Revisiting Kamal Haasan’s 1986 Vikram: A Film Ahead of Its Time
With Kamal’s upcoming ‘Vikram’, directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj, set to be released in a few weeks, the author recalls the expectations and hype surrounding the release of the 1986 star’s ‘original’ film of the same name.
There may not be the frantic requests for daily “updates” on social media like the ones we saw for Valimai but in terms of audience expectations, Kamal Haasan’s next film VikramName is not far behind. And there are several reasons for this. Beyond the obvious reason that it’s a starring Kamal, the star teaming up with exciting young director Lokesh Kanagaraj is another. A cast that also includes powerful artists like Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi is another. Since the project was titled Vikram, the name of another Kamal film that hit the big screen in the summer of 1986, the plot only escalated.
Just like the promos for the new VikramName promised, the original VikramName was also an action film in its own right and the first production venture of Kamal’s own company – Raaj Kamal Films International. Kamal’s first production was Raja Paarvai (1981) but it was under the Haasan Brothers banner. For ease of reference and understanding, I call the 1986 film Vikram 1.0 and the next movie Vikram 2.0 in this piece. Weeks away from theatrical release, the hype Vikram 2.0 has created is palpable. Seeing all this excitement, I couldn’t help but go back 36 years, when Vikram 1.0 has been freed.
Long before Vikram 1.0 was released theatrically, his story was published as a serial (thodar kathai) in a popular Tamil weekly magazine Kumudam. In the pre-social media days, it was a way to build expectations around a great movie before it came out. Typically in this format, the story lasts a few weeks and abruptly ends somewhere at the three-fourth point with this infuriating statement – “Meedhi viraivil velli thiraiyil kaanga” (Watch the sequel soon on the big screen)! I even remember the hit 1981 film by K Bhagyaraj Mouna Geetangal followed this route.
the VikramName the series, written by writer ace Sujatha, followed the same technique, and I have to say, it worked really well. It was a time when Sujatha was extremely popular. His serialized stories were prepared by filmmakers to be adapted for the big screen. But I suspect that VikramName was his first effort writing a story specifically for a movie. I’m not surprised that Kamal, who always enjoys collaborating with talented writers, worked with Sujatha on this film, which kicked off the latter’s active writing sleeves in films.
To a large extent, Vikram 1.0 was a new attempt in Tamil cinema. Reports say it was the first Tamil film to use the Steadicam just a few years after it was used in Hollywood. Kamal in the lead, writer Sujatha behind the screenplay and music by Ilaiyaraaja, who was also at the height of his career at the time, were enough to spark unprecedented anticipation for the film at the time. I should add here that the title song “Vikram, Vikram…”, which incidentally also appears in Vikram 2.0used computer modulated vocals alongside Kamal as lead vocalist and became a huge hit before the release itself.
I vividly remember when a group of us, avid fans of Kamal’s work, went to see Vikram 1.0 at the theater we were blown away by what we saw in the first few minutes. From the opening credits, in which Kamal did a solo breakdancing sequence shot in silhouette, to the very first close-up of a rain-soaked pigeon perched on a doorstep on a cloudy day, we knew we were going to live. something different in terms of filmmaking in Tamil cinema. The film was directed by the late Rajashekar, who had built a reputation for making good masala films like Thambikku Entha Ooru, Padikkadavan and Kaakki Sattai just before that.
Unfortunately, our excitement didn’t last too long. The film began to unravel soon. The story, which was basically about intelligence detective Arun Kumar Vikram (played by Kamal, of course) on a mission to save the country from a missile attack, went viral around the world. Looking at the ensemble cast which included Amjad Khan – Bollywood’s biggest villain at the time, super glamorous Dimple Kapadia, Sathyaraj as the main villain, Janakaraj, Malayalam actor Lissy apart from Kamal himself , does anyone have any doubt that Kamal was making a ‘pan-Indian’ film at the time himself? But the script as it played out went over the heads of the common viewer even in Tamil Nadu. Result – the film had a particularly good opening but was panned by critics and audiences. Although it may have done well commercially, it cannot be counted among Kamal’s best films.
I’m sure when Kamal and Sujatha came up with the idea for the movie, they wanted to make the first and one of the best sci-fi/crime/spy thriller movies in Tamil in the “Bond” genre. Vikram’s characterization as a spy who was emotionless and had several girls who desired him while displaying a “don’t care” attitude is a page straight out of the Bond series. Not to mention the action overload, chase sequences, and plethora of firearms on display. But somewhere from paper to screen, the film got lost in translation.
What let the movie down were three things, in my opinion. First, the script. As the chase for the stolen missile takes place in India, the film wanders through a medieval desert kingdom called Salamiya, where people spoke the Salamiya language. Even for 1986, a Raja-Rani interlude was a yawn. By the time the story returns to the original theme of the missile hijacking, the audience’s interest was already lost. Second, manufacturing. Without the VFX/SFX tools and technological aids we have today, the production left a lot to be desired. The director himself was new to the genre and was probably overwhelmed with the task at hand. Years later, Kamal would be of the opinion that he wished Vikram 1.0 was directed by Mani Ratnam, who he said would have done more justice to the subject matter. Third, the subject itself was probably ahead of its time. This isn’t the first time a Kamal film has suffered from this count. His Aalavandhan, Anbe Sivam, the evil Uttama, which did not do well at the box office, all had the same problem.
I felt that years later when Kamal wrote and directed Vishwaroopam (1&2)it was a kind of atonement for Vikram 1.0! Vishwaroopam is also a spy thriller in the Bond model in which, in my opinion, Kamal corrected all the problems that we saw in Vikram 1.0. There are many obvious similarities, such as the subject matter (an intelligence agent on a mission to save the world), two ladies helping Kamal, a story spanning multiple continents, Afghanistan instead of Salamiya, and whether the Vikram 1.0 climax had computer expert Lissy helping to alter the direction of the missile, by Vishwaroopam it’s Pooja Kumar as an oncologist who uses a Faraday shield to diffuse the cesium bomb. And don’t forget the foreground of pigeons in both films. With a much better script, superior craftsmanship and execution, Vishwaroopamespecially the first part, can count among Kamal’s top 10 films.
Back to the present, what is Vikram 2.0 hold for us? We hope that Lokesh Kanakaraj VikramName “explodes” on the big screen, “fires” on all cylinders and releases “all guns blazing” as among the best films of Kamal. The film is set to hit theaters worldwide on June 3.
Watch Vikram – Make a Glimpse video here:
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional during the week and an avid blogger during the weekend. He writes about politics, business and movies.