Commercial success can be a double edged sword, as far as thamizh cinema is concerned. On the one hand, it can give the people associated with that success tremendous clout and can act as insurance to guard them during any subsequent misfires. But the flip side is that there is invariably pressure to make films in a similar milieu, with similar characters. It is very rare to find a Mani Ratnam who had the guts and confidence to follow up a heavy duty Nayagan with a feather light Agni Nakshathram. In the case of Prabhu, P. Vasu’s Chinna Thambi was probably the best thing that happened to him…and the worst. While it gave him tremendous boost as a saleable hero (he had been succeeding primarily in dual-hero films till then), what happened as a result is that he acted in scores of films set in the rural milieu. It was not a bad thing per se because he looked the part and acted well in most of his movies, some good, others not so good. But the success of Chinna Thambi meant that his urbanity was rarely seen on screen. And, in 2005, Chandramukhi happened. Though a roaring success for Prabhu’s production company, the “Ena Koduma Saravanan” line that he uttered in dramatic fashion found its way into the annals of infamous thamizh cinema lines, along with its numerous impressions that followed. But as an avid movie lover that watched his rise in the late 80s to the mid-90s, I would rather not have him merely associated with that line, hence this piece.
Mani Ratnam was probably the first director to showcase Prabhu’s sense of style. An aesthete par excellence, Ratnam gave Prabhu a wonderful role in Agni Nakshathram. As the older son of a bigamist, with a temper that could leave yoga teachers scratching their heads, Prabhu was excellent in the role of Gautham…sorry, Gautham Vishwanath! Long before Kamal Haasan in Kuruthi Punal, it was Prabhu in Agni… who made Aviator sunglasses fashionable! Prabhu exuded style and attitude in the amazingly shot confrontation scenes (see first video below) with Karthik. But, I liked him equally in the sequence where he plays a protective older brother to his step-sister. Especially lovely is the understated manner in which he reacts to Tara calling him, “Anna.”
Prabhu collaborated with Ratnam in two more movies – Anjali and Raavanan – playing character roles. While I am not a huge fan of the modern-day Ramayana adaptation, I enjoyed Prabhu’s understated performance in Anjali. Again, the role of an ex-convict which could have been overwrought and overplayed, was etched beautifully by Ratnam and played well by Prabhu. (I am not embedding any videos since Anjali is a heartbreaking movie that I don’t want to revisit.)
As I had mentioned in last week’s post, Prabhu was also very good in Kaliyugam, directed by the late K Subaash, who had assisted Ratnam before making his debut as a director in this movie. Prabhu played an upright police officer whose family life is ruined by the villains. Not exactly a novel theme but Subaash sure did inherit at least some of his mentor’s sense of style and this resulted in a slick, no-nonsense thriller. The scene where Prabhu prepares upma for his son was a funny one where his comic sense is given good fodder. Subaash also made the part-comedy, part-thriller Uthama Purushan with Prabhu. This was a role to which Prabhu brought a mix of sophistication, underplay and gentle humor. Watch the climax (starting at the 2 hr 10 min point) where he first earnestly apologizes to Revathi and then flirts harmlessly with Radhika and you’ll know what I am talking about!
Two other aspects of Prabhu’s performances that deserve mention are his comic timing and dance skills. Blessed with the gift of comic timing, he could really supplement good written material with myriad expressions and great dialogue delivery. A comic performance in the later years of his career that I loved was his turn as a henpecked husband in Charlie Chaplin. The scene (link below) where he shifts the blame, after getting caught red-handed by his wife, is a hoot. His genial onscreen persona meant that he invariably shared great chemistry with his co-actors be it Sathyaraj (Manivannan’s Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi) or Coundamani (Thedinen Vandhadhu being my favorite). He was also a scene stealer in Sirai Chaalai, where he shared screen space with Mohan Lal. A grim drama for the most part, the film received tremendous impetus thanks to Prabhu's sharp, witty one liners. The best part of his performance was that the humor didn't stick out like a sore thumb. (He was also excellent in some of the serious scenes - for instance, the one where he apologizes to Mohan Lal for being responsible for the punishment that the latter received at the hands of the inhumane jailer.)
Start watching at the 1 hr 8 min 42 sec point:
Start watching at the 1 hr 8 min 42 sec point:
When it came to dancing, Prabhu – despite his girth – could execute his steps very gracefully. One of my favorite memories of the late 80s is the “Vaanam Enna” song from Vetri Vizha, where he matched Kamal Haasan’s steps effortlessly. He also inherited his father’s illustrious genes for ‘performing’ in a song. Similar to how Sivaji Ganesan would come out with wonderful expressions to match TMS’ singing, Prabhu infused a lot of life into his songs by the way he expressed himself. “Thuliyile” from Chinna Thambi was one. But one of his splendid performances in a song was in the “En Kadhale” song from Duet. His expressions in this song (especially when he plays Anjali Anjali on the sax, at the 3:10 min point in the video below) are marvelous.
In recent years, as a character actor, he has not gotten too many opportunities to display his considerable talent. Nevertheless, in well-written (even if relatively brief) roles such as 3 (I loved the scene where he disbelievingly asks Dhanush, “Mokkai-ya?!”) and Something Something…, he has acquitted himself admirably. But really, as an actor, he deserves to be known for more than just the nincompoop of his largest hit or the line that he uttered in Rajni’s 2005 blockbuster. If that is all that we associate him with, therein would lie the true kodumai!