Senapathy, again: The timely re-release of ‘Indian’ amidst political change

As the Shankar directorial is hitting the screens again, after 28 years, South First revisits the iconic Kamal Haasan-starrer.

BySujatha Narayanan

Published Jun 06, 2024 | 9:00 PMUpdatedJun 06, 2024 | 10:01 PM

Shankar's Indian re-releases worldwide on 7 June

Indian‘s re-release could not have happened at a better time—given the 2024 Lok Sabha election results—that have witnessed a dissemination of dictatorial power by the common man.

Mention the name “Indian” and the first image that comes to mind is from 1996 when Shankar’s film—featured Kamal Haasan as Senapathy—depicted in an upright, giant cutout on Mount Road, complete with his Subhash Chandra Bose uniform.

For the first few days, no one comprehended who the man in the cutout was, and whether it was indeed, film publicity or character or wait, was it Kamal Haasan?

Newspapers carried teaser ads on the lines of a “Guess who?” and we all passed by the road later on with references from magazines that carried articles on the old man in khaki.

Then, an official announcement arrived.

The best thing about Indian‘s promotions, at that time, was how Shankar went about directly pitching Senapathy as the film’s Unique Selling Point (USP).

Also read: Highlights of Indian 2 audio launch: The sequel stands against divisive ideologies, says Kamal Haasan

Now, Kamal Haasan wasn’t playing Senapathy as a swashbuckling young man. The character, even in the flashback, was a serious man, and in almost 75 percent of the film he was an “old man”.

But then, Senapathy was played by an already accepted Best Actor in the country and a saleable star. Hence, Shankar was able to subvert the very idea of how irrespective of age, a strong character can still be “the hero” of a film.

When Kamal Haasan made headlines in Ananda Vikatan

Kamal Haasan as Senapathy thatha in Indian

Kamal Haasan as Senapathy thatha in ‘Indian’. (X)

Indeed, Indian‘s hero is an ageing freedom fighter. While the story was inspired by the 1977 Sivaji Ganesan-starrer Naan Pirandha Mann, which interestingly featured Kamal Haasan as the errant son, Indian stood out due to its unique treatment and compelling emotional core.

For that emotion to resonate, the older character had to be convincing, and who better than Kamal Haasan to bring any character to life?

Cut to 1994. As a team of students from college, we got an appointment with Kamal Haasan to interview him for a student magazine competition that was announced by “Ananda Vikatan“.

It was a herculean task to convince Sivaji Ganesan first, then Rajinikanth and then Kamal Haasan to speak to us, but we somehow managed to interview this “Triumvirate” and were now waiting for Kamal Haasan to walk into the meeting room any minute.

By then, Kamal Haasan was famous for changing his look for every film and the whole world knew how he now shot only one film at a time and that it was all a “hush-hush” thing until the film’s release.

But he didn’t say “no” to us clicking pictures of him, as he was appreciative of the student effort and answered our questions like he would’ve replied to an experienced journalist.

It was a long conversation and the reply that made it to the headline was his answer to my question on, “Do your directors find you interfering?”

He said (unperturbed), “Well, you can ask K Viswanath this. I’m doing a Telugu film with him now after a long time—the movie was Subha Sankalpam (1995) released as Paasavalai in Tamil—or if you need a more recent director, you can ask Shankar with whom I’m doing a film called Indian, and this look is for both the films.”

After a pause, Kamal Haasan added, “But having said that, I will also say this—Vishayam theriyaadha director-gal yennai paarththu bayappadalaam (filmmakers who don’t know their stuff may get scared of me.)”

When I inquired further about Indian, Kamal Haasan mentioned, off the record, that while he couldn’t divulge many details, the film was progressing well.

He explained that it was being shot in batches due to the need for both national and international locations, computer graphics, prosthetic makeup, and the large scale of the production.

For a college student, this was all too good to be true for off-the-record info!

This was good enough to keep me dreaming about when this film called Indian would release so we could show off to our friends and family saying, “Hey you see that foreign locale there, you see this makeup here, you see that VFX work in this song”, and beam with pride as to how the hero of the film himself had told us, all of this, way earlier while he was shooting the film.

Also Read: Indian is immortal, says Kamal Haasan in ‘Indian 2-An Intro’

Shankar lives up to the hype

A working still from Indian

A working still from ‘Indian’. (X)

Indian was finally released in 1996, by which time we had graduated from college. However, the conversation we had with Kamal Haasan in 1994 remained unforgettable.

His quotes, now famous, were particularly striking—he remarked that one doesn’t need to imitate their idol but should instead be inspired to excel in their pursuits. He even shared how he took up bodybuilding after watching Muhammad Ali in the ring.

I was waiting to watch Indian and so was the rest of Tamil Nadu and Kamal Haasan’s NRI fanbase overseas.

In 1996, Devi Theatre was the biggest multiplex screen in Chennai, where early morning shows or the FDFS screenings would happen with all fanfare.

Even in the first screening of Indian, every single person in the audience witnessed a super hit of gigantic proportions.

The film was several notches above what we had seen from director Shankar before.

Apart from Kamal Haasan, Indian had brilliant technical and aesthetic appeal and a scintillating soundtrack from AR Rahman, who was the toast of the season ever since his debut in 1992.

Each song was filmed in a wholly different set-up and when Kamal Haasan stepped into light in the “Kappalyeri Poyaachu” song, I realised I had seen this look LIVE two years before.

Remember, we are still talking about the years 1994-1996. It was not a pan-Indian film era, where the movie took forever to make and would be released in two parts, and so on.

A poster of Indian

A poster of ‘Indian’. (X)

Indian, at that time was a stand-alone film, which was released with much hype because of the director-actor combination, the music was already a rage with Vaali’s lyrics and Rahman’s beats and the cutout of Senapathy had caught everyone’s fancy. Indeed, it became one “must-see” facet of Madras at that time for those coming from out of town.

Needless to say, the film had an uproarious start ensuring a good theatrical run in everywhere.

The father Kamal Haasan was pitted against the son Kamal Haasan and what set both of them apart was an ideological difference.

This plot of Indian was superbly enmeshed with all the commercial elements that a mass film must have (which included three leading heroines): sharp writing (Sujatha aka Rangarajan), an engaging screenplay, and a new cast like Nedumudi Venu playing the cop in pursuit of Senapathy (one middle-aged man chasing an old man, another stereotype broken).

Varma kalai—the martial arts technique from Kerala became popular in Tamil Nadu post-Indian.

The study of visual effects and the use of the same in subsequent films caught onto both college students and the film industry.

I also signed up to learn 3D modelling and animation and learned how to morph a moving image into something else (animal to human and vice-versa—a technique successfully used in the “Maaya Machchindra” song in Indian).

Most of the horror comedies released in that period found good use for this technique and visual effects began to grow as a parallel industry.

Indian also ensured that Kamal Haasan reached his peak business as a pan-Indian actor pre-millennium itself. Once the film did great numbers in Tamil Nadu and overseas, the makers dubbed it in Hindi and Telugu, and guess what? The dubbed versions (Hindustani and Bharateeyudu) ran to packed houses.

Goundamani and Senthil were talking in Hindi and Telugu (of course with someone else dubbing for them) and audiences lapped it up as willingly as the original version.

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The ‘indispensable’ actor

Indian touched new peaks of box-office records that even a decade after the new millennium, the Shankar-Kamal Haasan combination was touted to be the most sought-after one since, Mani Ratnam-Kamal Haasan.

The film was a big gamble for AM Ratnam who took leaps of faith to release the film with ample confidence in Kamal Haasan’s versatility to deliver the acting chops and Shankar’s ability to show us a whole new experience on-screen.

The gamble paid off handsomely and Indian was, perhaps, that film that also broke the myth that a “commercially successful” film can’t win a National Award.

Indian fetched Kamal Haasan his third National Award in 1997. And the visual of him going to receive it in a silk dhoti and shirt, wearing one of his best smiles, is a viral clip circulating on Instagram even today.

The film and the role (Senapathy) became so iconic that Shankar and Kamal Haasan simply had to come back together to make Indian 2.

Only a few actors in the world can be termed as “indispensable” to a film and Kamal Haasan is that actor who has many such films in his oeuvre where nobody else can reprise his role.

In Indian, Senapathy is that character who became a modern-day legend who took on the world’s evils.

In 2018, Shankar and Kamal Haasan decided they would come together for Indian 2 and here we are in 2024 awaiting the sequel’s release.

As we wait for the 2.O version of Senapathy (in Indian 2), let’s first put our hands together on the age-defying superhero who rocked the 1996 box office!

Indian is getting a re-release on Friday, 7 June 2024.

See you at the movies!

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