The release of the first teaser of Aanand L Rai’s Zero, in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a dwarf, invariably brought about comparisons with Kamal Haasan’s portrayal of a vertically challenged character 29 years ago in Apoorva Sagodharargal.

Directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Apoorva Sagodharargal was the highest grossing Tamil film of all time until the release of the Rajinikanth starrer Baasha in 1995. The movie was dubbed in Hindi as Appu Raja.

The film centres on estranged twins Appu and Raja, played by Haasan. Appu, a dwarf, works at a circus, while Raja is a rowdy mechanic. They are separated soon after their birth when their father, an honest police officer (also played by Haasan), is killed by a politician and his goons. Their pregnant mother (Srividya) is fed poison, which affects Appu’s stature. A grown-up Appu avenges his father’s death by taking down the villains one by one using innovative contraptions that mislead the police into thinking that Raja is the culprit.

Haasan was the first regular-sized Indian actor to play a dwarf. His performance as Appu is the benchmark for Zero because of the efforts Haasan put into the project. The movie was made without the use of computer generated graphics or expensive gadgetry at a reported budget of Rs 80 lakhs.

The truth about how Haasan shrunk himself without the aid of visual effects was a mystery for years, with even Haasan refusing to reveal the tricks used to hide his legs in interviews.

It was in 2008 that Rao spilled the beans in a discussion with members of a film society. According to Rao, Haasan folded his knees and hobbled about on them. Shoes were specially made and attached to the knees for the frontal shots.

Kamal Haasan in Apoorva Sagodharargal. Image credit: Raaj Kamal Films International.
Kamal Haasan in Apoorva Sagodharargal. Image credit: Raaj Kamal Films International.

For the side-angle shots, Haasan walked through specially dug trenches that made him appear shorter than everyone around him. For shots where Haasan had to stand still, a pit was dug. The camera for these shots was always placed parallel to Haasan to ensure that his folded legs stayed out of sight. That is why the shots appear flat and two-dimensional.

Kamal Haasan in Appu Raja. Image credit: Raaj Kamal Films International.
Kamal Haasan in Appu Raja. Image credit: Raaj Kamal Films International.

One of the devices used was a pair of artificial legs that could be moved around with strings. This was used in shots where Appu was seated and needed to move his legs around. The artificial legs were used to great effect in the Oru Maapilai Ku song sequence.

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Oru Maapilai Ku, Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989).

In some cases, Haasan stood behind a set-up or inside a space cut into the set-up so that his body was visible only until his waist while the artificial legs were moved around to create the required illusion.

A tricky shot was one in which Appu raises his right leg, folds it and puts it over his left leg while being seated. The artificial legs could presumably be bent at the knees.

Most of the shots in the film featuring Appu have the actor in close-ups or mid-shots. The body below the waist is not shown. Or, if the legs are to be revealed, Appu is shot from the front so that Haasan can act with his knees bent at ease.

However, observant viewers will notice the disparity between Appu’s physique and those of his colleagues from the circus. In the sequences in which Haasan shown alongside other dwarfs, the actor appears to be too broad and big to pass off as a dwarf.

Appu Raja. Image credit: Raaj Kamal Films International.
Appu Raja. Image credit: Raaj Kamal Films International.

Few actors have dared to replicate Haasan’s Appu routine. Johnny Lever played a dwarf for a few minutes in a supporting role in Aashiq (2001). In one scene, a policeman (Mukesh Rishi) drops from a height on a regular-sized Lever’s shoulders, shrinking his proportions. The effect is brought about by a terrible chroma key composition. The scene appears towards the climax, and the diminutive Lever is never seen again.

Aashiq (2001). Image credit: Shweta International.
Aashiq (2001). Image credit: Shweta International.

Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-E-Mann (2006) features Anupam Kher in a prominent supporting role as the dwarf Boney Kapoor, the friend, philosopher and guide of the film’s hero, played by Salman Khan. Boney is constantly subjected to some of the most puerile puns ever made – “Bauni Kapoor” being one of them. (Bauna is Hindi for dwarf). Kher kept his knees folded and shot the film for 40 days . The schedule included a dance number in which Kher had to shake all he had on just his knees.

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Jaane Ke Jaane Na, Jaan-E-Mann (2006).

“Every day I used to carry an ice box and a pair of knee caps for the shooting. Even today when I climb the stairs, a rattling noise comes from my knees – all an effect of 40 strenuous days of shooting,” Kher told Rediff.com.

For Rai’s Zero, a big-budget spectacle, the director is reportedly using the forced perspective technique, an art perfected by Peter Jackson in his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. This technique will require elaborate sets and trick photography in addition to placing Khan at distances farther away from his co-actors and the camera. This will make Khan, by virtue of being far from everyone else, automatically appear smaller.

State-of-the-art computer-generated graphics will also be at play.

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Zero (2018).

Speaking to Scroll.in, Rai marvelled at the visual effects being used for Zero (“It’s such a new baby”) and added that his team is taking the technology used in Jackson’s films forward into newer directions, but did not elaborate further.

A great example of the forced perspective technique is a 2013 television commercial for the Honda CR-V car.