Article Tamil

Agni Natchathiram needed an unknown level of energy, recalls PC Sreeram – 30th anniversary special

You can't make any progress if you worry about the audience's reaction, says the ace cinematographer about his scintillating collaboration with filmmaker Mani Ratnam.

Manigandan KR

Sunday (15 April) marked the 30th anniversary of the release of one of Tamil cinema's finest trendsetters which continues to delight audiences to this day.

Yes, you guessed right! It's Mani Ratnam's masterpiece Agni Natchathiram that we are talking about.

Agni Natchathiram hit the screens across Tamil Nadu on 15 April 1988. With the legendary PC Sreeram handling the camera and the maestro Ilaiyaraaja helming the music department, the film set several benchmarks for Tamil cinema.

Featuring Karthik, Prabhu, Nirosha and Amala in the lead roles with veteran comedians VK Ramasamy and Janagaraj, the film was an entertainer all the way.

Talking to, Sreeram, one of India's finest cinematographers, said, "Agni Natchathiram was one film which needed an unknown level of energy which we consciously went in search of."

That energy and passion is visible to this day and maybe that is why people watching Agni Natchathiram even today experience the same thrill and excitement that audiences back then did.

The film became popular for breaching some boundaries. For instance, in cinematogaphy, it set a new standard in the use of lighting. In fact, the climax was the talk of the town for the brilliant manner in which it was shot in flickering light. Some termed it wild; others called it madly exciting. But everyone agreed it was pulsating and fascinating.

Recalling the idea behind shooting the climax in such scintillatingly berserk fashion, something which had never been attempted before in Tamil cinema, Sreeram said, "People think of it as going berserk. [But] going berserk is beautiful. You can't break the laws if you don't know them, and we didn't break the laws just for the sake of breaking them. We were looking to push boundaries."

Admitting that he never thought about the audience and its reaction while choosing to make such a bold decision, Sreeram said, "I came to media only to communicate. As a small film photographer, I was trying to push the boundaries and looking to study faces. These were the two things I was trying to do.

"I would look for the perfect portrait to study faces. It is beautiful to study human faces. I was 24x7 into that before going into the [Madras] film institute. My stills were the only things that were communicating.

"If you think of the audience's response, you won't be able to make any advancement. You have to be fearless to enter uncharted territory. External forces will try to condition you by citing audience reaction."

Did the team realize then that its work would inspire scores of filmmakers and film lovers for years to come?

"No," admitted Sreeram. "Mani Ratnam and I did what we believed in and took it straight to the theatres. By the time the audiences responded to our work, I had moved on to my next film."

The film did not raise the bar just in the cinematography department. It's music was equally awe-inspiring. Each of the six songs 'Isaignani' Ilaiyaraaja scored for Agni Natchathiram went on to become a chartbuster. 'Ninnukori Varanam', 'Oru Poonga Vanam', 'Raaja Raajathi', 'Roja Poo Adivanthathu', 'Thoongatha Vizhigal' and 'Vaa Vaa Anbe' all became superhits. Each was special in its own way. Of these, 'Raaja Raajathi' became a rage and a trendsetter.

Not many know that this song, which stood out for its fascinating tune, has earned a special place in Tamil film music. That is because the entire song was scored using just one note. Ilaiyaraaja's mastery of music came across as he chose to use a single note at varying intervals of time to create what would go on to become a masterpiece.

To make it better, the brilliant break dance that Karthik delivered for the song immortalized it.

The casting was perfect as were the performances from the cast. From Prabhu to Karthik to Amala to Nirosha to Jayachitra to SN Lakshmi to G Umapathy to Vijayakumar, each artiste turned into the character he or she was portraying on screen.

The film is also remembered for its comedy, which came from the fantastic performances of two of the finest — Ramasamy and Janagaraj. In fact, the delirious manner in which Janagaraj celebrates his wife's departure to her maternal home, saying, 'En pondatti orrukku poittaa...' has passed into common parlance.

Over 9,000 Tamil films have been released since Agni Natchathiram, but the fondness with which people remember and appreciate this Mani Ratnam gem, using its dialogues in everyday conversations, is an indication of not just its reach but also the manner in which it has ingrained itself in Tamil society. And that is no small achievement.