Article Tamil

20 years of Jeans: The film that started director S Shankar's sci-fi journey

On its 20th anniversary (released on 24 April 1998), we take a look at the elements that the director continues to upgrade with every film thereafter.

Shriram Iyengar

The announcement of S Shankar's upcoming 2.0 was greeted with a hyperventilation and buzz that is usually not merited by Indian sci-fi films. In a country where a man with an invisibility power watch [Mr India (1987)] remains the most iconic sci-fi film, Shankar has managed to create a franchise and rope in Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar. Even SS Rajamouli's Baahubali films (2016 and 2017) lacked the starpower that 2.0 boasts of. 

In an interview with the Times of India, a daily, the concept artist of 2.0, Vishwanath Sundaram, remarked about director Shankar, "He is someone who always wants to show something unique and set high standards. He won't get convinced easily. You have to keep giving him several choices and he will analyse them minutely. But, once he decides something, he will make sure that happens, however challenging it might be."

When Jeans released in 1998, it was quite the commercial enterprise. It featured 'the most beautiful woman in the world' Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan). The actress's debut film, Iruvar (1997), had left without making a mark, but her beauty certainly was unrivaled. The role of the male lead was declined by Abbas and Ajith Kumar, before it went to another chocolate boy hero, Prashanth. 

The film was a modern day Twelfth Night adaptation. The story revolved around Ramu and Vishu (Prashanth), twins, who try to help an Indian grandmother (Lakshmi), and her granddaughter Madhumita (Aishwarya Rai), who are in the United States for the old lady's operation. Vishu falls in love with Madhumita, but the marriage is opposed by Vishu's father, Nachiappan (Nassar) on the grounds that his twins will only marry twin sisters. Thus, Madhumita's family is forced to concoct the lie of her having a twin sister as well. So, the comedy of errors begins. 

While his penchant for the slapstick has always been there, Shankar's skill lies in creating a wondrous world through song sequences. His second film, Kadhalan (1994), stands out for the iconic song, 'Mukkala Muqabla'. With the use of some snappy VFX, Prabhu Deva's 'invisible man' sequence in the song has been etched into history.

The song's highlight lies in a combination of visual and technological detail which transformed the actor into the invisible man. This combination of technology, music, choreography and masala has continued with Shankar. 

In Jeans, the director had gone a step further by featuring all seven wonders of the world in one dream sequence. Backed by AR Rahman's music, the film went on to mint the money. 

Combined with the most beautiful woman in the world as lead, it is hard to argue with the director's ambition. But this was not just a one-off. 

Another song in the film combined the director's love for technology and sci-fi to perfection. The sequence has Madhumita's cousin take on a very primitive form of motion-capture and 3D holograph to create the presence of her 'fake' twin for the two brothers. Not knowing it is a holographic recreation, the other brother actually falls in love with it. 

Since then, Shankar has only tinkered and improved upon these themes. Films like Anniyan (2005) and I (2015) have both used technology to great effect in building plot points. But it is with Enthiran (2010) where the journey of Jeans truly culminates. 

The film with its story of a robot falling in love with a human, and the resulting catastrophe of its passion was a blockbuster. It again, had Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the modern day Helen of Troy, while Rajinikanth took on twin roles of villain and hero. AR Rahman again came on board with the music, but it is the director's imagination again that leads you back to Jeans. 

The song, 'Kilimanjaro' for instance, was set in the Macchu Picchu, the new entrant to the Seven Wonders of the World list, with Rai Bachchan dancing in a tribal costume. The song's lyrics also mention places like Kilimanjaro, and Mohenjo Daro.

While it is easy to dismiss them as lyricist Vairamuthu's simplistic rhyme, it is difficult to ignore the correlation between Shankar's global vision and the song. Then, there is 'Irumbile Oru Idhayam' which begins with the visuals of a motherboard with its chips blooming like spring. The combination of human emotion and sci-fi visuals are signatures of the director. 

As the director steps up his game for 2.0, he has eschewed Rai Bachchan but remains firm in his own idea of a fictional world. With a massive budget of Rs450 crore and two major stars, Akshay Kumar and Rajinikanth, the director is going big. 

Whether the film turns out to be as commercially successful as his past records, it is safe to assume that Shankar will upgrade his technological nous for this one. After all, it is in his 'jeans'.