There are two things that the film world banks upon : luck, without which nothing succeeds, and talent, without which not a frame moves forward meaningfully. Panchanathan Arunachalam, popularly known as Panchu Arunachalam, had cartloads of luck for a great length of his career as a lyricist. which started in the early sixties, and as a script writer, which kicked off in the early seventies.
For one, it was given only to him to open the doors through Annakili (1976) to the maestro of a thousand films and also benefit from the connection! Again, it was given only to a very few like Panchu to make meaningful story-based films with Rajinikanth like Aarilirundhu Arupadhuvarai (1979) and Engeyo Ketta Kural (1982), as they were early birds in the latter’s skyrocketing career as a super star!
As for talent, Panchu had the ability to write successful screenplays for films covering a gamut of genres from comedy (Kalyanaraman 1979) to action (Murattu Kaalai 1980), melodrama (Bhuvana Oru Kelvi kuri 1977) and crime thriller (Gayathri 1977). Novels, rarely known to translate into successful films in Tamil cinema, became money spinners when Panchu wrote the screenplay : Sujatha’s Priya (1978) is an example. Incidentally, it was with Panju’s songs for Priya that Tamil cinema turned to stereophonic sound.
Luck in fact, had ironically played truant in Panchu’s younger days. Panju’s father Kannappan, like the latter’s younger brothers film producer A.L.Srinivasan and Kannadasan, had been adopted by rich parents. But as destiny would have it, Kannappan’s foster parents died prematurely and he was deprived of his due by their scheming relatives. Young and sensitive Panchu detested being treated as a poor cousin in the well-to-do Nagarathar community and was determined to succeed in life. His coming to Chennai to work in uncle Kannadasan’s publication, ‘Thendral’ was the first step in that direction.
Playing amanuensis to Kannadasan as he fitfully did the rounds of film companies weaving masterful lyrics even for pedestrian films, Panju imbibed the art of lyric writing. Panchu had some magical songs of his own like Manamagale Marumagale Vaa Vaa, which is sung in light music programmes in marriages to this day, as well as Ponnezhil Poothadhu and Pooppola Pooppola Pirakkum. But Panchu’s native intelligence made him realize that with a colossus like Kannadasan around and Vali coming a close second, he would not go places as a lyric writer.
It was then that Panchu decided to market himself as a script writer banking on his voracious reading of fiction and ability to spin believable stories. A series of small budget films, either breezy comedies (Ungal Viruppam, 1974) or cautionary melodramas (Mayangugiraal Oru Maadhu) with catchy songs (Vijay Bhaskar) and likeminded technicians came as a whiff of fresh air in a scene dominated by Sivaji and MGR. Annakili was a dark horse that went on to hit the jackpot with the utterly uplifting musical magic of Ilayaraja. Panchu’s gambit of giving Ilaiyaraja his debut film had paid off!
Ilaiyaraja’s rise, which synchronized with a tidal change in Tamil cinema, meant that the Panchu brand was acquiring more shine. His songs were now ruling the waves (Kaatrinile Varum Geetham and Paruvame Pudhiya Paadal Paadu) and his screenplays were being lapped up. The prolific director S.P.Muthuraman swore by Panchu. With the AVM brothers raring to go after the pause created by the passing of Studio Patriarch A.V. Meiyyappan, Panchu (dialogues and screenplay) along with S.P.Muthuraman (direction) was in the cockpit to direct the course of the Studio’s films.
Panchu and Muthuraman, along with the AVM brothers would also play a crucial role in the marketing of Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan as mass heroes in massive hits like Murattu Kaalai, Sakalakalavallan (1982) and Paayum Puli (1983). This period, which saw Panchu working for many Rajinikanth and Kamalahasan films, also signalled his rise as a successful producer with films like Thambikku Endha Ooru (1984) and Guru Sishyan (1988).
In 1987, Panchu sort of declared war on directors whom he charged with wasting time and resources without proper planning. He became his own director and wielded the baton for four films, of which ‘Pudhuppaattu’ (1990) was under the Ilayaraja Creations banner. Panchu’s iconic P.A.Art Productions shone again with his script for Rajinikanth’s ‘Veera’ in 1994. But as the years went by, the failures that came home to roost constricted his resources as well as his living style.
(The author is a Tamil film music historian and author of many books on Tamil cinema)
(A version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)