to pay for her desires.

[00:47:20]  Katherine leads us to summing up – for her, it’s challenging to have the two actors most associated with action in Malayalam cinema whose films are not widely available to people beyond Malayalees and the diaspora (ie, people who need subtitles).

[00:47:35]  Harsha feels there’s a big gap that the industry needs to fill.  There’s a lot of room for these movies to be restored.  It’s unfortunate, too, that every time you search for these movies, they always show the “naughtiest” clips from the movie in the screenshot, and you might be hesitant to click on it.

[00:48:10]  Harsha wishes there were channels and vendors treating Sarapancharam as art, and not just as “check out the horniest clips from your youth.”

[00:48:15]  Katherine found that to be an issue when she was looking for clips to share with listeners, and things labelled as shocking out of context are not actually as shocking in the context of the whole film.

[00:48:40]  Those clips give you a distorted sense of what the movie really is about.  It’s definitely a film about sexuality, but it’s a whole story beyond the titillating clips.  If you had seen the film in a movie theatre in the period it was released, you would have got the whole story.

[00:49:20]  These movies are part of Malayalam cinema’s heritage, and Harsha urges people to check them out as part of Malayalam cinema’s continuing dialogue with the society it’s part of.  Think about what these movies represent and the time period they came from.

[00:49:55]  It’s especially interesting to see Sheela in this kind of role, when what we might be more familiar with is her roles in some of those very innocent 1960s movies.

[00:50:25]  Katherine agrees that this is a really interesting role for Sheela, and she’d probably watch this film more for her than for Jayan.

[00:50:40]  Harsha notes how much more sexuality is interlaced into the movies from the 70s and 80s than perhaps even today.   Though she notes that it’s in films like Thoovanathumbikal, and since that’s a Padmarajan movie, people think of it as “art”.   To see these movies with a bit of an erotic undertone can be shocking.

[00:51:50]  Harsha suggests that it’s the Jayan movies that have an erotic undertone, and doesn’t think you’d find that in Suresh Gopi movies (he’s all about the English dialogues, though).

[00:51:55]  Harsha wonders if people then would have taken the whole family to see these movies – there hasn’t been, classically, a lot of separation between movies you can take your family to versus films just for adults.  And if they did go with the whole family to see Sarapancharam, what would they have thought?

[00:52:53]  Katherine notes we went from Action Heroes to Morality Tales.

[00:53:00]  We begin to wind things up, and Harsha notes that we’ll be looking at Malayalam cinema’s latest attempts to do action (which really isn’t all that much of action at all), and notes that action is a very niche genre in Malayalam cinema, which is an industry not really known for action.

[00:53:25]  It’s been an interesting journey.

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