To remake or not to remake

It appears that the Telugu makers of Premam have somehow, almost miraculously, failed to decipher the appeal of Malar (played by Sai Pallavi in the Malayalam original). The reason it was all lakhs and lakhs could do to not think about her had little to do with her couture choices, or her facial features. It was the breathtaking novelty of seeing an actress devoid of the pretensions of cinema. Here was a woman, pimples and all, shorn of the artifices idealised by pop culture.

The alarm bells were first sounded when a leaked photo from the sets of the Telugu film showed Shruti Haasan (playing Malar’s character) looking as heroines generally do in films. Social media, apparently only filled with ‘Malar fans’, took offence. If the makers thought that the worst was over, they were in for a rude shock when the film’s teaser was released recently, and social media exploded with more vitriol.

The director of the remake, Chandoo Mondeti, has previously gone on record stating that the actress was chosen for her star appeal, and yet, it appears to me that it may have been a better idea to replace one of the other two main female characters. Celine’s character may have been best suited, but in failing to comprehend the nature of Malar’s charm, the makers do appear to have lost the plot.

While on plot, this debacle may warrant reflection on the kind of films that are best suited for remakes. Over the years, many Tamil remakes have worked: Perazhagan, Kireedam, Chennaiyil Oru Naal… Arguably the biggest hit of the last decade is Chandramukhi that ran for a year at the erstwhile Shanthi Cinemas. Where am I going with this? You see, each of the aforementioned films is plot-based, and it is my contention that such films are likely to be more successful as remakes than those that are driven largely by characters. Suddenly, the success of Papanasam begins to make more sense. Murder mysteries, after all, are plot-driven and hence, work across the board. It’s incredibly hard though to recreate the magic and the mood of a character-driven film. You need only ask director Bhaskar who directed Bangalore Naatkal, that despite being a rather well-made remake of Bangalore Days, didn’t really get people rushing to the theatres.

An actor once told me that even if you hired the same actors and technicians, there was no guarantee that you would reproduce the same effect. “It’s just magic.” You could definitely say this about Premam. It’s, after all, an average story, one not even particularly new to Tamil cinema (Autograph anybody?). There are quite a few contrivances in the story too, like the almost comical ease with which Malar’s character in the film gets dispatched. And yet, the film bursts with the sort of inexplicable, spontaneous magic that you cannot hope to create easily. The makers of the Tamil remake of Charlie, starring Madhavan no less, are going to try anyway.

Perhaps it’s also worth noticing that often, the ones raging over these remakes are those in love with the original. Chandramukhi may have been a colossal hit, but fans of Manichitrathazhu didn’t think it deserved to be. Papanasam may have been a hit, but fans of Drishyam didn’t think Kamal’s performance at the end exuded the same intensity as Mohan Lal’s. It’s quite fascinating how criticism of a remake could potentially have a lot to do with the viewer’s experience or the lack of it with the original. There has already been quite some concern about Akira before its release. As you can imagine, much of it came from fans of Mouna Guru, the original. However, what if the wide consumption of the original isn’t… wide enough? Considering that only a negligible Telugu population has experienced the Malayalam version, it must not come as a surprise at all if Premam does break box office records, and a large number of people fall in love with Malar as interpreted by the Telugu director— make-up, lipstick, fashionable clothes, perfect hair, and all.

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

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