Movies released during the festive seasons in cinema-crazy South India are often as much of a reason for celebration as the actual festivals themselves. Multiple big-budget films billed as “wholesome entertainers” have historically opened around the Pongal harvest festival in mid-January, such as Ellis Dungan’s Ponmudi in 1950, Missiamma with Gemini Ganesan and Savithri in 1955, Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum in 1956 (the first Tamil film in colour) and Anbe Vaa exactly 50 years ago on January 14, 1966.
Anbe Vaa (Come, My Love) marks the only time Tamil superstar MG Ramachandran worked with director AC Thirulokchander and AVM, the reputed production company. AVM was making its first film in Eastman Colour, which explains the riot of shades — in particular, bright reds — throughout the film. AVM normally approached actors and cast them after the story and script were finalised, but here, even as Thirulokchander was working on Anbe Vaa’s screenplay, studio head AV Meiyappan suggested MGR for the lead. In an interview with The Hindu newspaper in 2011, the director recalled narrating the story to the star. “I found him smiling throughout the storytelling session,” Thirulokchander said. “At the end he said, ‘I'll do it. We will be mere puppets in your hands and the credit will go only to you.’ ‘AV' was a smashing hit, and I was moved when he repeated the words at the film’s 100th day function.”
Anbe Vaa is hardly original – it takes off from the Hollywood hit Come September (1961), starring Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. Come September had already inspired the Hindi movie Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), starring Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore. The plot is familiar, then: overworked tycoon JB (MGR) escapes to his mountain retreat in Shimla, where he learns that in his absence, the caretaker has been running his house as a hotel. The guests are Geetha (B Saroja Devi) and her parents. Since the caretaker and his wife are away, JB as Balu manages to convince the caretaker’s brother-in-law, Ramaiah (Nagesh), who does not know his true identity, to give him a room in his own house. The film traces the love story between JB and Geetha, from their initial silly little clashes to their romance to typical complications getting in the way before the customary happy ending with a luridly colourful version of the title song.
Anbe Vaa is one of MGR’s most well-known films, but it stands out in contrast to other titles in his career after 1953, when he joined the political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The comedy, rated by director Mani Ratnam as among his ten best Tamil films of all time, is enjoyably light-hearted fluff and sees MGR ably carry the film through in the role of the Westernised, wealthy urbane romantic hero. The role is different from the MGR prototype – the poor, mother-loving crusading Tamil hero who fights for the oppressed and tames the rich heroine while all along propagating the DMK’s ideology and concerns. MGR’s age aside (he was 48 years old when he filmed Anbe Vaa), it is apparent he is enjoying himself tremendously on the screen, even doing a mean twist in the process.
Though not as overtly political as MGR’s other films, Anbe Vaa does cater to his image as and when it can. The star dresses in red and black, the colours of the DMK, in the opening song Pudhiya Vaanam, which was filmed in Shimla and parts of Kashmir. Barring a few outdoor sequences, including one at a skating rink, much of the film has actually been shot closer to home, with Ooty doubling up for Shimla. The film also gives MGR a cursory fight sequence with a fighter called Sitting Bull, no less, to rescue damsel-in-distress Saroja Devi.
MGR had initially suggested a young Jayalalithaa for the heroine’s role since they had recently delivered the smash hit Aayirathil Oruvan (1965) together. But the filmmakers stuck to his extremely popular pairing with Saroja Devi. In contrast to MGR’s easy and likable act, Saroja Devi appears too over the top in terms of the make-up and costumes and her cloying performance. She is too old for the role, like MGR, and she seems more at home in some of the more serious portions of the film rather than in the comic moments. But she does share an easygoing chemistry with MGR.
While the supporting cast of Nagesh, Manorama and SA Ashokan are fine enough, MS Viswanathan’s musical score deserves a special mention. The music is easily one of the highlights of Anbe Vaa. Earlier part of the extremely popular Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy team, MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamoorthy went their separate ways after Aayirathil Oruvan (1965). Anbe Vaa proved to be an early solo hit for Viswanathan, and he went on to have a deservedly legendary career in Tamil cinema.