The man who made Rajinikanth

The censor board wasn’t pleased when they learned they had to certify A Creator with Midas Touch, writer-producer Dhananjayan’s documentary on Panchu Arunachalam. For one, the screening was scheduled on New Year’s eve. Two, it was a documentary, over two hours long. But according to Dhananjayan, when the film ended at 10:30 that night, the officials were unanimous in expressing that they couldn’t have ended 2015 in a better way. “It turns out even they were unaware of the extent of Panchu’s contribution to Tamil cinema.”

Panchu Arunachalam has written close to 100 films, including Murattu Kaalai, Sakalakala Vallavan and Apoorva Sagodharargal, “of which at least 70 turned out to be profitable.” A nephew of celebrated lyricist Kannadasan, he is also known for introducing Ilaiyaraaja, and taking Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth to the masses. “Balachander may have introduced me, but Panchu made me an artist,” says Rajinikanth. Dhananjayan’s original plan was to make a documentary about Balachander, but it didn’t happen “due to financial reasons”. He was then approached by two financiers to make a documentary about Panchu, an opportunity he jumped at. “India recognises Salim-Javed’s contribution to cinema, but not Panchu’s, even though he has written at least twice the number of films they did.”

The crew with Rajinikanth.jpg

The crew with Rajinikanth

Dhananjayan’s film has many film personalities—Rajinikanth, S. P. Muthuraman, Bharathiraja, Mahendran—talking about their experiences with the veteran scriptwriter. Dhananjayan is disheartened that Kamal Haasan couldn’t be convinced to feature in the documentary. “I don’t want to speculate on his reasons for deciding not to participate. We were also this close to getting M. S. Viswanathan and K. S. Gopalakrishnan, but the veterans sadly passed away before we could fix up a meeting.”

Made at a budget of Rs. 15 lakh, the documentary traces Panchu’s childhood at Karaikudi, his apprenticeship under uncle Kannadasan, and his rise in Tamil cinema. The film ends on a tragic note, when it notes that the Panchu family has suffered many losses during the last two decades. “There’s a lesson to be learnt here. If your trust is misplaced, you will end up losing everything,” says Dhananjayan. In the case of Panchu, an independent house has now been reduced to a two-bedroom apartment. “His family has no fancy car, even though he was instrumental in many actors becoming crorepatis. We have plenty of footage that explains how Panchu trusted certain actors and directors in vain. But I wasn’t sure if we needed to stir trouble, and so ended up not using it.”

After some coaxing, Dhananjayan reveals that chief among the films that caused severe losses to the Panchu family is Vasanth’s Poovellam Kettuppar. “The movie overshot its budget by at least four-five times. But Panchu wouldn’t stop the project midway. ‘What would happen to Sivakumar’s son? What would happen to Ilaiyaraaja’s son?’ he’d ask. He cared about people far too much to be a good businessman.” Dhananjayan, of course, admits that this information is anecdotal, and that the directors could well have their own version of these stories. “That’s why I thought it best not to retain these bits in the film.”

It wasn’t always so bleak for Panchu. His Veera was the first Tamil film to collect Rs. 1 crore in the NSC area (North Arcot, South Arcot and Chengalpattu). Rajini wanted to remake his dear friend Mohan Babu’s Telugu film, Allari Mogudu. But Suresh Krissna didn’t think the Telugu film was even half decent. “Panchu redeemed the script. He asked Suresh Krissna for a couple of days, and gave him a modified script he couldn’t refuse. He could see the good in the bad… even in scripts.”

Dhananjayan disagrees that Panchu Arunachalam is mainly known for his work in commercial films like Veera. “What about films like Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri, Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai, Engeyo Ketta Kural and Mayangukiral Oru Maadhu? He was capable of writing such sensible stories too.” But Panchu was ever the producer’s writer. “If they insisted that he change parts of his story, he would happily oblige. He was all for the producers making a profit.” Dhananjayan calls Panchu a rare variety of writer: one without ego. “After he wrote Niram Maaratha Pookkal, Bharathiraja approached his close friend Bhagyaraj for advice. The latter rewrote the screenplay. Another writer would have been offended, but when Panchu learned of this, he read Bhagyaraj’s version and recommended that it be made into a film.”

Dhananjayan, who plans to make a feature film next year, intends to submit this documentary for the National Awards. “I hope that it will get Panchu some much-needed recognition.” A few television channels are already vying for the documentary’s rights, and you can see why. “I have sixteen hours of footage, with lots of controversial anecdotes.” The television channels are eager to air the portions that he has removed from his documentary. But Dhananjayan doesn’t mind. “Whatever it takes for people to recognise the immeasurable contributions Panchu has made to Tamil cinema.”

This piece was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this interview.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. This must be an interesting documentary. I was waiting for Dhananjeyan to talk about ‘Arilurundhu Arubadhuvarai’, and ‘Engeyo Kaeta Kural’. Poignant movies. Perhaps, I began to love Rajinikanth more only after I watched those two films. Many, many scenes from both the films are etched in my memory, the impact of having been raised by a father, who is a movie buff. I liked this interview, Sudhir. Thank you. 🙂

    Like

    1. I was surprised by how it didn’t seem dull at all. It is a fairly lengthy documentary, mind you. Also really humanised the Rajinikanths and the Kamal Haasans.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ah. Sounds interesting, Sudhir. When will it be screened for us?

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    3. He mentioned that it would be screened in a month or two. The main plan is to have it play as a TV series, one episode at a time.

      Liked by 1 person

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