In this week’s release Zero, directed by Aanand L. Rai, Shah Rukh Khan plays a vertically challenged man. Almost thirty years ago, when computers were not used for special effects, and filmmakers had to use their ingenuity, Singeetam Srinivasa Rao had made Apoorva Sagodharargal –dubbed into Hindi as Appu Raja—in which Kamal Haasan played a dwarf.
Kamal Haasan always tried to play unusual characters, that required physical transformation—this one was the most daring. He had written the screenplay himself, from Panchu Arunachalam’s story, but no production house wanted to touch it. So, Haasan produced it himself and when the film was released, audiences were baffled as to how the star managed to play what he called “a short person,” and for years the tricks were kept secret, so that people could just speculate. Later, when Haasan did talk about it, audiences realized how tough it was—walking on the knees wearing specially shoes, or in trenches dug on the sets, and how the cinematographer, PC Sriram, had to shoot carefully, keeping all the props that ‘shortened’ the actor out of the frame.
Kamal Haasan had a triple role in the film. He played the father, Sethupathi, a police officer, who takes on four criminals. To avenge their arrest, they kill the cop and poison his pregnant wife (Srividya). She survives and gives birth to twins with the help of Muniyamma (Manorama). The babies are separated—one grows up with Muniyamma as Raja, a mechanic and the other, the short Appu, in a circus, with his mother.
Appu falls in love with the daughter (Rupini) of the circus owner, who loves another man. A despondent Appu tries to commit suicide, which is when his mother tells him about the murder of his father, and the reason for his deformity—the poison she had been forced to ingest by the villains. Appu swears to kill the four men.
As Raja goes about romancing Janaki (Gouthami), Appu carefully plots the murder of the villains, one by one, using his circus skills. But since his face resembles Raja’s, his twin is caught for crimes. While on the run, he encounters his real mother, who realizes that he is her son. The one surviving villain, Dharmaraj (Nagesh) kidnaps both the mothers, which leads to Appu and Raja teaming up to rescue them from the circus where they have been held captive. They overpower Dharmaraj with the help of circus animals, Appu shoots him and surrender to the police.
The revenge plot was standard for that era, the novelty was Kamal Haasan playing a dwarf. The star revealed in a talk he gave years later, that getting the scenes with Appu right was a daily process of trial and error, checking each day’s shoot in the lab, scrapping the scenes that didn’t work, rectifying the problem and reshooting. All that hard work paid off when the film became a huge hit.
Rai and Khan’s film obviously has a different story, but let’s not forget that another “short person” made it to the screen first!