Honestly, if there were to have been a competitor to the kind of fan worship we have been seeing for Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, it would certainly have been Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran. Few will be familiar with this long name. But shorten it to MGR, and, his countless fans will cry out in joy. An extremely popular matinee idol and once the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he used the moving medium with flawless ease to propagate the ideology of Dravidian parties -- first the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and later his own, All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which now rules Tamil Nadu.
Two of his fans -- P Mani and Krishnakumar -- with no connection whatsoever to cinema, except being ardent lovers of all those films that MGR was celebrated for -- are digitally restoring his 1971 blockbuster, Rickshawkaran.
A trailer of digitally enhanced Rickshawkaran will be released on August 21 at Devi Paradise, a theatre on Chennai’s busy commercial Mount Road -- or Anna Salai as it is now called. Why Devi Paradise? It was here that the movie was first shown 45 years ago-- hitting the screen on May 29, 1971.
While Devi Paradise, despite being a multi-screen complex, has not been able to keep up with the state-of-the-art facilities offered by other cinemas in the city, Mani and Krishnakumar feel that films like Rickshawkaran must be kept alive and up-to-date through restoration.
However, it will be a moment of travelling back in time -- to the good old days when a movie ran for weeks and weeks and when competition was not as punishing as it is today -- when the trailer will be screened.
The film is scheduled for a September opening, and one may well see a re-run of fan craze that all of us in Tamil Nadu are now familiar with.
Rickshawkaran -- which was remade in Hindi as Rickshawala (with Neetu Singh debuting in it and playing along with Mala Sinha and Randhir Kapoor) in 1973 -- had all the ingredients that went with an MGR adventure. As a former military officer, Selvam, he witnesses the killing of a rickshaw-puller, and in trying to unearth the mystery behind the murder, he chances upon a prostitution ring and judicial corruption. In the end, Selvam saves the girlfriend, Soussi, of the slain rickshaw-puller, (actress Manjula was first seen in a lead role here), from a ruinous future.
A typically swashbuckling MGR portrays the good guy in Rickshawkaran (directed by Krishnan Nair) -- which was in line with the actor’s innumerable other works, where he had invariably presented a cocktail of entertainment and “jan seva”, helping the downtrodden win their rights and offering solace to wronged women.
The re-mastering of Rickshawkaran, which has some lilting numbers by MS Viswanathan, must have been inspired by the successes of films like MGR’s Ayirathil Oruvan (whose restored version played for 175 days when it was released a couple of years ago) and Sivaji Ganesan’s colour corrected historical epic, Karnan (which ran for 100 days in 2012).
Also Rickshawkaran’s release has been timed to coincide with the birth centenary celebrations of MGR -- who was born on January 17 2017 at Kandy in what was then Ceylon.