aka கலை அரசி aka Queen Of Arts
Written by T. E. Gnanamoorthi
Directed by A. Kasilingam
Science fiction films in India are rare, and older science fiction films are even rarer. And once the filmography of Dara Singh is removed, it becomes a sparse selection indeed. But there is a selection there. And TarsTarkas.NET is proud to give you Kalai Arasi, one of the few Tamil films to feature alien invaders and flying saucers. As usual, the aliens come to Earth to steal something, this time it’s not our women or our men or Santa Claus, but our music. You see, these aliens are tone deaf and have no culture, so their king sends a mission to Earth to steal someone to teach music to the people. Hence the English translation of Kalai Arasi, Queen Of Arts.
The 1963 production features alien design straight out of 1950s drive in cinema, with obvious older elements as well. The aliens wear overly silver space suit costumes while traveling to Earth, complete with goggles and lots of doodads tacked on. Their costumes look like Prince of Space, a fireman, and a roll of tin foil were dumped in a blender. The actors walk in stiff gates that emulate old boxy robots while wearing the space suits. On their home planet, everyone walks normal (this is explained in plot by the gravity being lighter on the alien world, and when the hero visits he needs to wear special shoes that weigh him down!) and dress in a mix of Roman/Indian design. The neatest part about the aliens is they salute not by raising their hands to their heads or doing some other odd gesture, but by standing on their toes twice in rapid succession to acknowledge the orders. It is a great little touch that adds believability to the alien culture (and transcends the lack of subtitles!)
The planet backdrops contain both science fiction inspired cities and heavenly clouds. The influence of the mythological films probably gives the reason for the overabundance of clouds (and the alien’s non-spacesuit costumes!) Inside the flying saucers, when in flight the camera angles are haphazard and jerk in random directions, while lights flash and metallic noises rumble in the background. The jarring angles act to disorient the viewer with the pure speed and alieness of the craft. The saucers are the envision of future technology without the computer revolution, a purely industrial age inspired technology setup. The insides looks like what a submarine from the world of Metropolis would look inside. The spacesuits also have the retro influences, a mix of Indian design and serials costumes (particularly , though there is no telling if the Indian film Return of Mr. Superman also influence the goggle design.)
The only alien character who does know music and song is portrayed as a jester and named Joker, his eccentric stylings show how he is an outcast on his own world due to his knowledge of song. He’s a nice character who helps the hero (he’s even played by the same actor, MGR), but has some obvious mental issues and as an effect of that does not live long. In fact, Kalai Arasi is not kind to anyone with mental problems, as there is another character who is presented as crazy who is murdered by the film’s villain. As both characters are played by the same couple that stars in the film, it’s an interesting statement to make. I would even argue Bhanumathi Ramakrishna does a better acting job as the more emotionally unstable Valli than she does as the sweet girl next door Vani.
Interestingly, for a film so focused on music and dance (it being the driving force for the theft of Vani), there is little remarkable singing or choreography. The most entertaining musical number is in the beginning, featuring two women (one cross-dressed as a man.) There is no real alien singing entertainment, even the Joker character dies before he can perform a cool space jam. The real lasting musical legacy is the love song for the couple that is sung in the beginning and features a few reprisals through the film.
The poor music may be one of the reasons Kalai Arasi did not fare well at the box office. It was also sandwiched between several MGR blockbusters. The weird tale, risky for the time, probably hurt the film more than it should. As far as I can tell, the Sarodi Brothers (the producers) never made another film. This is a shame, because Kalai Arasi looks great, and should be better known for the visuals alone. There is little about director A. Kasilingam in English, but he did direct Kaanji Thalaivan, a mythological starring MGR, and had a long career directing and producing.
The presentation is downright awful. A constant hissing noise is present through most of the film. There are obviously chunks missing from the film (including one very obvious part) and the length clocks in an almost exactly 2 hours. This is relatively short for a Tamil film, so that also points to parts missing. Luckily, the missing sections don’t factor too much into the plot (again, except for one part) so only a little bit of problems result. Hopefully the cuts were to fit it on tapes or something, and not because actual parts of the film are missing, but with cinema this old you never know. As you can probably imagine, there are no subtitles, but at TarsTarkas.NET, we don’t need no stinking subtitles!
Due to the lack of information on Tamil cinema, there will be a huge actor infodump, so if you just want to skip to reading about shiny space dudes in goggles shooting flames at a guy in a bear suit, skip below!
Tamil language cinema is mostly based in Tamil Nadu’s capital city of Chennai’s Kodambakkam area (meaning many big production companies are headquartered there), thus it is often called Kollywood. The films are popular in the southern Indian states that speak Tamil, and many are distributed worldwide. Tamil cinema is the second biggest largest film industry in India by volume of films produced.
Kalai Arasi stars Tamil film legend MGR. Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran, billed as M. G. Ramachandran and usually referred to as just MGR, was one of the dominating forces of the Tamil film industry, which he parlayed into a wildly successful political career. MGR began acting as a youth in a local theater troupe to raise money for his family, and in 1935 began appearing in small roles in the emerging Tamil film industry. The success of Manthiri Kumari in 1947 gave him lead roles, and 1954’s Malaikallan made him a super star. Other notable films include the lead in Kollywood’s first color film Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum, Nadodi Mannan (also directed and produced by MGR), Aayirathil Oruvan, and 1973’s Ulagam Sutrum Vaalibhan (one of the few Kollywood films to shoot scenes abroad back then, though 1969’s Sivantha Mann pioneered overseas shooting.)
The most famous MGR movie-related incident was when he was shot in the neck by fellow actor M.R. Radha in 1967. They had costarred together in 25 films, filming their last picture together just days earlier. M.R. Radha then shot himself in the head. Both men were taken to the hospital, the bullet permanently lodged in MGR’s neck. His voice was damaged and he was laid up for six weeks, as his fans cried in the streets. Despite all of this, MGR ran a Legislative Assembly campaign from his bed and won by a huge landslide. M.R.Radha also recovered (the gun and bullets he had used were too old to work properly) and went back to stage acting.
MGR was first elected to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council in 1962 in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party. After his Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election he deliberatly got expelled from his party to form a new party called Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), later renamed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The party was bolstered by MGR films, as MGR kept acting until he was elected Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (basically governor of Tamil Nadu) in 1977, a position he continued to be reelected to until he died in 1987. He was a popular leader and spearheaded reforms involving nutrition and education. MGR’s death caused widespread riots, deaths and suicides for over a month. Violence during his funeral killed 29 people.
On that note, let’s meet the rest of the cast!
Vani is a rich girl, the daughter of a local landlord who is in love with local farmboy Mohan. They spend their days together singing a love song that becomes a running theme for the couple. The problem is Vani is sort of promised to her cousin Kannan, who is a jerk of the jerkiest order. He’s raging mad that Vani keeps ditching him and can’t figure out why, but he knows Mohan is involved.
Meanwhile, IN SPACE!!! We know it’s space from the blurry flying saucer whizzing around…IN SPACE! The saucer whizzes through some different special effects, including a planet surface where a stagehand throws a pan of dust into the air to signifiy a volcano or meteors or comets or something. This looks a lot better than you think it would be from my terrible description. The flying saucer is piloted by space cases who are dressed in funky 1960s spaceman outfits involving goggles and firemen hats. The camera constantly shakes around as the ship flies, disorienting the viewer with the pure speed and alieness of the craft. The machinery noise in the background ads to the already present low sound quality and hiss. The spaceship interior looks like an industrial factory command center with giant machines and wheels and flashing lights and submarine doors. Our two alien pilots are Thinna and Malla, though you can only tell who is who as Thinna wears black goggles and Malla wears white goggles.
The aliens have come for our music, and as this is an age before Napster and iTunes, they’ll have to do some actual theft and steal the artists. Hey, aliens, I know some artists we can let you steal. Cheap! Just don’t bring them back! The aliens begin their quest walking all stiff and awkwardly.
The first thing that happens is they are attacked by a bear (actually, a guy in a bear suit!!!) and they blast him with a flame laser and the bear explodes!
NOOOOOO!!!! Poor bear…
The aliens kidnap Vani, who is wandering around in the woods at this point after meeting with Mohan. Thinna blasts off the ship with her on board, while Malla stays on Earth for reasons not really explained well. Maybe there is only room on the ship for two people. Which makes the whole kidnapping people thing awkward, but whatever. Kannan begins freaking out because Vani is missing, and Mohan is tossed in jail as him mom and sister cry. They depend on him so much they can’t even walk home without falling down multiple times. His sister even agrees to work for a rich lady singing for creepy guys. She decides this on the way home from visiting her brother who was just arrested. She instantly becomes a prostitute. Will things ever be up for our hero? Hey, we’re only 30 minutes into the flick!
Rich jerk Kannan locates a girl named Valli who looks just like Vani, except she’s nuts. As in legitimately crazy. He gets some goons to kidnap her anyway, convinced it’s Vani despite everyone there including her father saying it’s not. Valli is brought to Vani’s home and is excited she lives in such a rich place. She’s emotionally unstable, acting like a small child one minute and violent the next. Vani’s father agrees that she should marry Kannan, because he’s worried no one will take care of his sick daughter. Why dad won’t take care of his sick daughter is not explained. Mohan is let out of jail, and he punches a bunch of dudes to get his sister free. Luckily, this is before she was sold off, so all is good. The police even arrest all the male bidders, but oddly enough, not the rich lady madam. Hmmmmm…..
Vani is brought before the King of the Aliens, and is not impressed. She is even less impressed when she finds out she has to teach the aliens music. Maybe the aliens should have passed the last property tax referendum, then their schools could have kept the music and art programs. Now they have to steal random people in the forest to teach song and dance, and the mission probably cost a million times what the music programs would have cost. The main student will be the King’s daughter, Princess Rajini.
Mohan is wandering around in a funk after finding out “Vani” is now crazy, has no clue who he is, and is getting married. He stumbles across the alien Malla, who is just chilling in the woods listening to his radio. Mohan instantly attacks Malla, not even trying to figure out who the alien is or what he is doing or trying to be friendly. The two fight, but Malla’s flame laser is no match for being pelted with boulders and beaten to death with a huge log. There is a technology metaphor that Return of the Jedi-era George Lucas would love here.
Thinna lands and finds Malla dead. He takes Malla’s body inside the flying saucer and puts it in a cubby hole in the floor. Mohan then runs in, removes Malla’s body and hides in the cubby hole himself while Thinna is smashing Malla’s emergency radio so no pesky humans can use it to prank call the alien home planet. Mohan’s hitchhiking works fine until they are flying over the alien planet and Thinna dumps what he thinks is Malla’s body off on some remote part of the planet from high up in the sky. Mohan falls and falls but because of the light gravity on the alien planet he doesn’t die. Thinna then goes to land at the palace.
When next we see Mohan, he’s bumbling around in the lighter gravity of the alien world. Luckily, a guy in a jester’s outfit with a stringed instrument (a sarod or a surbahar) named Komali is wandering by. He coaxes Mohan forward, and gives him special weighted shoes so he can walk like a normal person. Komali later teaches Mohan how to eat on their planet. Time has gone by, because Mohan is now sporting a beard. Komali is on the way to the palace to show he knows how to do music to, probably because he’s mentally different than the rest of the people on the planet, giving him a window into the world of music. Komali will take Mohan with him, but the moment they step outside, Komali spots a meteor in the sky and laughs and points…then the meteor hits him and he dies!!! Holy crap!
It’s tragic, but also sort of funny.
Mohan then dresses up as Komali and heads to the palace in his place. This is easily accomplished because Komali and Mohan are both played by the same actor. He impresses them enough with his song that he gets hired on full time. He’s also impressed Princess Rajini enough that she takes him to her room and begins serving him drinks and shoving him onto her day bed that she pops out of the wall… Wow, this is pretty forward! Mohan manages to escape.
Thinna is suspicious of Mohan, and lures him to his room and threatens him with a shield device, but Mohan escapes from there as well. One neat thing is in the room there is a tiny wind up toy robot walking around on the desk, just as atmosphere. It’s the only robot present in this scifi adventure, but someone knew they needed a robot and threw in the toy. It’s my favorite little detail of Kalai Arasi.
Mohan finally convinces Vani who he is by singing their love song during a lesson for Princess Rajini. The pair get emoional, the Princess oblivious to the attraction and thinks the two are just getting caught up in the song. Thinna yells at them for daring to be so musical and emotional.
Thinna challenges Mohan to a sword duel (and now they’re both dressed in new space tights and capes outside a Cloud City type backdrop for some reason!) Mohan at first tries to avoid the fight and acts clumsy, but he then reveals he’s a very very good swordfighter, and they have a long and furious duel. The swordfight is very well done and very fast, it’s like old school adventure movie swordfighing. Eventually Thinna is disarmed and falls on the ground, at which point Princess Rajini (who showed up in the middle of the fight to occasionally squeak or get pushed aside by the combatants) berates him for sucking and pulls Mohan away.
Princess Rajini takes Mohan to a bubble room and tries a song of seduction, at which he’s pushing her away constantly during the song. Then she shows off how the flying saucers work. Mohan and Vani have to hide their love, but things backfire when Princess Rajini is announced being engaged to Mohan, something Mohan is shocked about. Also shocked is Thinna, who was trying to wed the Princess (though failing because he’s a jerk!)
A scene must be missing because suddenly Mohan is in handcuffs and being yelled at by Princess Rajini while Thinna is escaping in a flying saucer with Vani held captive. Mohan convinces Princess Rajini that he is in true love with Vani, and she lets him go because true love conquers all and all that jazz. Mohan manages to get on the flying saucer Vani and Thinna is on before it takes off, and they fight as the ship careens out of control. This battle goes on for a long time and is further excited by the odd camera angles and lighting from the interior of the flying saucer. And soon parts of the interior of the ship are exploding.
The flying saucer still makes it to Earth, and Mohan and Vani leap out of the now on fire flying saucer, just in time for it to crash into a mountain! Luckily during the battle the flying saucer flew not only all the way back to Earth, but to just outside the small town in India where Mohan and Vani are from, so they can just walk home!
And the first thing they see is Kannan strangling Valli! Kannan is instantly arrested and Vani and Mohan explain what happened to her dad. I guess Valli is dead, so no happy ending for her! Some other scenes with Kannan and Valli must be missing, because there is no lead up to his murder of her. But that doesn’t matter, because the two lovebirds can now sing and be happy in love, as the film ends.
As the epic space opera is now closed, I must say Kalai Arasi is pretty keen and worth tracking down. The space and alien planet sequences have some good heart, even if the rest of the film is lackluster. A lot of thought and care went into the making of this, and much of the visuals and technical ability are stunning. It is a shame Kalai Arasi isn’t recognized more. A good discovery.
Rated 7/10 (realistic space vehicles, heavy shoes, murderous meteor, death by meteor, the only robot in the flick, jailed for being too awesome, alien extras)
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