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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Is Atlee a copycat or postmodernist? Also, does it matter?

Atlee has often been criticised for plagiarising scenes and ideas from various movies.

Written by Manoj Kumar R | Bengaluru |
September 21, 2021 3:20:10 pm
Atlee is celebrating his 35th birthday today. (Photo: Twitter/Atlee)

Atlee’s popularity has now transcended the boundaries of south India. He’s now popular in other parts of the country too, thanks to his upcoming movie with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The director, who is celebrating his 35th birthday, was born Arun Kumar. And he began his career in movies by assisting filmmaker Shankar in 2010 with Enthiran. And he was also part of the crew for Shankar’s Nanban (2012), which was the remake of 3 Idiots.

It was during the making of Nanban that Atlee became acquainted with Tamil superstar Vijay, who would later play a major role in cementing Atlee’s position as one of the most bankable commercial filmmakers of Tamil cinema. Atlee made his directorial debut in 2014 with Raja Rani, starring Arya and Nayanthara in the lead roles. The film went on to become a hit at the box office, generating the right amount of clout for the new kid on the block. At least, it was enough to get him a meeting with Vijay.

Atlee signed Vijay for the first time for Theri (2016), following it with two consecutive movies with the Master actor. While Theri surprised critics by emerging a box office hit, Mersal (2017) was an even bigger hit and Bigil (2019) out-earned the other two films. But, it has not always been sunshine and rainbows in Atlee’s journey.

Atlee has often been criticised for plagiarising scenes and ideas from various movies. No, it is not a Quentin Tarantino, post-modernist thing. Where you treat old movies as a pop-cultural artefact, take inspiration from them, and make them your own by a lot of original value additions. Atlee on several occasions has been accused of just straight-up plagiarism.

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YouTube is littered with videos that show the original source of some scenes in Atlee’s movies. For example, in the airport scene in Mersal, when we see Dr Maaran for the first time. He has been pulled aside by the airport authorities for checking that smacks of racism. Locked up in a room, Maaran notices from the window that a woman at the airport is choking on her drinks, and is unable to breathe. The hitherto mild-mannered Maaran then overpowers security officials to help the damsel in distress. And he performs an emergency medical procedure using items that he could find at the crowded airport to save the woman’s life. And there is the exact same scene in the South Korean medical drama Good Doctor.

The allegations of copying scenes from other movies didn’t just begin with Mersal. Atlee has been under scrutiny since his debut film Raja Rani. Many believed that the marital discord between the husband and wife in an arranged marriage setting was a riff on director Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam.

In Atlee’s defence, Raja Rani was rather his most original of all four films he has done so far. Nobody claimed the plot of Sillunu Oru Kaadhal was also based on Mouna Ragam. Even though the 2006 Suirya-starrer was about the relationship drama between a couple, whose marriage was arranged by their families. As I pointed out earlier, Atlee had a story to tell in Raja Rani, and he did it in an engaging way.

Atlee is not the first filmmaker to take an idea from other films and pass it on his own. Such “inspired-works” of some filmmakers have gone unnoticed in the past. Take Baahubali, for example. In an essay, I had discussed in detail how SS Rajamouli’s all-time blockbuster Baahubali: The Beginning had deep imprints of Kamal Haasan’s classic Thevar Magan.

So Atlee is not the first, and he definitely won’t be the last to take ideas from other movies. “There are only seven primary ragas. Even after 1000 years, the influence of AR Rahman, Raja sir (Ilaiyaraaja) and MSV sir (M. S. Viswanathan) will be felt in the new compositions,” Atlee had said earlier.

Atlee’s Theri was said to be a riff on Chatriyan (written and produced by Mani Ratnam). And the plot of Mersal was believed to be taken from Aboorva Sagotharargal, while Bigil owes big time to Chak De! India. And all the criticism of plagiarism hasn’t deterred Atlee from making movies that he believes in. Because his films work at the box office. He makes movies for the market and not as a personal expression of art. “How big of a hit will the film become? How much was it liked by people? How much money did the producers make? What kind of film should I do next? These are the four primary things for me,” Atlee had said, explaining his filmmaking process.

Atlee’s approach to movies as a pure business may earn him some derisive laughs from serious filmmakers and critics. But, it is unlikely to bother him as long as his producers are laughing all the way to the bank.

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