He stood a hefty and towering six feet three and was better educated than four Tamil stars put together! But A.C. Thirulokchander M.A. carried himself with such ease – he had imbibed the deportment by observing his role model L.V.Prasad – that film stars looked upon him with favour. Even the usually interfering MGR allowed himself to be moulded in a completely different light under his baton in Anbe Vaa (1966). Sivaji Ganesan, who addressed Thirulokchander as Mudaliar, considered him a close friend. In the event, he gave the latter the privilege of directing him in 25 films, the largest for any director in his stable of filmmakers.
Named after a Punjabi gentleman whom his father admired, Thirulokchander might have well become a bureaucrat if a year had not stood between him and the eligibililty to take the IAS examination as his father desired. In the interregnum, he joined the veteran filmmaker R. Padmanabhan, a temperamental character whose capricious ways had become the talk of film circles, as his third assistant. Thirulok realized even at this stage that his physical stature and academic qualifications might put off film folk and learnt how to play them down! He struck it off well with MGR, Padmanabhan’s sulking hero brought by court injunction to complete his Kumari (1952). MGR vibed with the young and well educated intern, discussing politics with him at length.
Thirulok gleaned his knowledge and appreciation of film technique and grammar in Jupiter Pictures, watching directors like L.V.Prasad and working under S. Balachander. He would describe with awe how the ace cameraman Jiten Banerjee once unfolded 20 different opening shots for a scene. Banerjee had emphasized that the shot should be integral to story telling and have a close bearing to narration and character, and also taught Thirulok the importance of finding the best angle for a shot.
Inheriting his yen for voracious reading and story telling from his mother, Thirulok succeeded in selling his folklore stunt yarn (Vijayapuri Veeran 1960) to Joseph Thaliath of Citadel Studios and assisted him in making the film. This was his ticket to AVM Studios where his instant rapport with AVM Saravanan, one the rising sons of Meiyyappa Chettiar found him scoring a double whammy.
First, Thirulok’s sensitive family drama based on the vicissitudes in the relationship of two men who had fought shoulder to shoulder in the army was picturised under Bhimsingh’s direction as Paarthaal Pasi Theerum (1962). Then, another folklore stunt film, Veera Thirumagan (1962) was slotted for his own direction. The film which had beautiful music by Viswanathan Ramamurthy was not a success, but Thirulok’s meaningful camera angles can be seen in such evergreen hits as ‘Roja Malare Raaja Kumari’. As the commomer hero (Anandan) queries in song whether he can yearn for the hand of a princess, He is shown in a tell tale high angle shot, while the princess is picturised from a low angle shot as she answers in the affirmative from the vantage point of her royal status.
With the full backing of AVM (in Thirulok’s case this was Saravanan), Thirulok’s story telling and cine techniques found a place in a number of AVM films. Naanum Oru Penn, based on a Bengali story, and Ramu, re-crafted from Kishore Kumar’s Dhoor Gagan ki Chaao Mein not only met with success, but also earned silver medals as national awards for best regional film. The director’s mettle in the thriller genre was seen in Adhey Kangal.
But it was Thirulok’s breezy romantic comedy for MGR, Anbe Vaa (1966) which marked the high point of his innings in AVM. It was an uncommon triumph for MGR too, who had been figuring in a series of scrappily made cops and robbers flicks with a dash of ‘mother sentiment’ and romance thrown in. Set in Shimla and shot richly in glorious colour, Anbe Vaa is an atypical MGR film structured as a Roman Holiday in reverse, being about a rich and overworked business magnate who finds love when he gets away to Shimla incognito. Thirulok’s versatile gifts as a film director which include fresh story telling, intelligent lines, good song positioning, and extracting creditable performances were at play in Anbe Vaa. The extraordinary finesse he brought to takings and editing was at its height in the evergreen hit song, Pudhiya Vaanam Pudhiya Bhoomi.
It’s ironical that despite Anbe Vaa’s extraordinary success, Thirulok never got to make another MGR film but became Sivaji’s favoured director and lavished his cinematic skills on the thespian, as for example in the latter’s triple role tour de force, Deiva Magan. Sivaji’s forte in portraying tragic heros stood out in Thirulok’s Babu (remade from Malayalam Odayil Ninnu) and Avanthaan Manidhan (from Kannada). The director’s skill in portraying national integration stood out in Bharata Vilas, while his yen for comedy was seen in Anbe Aaruyire. Thirulok’s Iru Malargal, a love triangle comprising Sivaji, Padmini and K.R. Vijaya that he directed for veteran sound engineer and studio owner Dinshaw Tehrani was eminently successful.
If Thirulok’s film career lasted more than three decades and spanned over sixty films, it is because he was swift to get inspired and swifter to execute. Do Raha’s sensational success provoked him to come out with its Tamil version, Aval (1972). As a producer himself (Cine Bharath), he was quick to realize Ilayaraja’s talent and employed his musical score fruitfully in his Bhadrakali (1976) which is chockfull with hits. After the tragic death of the film’s heroine Rani Chandra, he successfully used a dupe to complete the film.
Thirulok realized Rajinikanth’s promise soon enough by casting him in ‘Vanakkathukkuriya Kaadhaliye’, a film about a girl with ESP His last film, Anbulla Appa (1987), which came a full 37 years after his entry as an apprentice in cinema, sank without a trace. After that he engaged himself in directing TV serials, and authored his rambling reminiscences apart from keeping in touch with old friends like Saravanan and under study S.P.Muthuraman.
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many books on the subject)
(A version of this article appeared in Times of India, Chennai)