Revisiting ‘Amarkalam’, the film that brought Ajith and Shalini together

The couple completes 20 years of marriage on April 24.

It would be an understatement to say that Amarkalam was an important film in Ajith’s career. Not only did the 1999 film directed by Saran pave the way for the actor to do more action films, it was also on the sets of Amarkalam that Ajith fell in love with his co-star, Shalini. The couple celebrates 20 years of marriage on April 24, Friday.

A few months before the release of Amarkalam came Vaali, a film where Ajith played dual roles — as the hero and antagonist. Though it was rated ‘A’, it went on to become a blockbuster and proved that Ajith could pull off negative characters and not only the sensitive, romantic hero. In Amarkalam, his character Vasu is an amoral goon with a troubled past; he lives on the premises of a theatre, and spends his days fighting and getting drunk.

He’s introduced in a fight scene, the camera panning from the kada in his hand to the chain around his neck as the actor lights up a cigarette. We know immediately that he’s the ‘bad boy’ hero. This was a time when the younger generation of stars was competing to establish themselves and take over the superstar mantle. Not surprisingly, the first fight in the film ends with a tribute to MGR, and the hero and heroine meet over a missing reel from Rajinikanth’s Annamalai.

Ajith was not yet ‘Thala’ as he’s known now. That title would come with Dheena, the AR Murugadoss film that was released two years later. In Amarkalam, the credits call him ‘Lucky Star’ while Shalini gets the even more strange title ‘Love Star’. Shalini had made her debut as heroine two years earlier in the Malayalam film Anniyathi Praavu, while this was Ajith’s 25th film. But, between the two of them, Shalini was the senior on the sets, having faced the camera from the age of three and becoming a wildly popular child star.

Perhaps this is why she was unfazed by the incident on the sets which is said to have brought the two of them together. When an enraged Vasu (Ajith) goes to Mohana’s (Shalini) house looking for the missing reel that she’s hidden, he threatens the women of the house with a knife. When Mohana refuses to give in, he ends up cutting her with a knife. On the sets, Ajith accidentally injured Shalini and while he was horrified by what he’d done, she took it in her stride. That’s supposedly when the sparks began to fly between them although they’d already met before this at the premiere of Ajith’s Kaadhal Mannan, which Shalini attended. Legend has it that Ajith told Shalini at the premiere that her newly curled hair didn’t suit her, but when he saw that she was annoyed, he confessed that he’d found her freely flowing hair in Kaadhalukku Mariyadhai beautiful.

Amarkalam opens with Shalini’s character Mohana singing ‘Sondha Kuralil Pada’, a song that she sang herself. We then cut to Vasu’s introduction as a goon, establishing the contrast between them. Though Mohana is chirpy and cheerful, she doesn’t slip into the ‘loosu ponnu’ category. The film has a convoluted plot on love, friendship and betrayal — perhaps melodramatic and problematic in parts when we revisit it now. However, the two actors undeniably shared a great chemistry that made the story come alive on screen.

Two songs from the film — ‘Satham Illatha’ and ‘Unnodu Vaazhadha’ (music by Bharathwaj) — still stand out for their visualisation and dramatic value. The first is an intense song which has the refrain ‘Keten’ (I asked for), where Vasu expresses how much he has been denied all his life. It happens when he abducts Mohana on the instructions of the antagonist Tulasi (Rahuvaran). And yes, she ends up empathising with him — not the first or last time that Tamil cinema romanticised Stockholm Syndrome. The song, belted out in SPB’s booming voice, became nothing short of a rage, with the addictive and angsty lyrics immediately touching a chord with the youth.

The second one is a dream sequence where Vasu enters Mohana’s house, which is full of senior police officers, and she romances with him right under their nose. As the couple waltzes around, the members of the house go about doing their everyday work, completely oblivious to them. The song comes a few minutes after an awkward Vasu expresses his interest in Mohana with a bunch of red roses, as instructed by Tulasi. Though he’s supposed to act like he’s in love with her, he genuinely falls for Mohana (no surprises there). Vasu’s apologetic expression and Mohana’s smitten eyes made the scene unforgettable for the audience.

Ajith wasn’t yet the superstar that he is now and he was allowed to be vulnerable on screen. The film had space for the antagonist to perform and make an impact, unlike the lazily written and bloated star vehicles that we see now. Raghuvaran was one of the best villains in the history of Tamil cinema, and as the manipulative father figure in Vasu’s life, he helped escalate the conflict in the film with ease. Nassar, who plays Mohana’s doting adoptive father, is another member of the cast who pulls the film together. Others like Radikaa, Ambika, Charle, Ramesh Kanna (who reportedly advised Ajith on the sets not to marry a woman actor, unaware that he was interested in Shalini), Dhamu, Vinu Chakravarthy and Vaiyapuri made for a good supporting cast.

Amarkalam went on to become a superhit, and was remade in Telugu and Kannada. And considering it’s the only film where Ajith and Shalini acted together, it remains special for ‘Thala’ fans who’ve followed his career from the early years and just can’t get enough of him.

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