When We Got Together Again

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Suhasini Mani Ratnam narrates the joys and hazards of planning a very private reunion of the stars of south Indian cinema

TWO YEARS ago, the child of one of our colleagues, Sumalatha, got married. That’s when I realised many of us meet each other only at weddings now even though we had worked together for years. Then Lissy Priyadarshan bumped into Mohan, her co-star from the 1980s. He was the hero in my first film but he is not in the movies anymore. “It’s been such a long time since I saw Mohan. Why can’t we meet more often?” she said, and prodded me, “You are the only person who is in touch with all four branches of the south Indian film industry.” It’s true that I still act in all four languages — Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. I began thinking, what would it be like to get all of us together, all those who started out in the 1980s?

Some of us women — Revathy, Radhika, Lissy, Poornima, Shobana and I — we meet regularly anyway. We modified the plan a bit because we realised that Kamal, Rajinikanth, Sridevi and Jayaprada had all debuted in the 1970s. We women, who were the hosts, would invite only the guys who had worked with the 10 of us. The criterion was clear: we wouldn’t have strangers even if they were big stars now. Once the plan was set, we called friends in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Kerala.

One by one, everybody said yes. Chiranjeevi said he would come, but it turned out he had an important political meeting. Mohanlal was in the US and Mammootty was also stuck somewhere else. Just about 15 days before the event I called Rajinikanth and he said yes immediately. And that was how the first reunion happened in 2009.

We didn’t want to have it in a hotel. The reunion was at Lissy’s home because she is a wonderful hostess. Revathy was in charge of lighting. Someone else took charge of the music. Rajini changed the CDs. We had no caterers and we cleaned up ourselves. Lissy is a producer and I am a director, so it was easy for us to quickly put an audio-visual together. We had collected old, funny pictures and video clips — not the kind you would use for publicity. We could barely recognise ourselves. We also organised some music and dance. We wanted to be stars performing for stars.

I became a little emotional when I saw Karthik, because he is like a brother to me and I had lost touch with him. I started a crying session, I never thought I would. I’m very strong normally. And then everybody cried. Rajinikanth was in tears. “This is the happiest day of my life,” he said.

Vishnuvardhan called me up later and said the same. And hopefully it had been a happy event because he passed away two months later. The reunion made us a family. In the south, we don’t have much of a partying culture. There are no evenings that do not revolve around religion or family. For us, films are religion and film people our family. We say to each other, “If you are ever ill, I will be the first person at your bedside.” After the reunion, we stayed in touch online.

The reunion was at Lissy’s home. There were no spouses or children. There was no catering. We cleaned up ourselves

Lissy and I didn’t want to do it again this year, but about a month ago Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi insisted we do a second edition. Chiranjeevi kept saying that he was sorry he missed last year’s. Rajini wanted to come even though the reunion was three days before his daughter Soundarya’s wedding. Preparations kicked off. Everybody wanted to help organise it and perform (Mohanlal particularly). We decided a theme — evergreen. The dress code was black and green.

About 10 days ago, Anil Kapoor had come home. He had seen the pictures from last year, so he asked me, “Do you think I will be able to pull off something like this in Mumbai?” I suggested he try. But it’s not easy! Take Radha, who used to be an actress. Her daughter is about to make her movie debut. The shoot was supposed to happen in Norway around the time of the reunion and Radha was to accompany her. “The director has already blocked the dates. I can’t ask him to change it. It’s her first film,” she said. I took the decision to talk to the producer. I asked him to consider postponing the shoot and he actually did.

When it happened this year, it was wonderful. There was a slew of new people: Mohanlal, Sharath Kumar, Arjun, Chiranjeevi, Ramya Krishnan, Khushboo and Ambika.

When we are together, we mostly speak English. (We did have some dance numbers in Hindi.) Or Tamil, since everyone has lived in Chennai at some point. This year, we got some help but not during the actual party. No spouses or children were allowed. (Anyway, they all behave like children.)

All the actors behaved like Japanese tourists, they took out their cameras and wouldn’t stop taking pictures — flat, bad, out-of-focus pictures which professionals would never post anywhere. But they wanted photos with each other. We had organised three portrait shoots — all the men together, all the women and then all together. The only person who was given the privilege of a different kind of photo was Mohanlal — Krishna among the gopikas because he is the only one who has acted with all 12 of the women present. As soon as the picture was done we saw one ‘enthu cutlet’ — Rajinikanth — pushing everyone out of the way to sit in the centre, saying, “I want one too.” But Venkatesh said, “Enough bad behaviour, if all 20 of you want pictures with the women it will take all night.” At some point, after a couple of drinks, the politicians in the group created an MOU. They made everyone sign a sheet of paper and swear we would attend every year!

I don’t worry about the reunions trapping people in the past. Everybody is too busy for that. After the first reunion, Karthik and Mohan got back into the movies. Suresh, who was only doing Telugu television, is now getting Tamil film offers. Rajini suggested we do a retreat next year. That would be useful too. The reunions have been inspiring professionally but no film projects should come out of them. This is more like a club. Also, we know that if the reunion had a professional focus, then hierarchies would appear — I’m not young enough for that role, she is too fat. This way, the thinnest person and the fattest, the youngest and the oldest felt equal.

It is going to be even better next year.
(as told to Poorva Rajaram)

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