25 years of ‘Indian’: Meet ‘Aasaan’ Rajendran, who taught ‘varmakkalai’ to Kamal Haasan
Entertainment & Fun  
The Hindu

How the Kamal Haasan-Shankar project incorporated the Tamil martial arts form in its stunt sequences

 

The year was 1996. Cricketers Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva had just won the World Cup for Sri Lanka. Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled Indian politics briefly, and a certain Ramar Pillai was in the news for producing ‘herbal fuel’.
 
Closer home, a Tamil film titled Indian (Hindustani in Hindi) hit screens. Starring Kamal Haasan as a freedom fighter, this Shankar-directorial became an on-screen statement against corruption, replete with elaborate stunt sequences and colourful songs by AR Rahman.
 
Senapathy aka Indian thatha became a sensation. And his method of seeking justice — by twirling his fingers to lock the pressure points of wrongdoers — became a bigger hit.
 
A few months after the film’s release, even children in Tamil Nadu were flicking their fingers imitating what Indian thatha did. They were displaying varmakkalai, an ancient Tamil martial artform predominantly used for self-defence.
 
 
R Rajendran, or ‘Aasaan’ Rajendran, was most happy about these developments. The Madurai-based martial arts exponent guided Kamal Haasan and the stunt team on the techniques behind varmakkalai, which was an integral part of action sequences. “Back then, very few people knew about this artform. A week after Indian released, an elderly gentleman, who came to meet me, broke down. He was in awe of the way we had showcased it in the film,” recalls 70-year-old Rajendran, over a phone call.
 
Rajendran, founder of Manja Varmakkalai Martial Art Academy, Chennai, recalls the day when he got a letter from AM Rathnam’s Sri Surya Movies, the production house that bankrolled Indian. “Director Shankar would like to meet you regarding a film,” the letter stated.
 
He subsequently learnt that one of Shankar’s assistant directors had chanced upon a book on varmakkalai he had written, at a book stall in Tiruchi. “I realised it was a big opportunity for me to showcase the artform,” recalls Rajendran, “I immediately packed my bags and went to Madras.”
 
At Shankar’s office, Rajendran did a demo by performing the martial art on one of the director’s assistants. He also presented a couple of books that he had written on the subject. “The premise of the film was interesting. Since the protagonist was an old man who had to fight, we conceptualised it in a way that he did not have to punch harder. We zeroed in on varmakkalai, or pressure point fighting, as a solution.”
 
Rajendran had a few meetings with Shankar’s team and writer Sujatha at the pre-production stage. “In the shooting spot, Kamal was inquisitive about the artform and followed my inputs with diligence,” adds Rajendran.
 
 

 

Back to the roots
 
Though films like Indian and Suriya’s 7aum Arivu have touched upon these indigenous martial artforms, much more can be done, feels Rajendran. “There are several techniques in varmakkalai that can be used in films,” he adds, “It is the pride of Tamils and founded by sage Agasthiyar in the South-podhigai mountains (Kutralam). He also founded other artforms such as nokku varmam (strike a person by looking at him) and meitheenda kalai (strike/heal a person in any part of the world). Why use guns and aruval when we have such aspects in our culture?”
 
Twenty-five years have passed and Indian 2 is currently in the works. However, the 1996 film gave some impetus to Rajendran and varmakkalai. With centres in Chennai, Madurai and Kovilpattti, among others, Rajendran has been imparting his knowledge of the art to students. “It is the mother of all martial arts,” he declares, “It needs to be imparted to the next generation.”
 

 
 


 
 


 
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