Where would Mysskin's films be slotted if one were to list them under the classic Tamil film trade classification of A, B and C centres? For starters, they don't stand a chance in the last two. It's perhaps more viable to open an upmarket Japanese restaurant in Theni than to give Yuddham Sei prime screens and slots in the local theatres. Mysskin's films are obviously "A centre", but his audience is not exactly the same as those of A-centre mascots Mani Ratnam and Gautham Vasudev Menon. Which is why it wouldn't be unfair to call his market the A+ centre. If Pandiraj is SunNXT and Mani Ratnam Netflix, Mysskin is, perhaps, MUBI.
"Mysskin is making a superhero movie!"
It's in this context that one must try to analyse the excitement that surrounded the release of the director's Mugamoodi. Back when the film was getting made, Marvel wasn't yet the tsunami it has become now. The Dark Knight was the benchmark within superhero movies and Mugamoodi, at least on paper, was the closest we could have come to a 'proper' Tamil filmmaker attempting a 'dark' superhero movie. And if you grew up reading a lot of comic books and watching the video cassettes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Mugamoodi felt like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
Or, maybe, I'm remembering it all wrong. Maybe, it wasn't such a big deal after all. It may have been the desperation to see superhero films flourish in our language or just the excitement to see what Mysskin was going to do with all that money. Or, maybe, it was just our way of celebrating a film that could show a very dignified middle finger to Kanthasamy and its makers. Who really knows?
"Dedicated to Bruce Lee"
Either way, the energy before the FDFS of Mugamoodi felt like we were at a heavy metal concert. There were whistles when Mysskin's name came up on screen and when the Marvel-like comic book pages flipped to become the film's title.
You can predict the fate of most disasters within the first five minutes, but that wasn't the case with Mugamoodi. The first hour or so was filled with several rewarding moments, including the 'hero' introduction scene. A kung-fu competition is taking place in the background and we cut to a shot of a wall painted blue as we hear three guys discussing their Kung-fu master. The shot moves diagonally towards the left and the blue of the wall is replaced by the blue of our 'hero's shirt. We don't get to see his face until someone shouts 'Bruce Lee'.
In the next scene, after a fighter messes with his master, we get to see what is the first of three superhero costumes. The film, in a way, traces the journey of our hero through three of his identities as well. Anand, the name his father calls him by; Bruce Lee, what he calls himself; and, of course, Mugamoodi. But before that, we get one of our most inventive TASMAC songs, the 'Bar Anthem' sung by the director himself.
One could write an article about this song alone. In no other film universe will you find a TASMAC with such diversity – from transwomen to little people, from a group of visually-challenged drinkers to a godman discussing philosophy. We also get to see a filmmaker who looks a lot like Mysskin (played by his brother) discussing a movie idea that opens with a kuthu song featuring a lady wearing a yellow sari. Self-referentiality much?
The set design, too, is classic Mysskin. On top, we see images of Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, with 'before' and 'after' written under each. These images are separated by two bottles and a door with AC BAR written on it. Is this Mysskin's way of saying that Hitler too would have been harmless like Charlie Chaplin had he hit the TASMACs of Germany ever so often?
And for a TASMAC song, can you imagine any other filmmaker agreeing to actually shoot the violin solo, instead of just using it in a closeup of a man crying? And what about the guy spouting Socrates as he stands next to a sign that says 'Arasiyal Pesaatheergal'.
These images keep on coming, like in the scene that follows the song. When a frustrated Lee goes up to the terrace after fighting with his father, we see one of his grandfathers stitching a dragon under the light that hangs on a cross. And when we reach his other grandfather's workshop, the words 'Know Thyself' are written on the door. According to Google, this was the same aphorism written on the arches of the Temple of Apollo.
Most of the film's most existential discussions about love and life take place within this 'temple'. Lee tells his grandfather that he cannot survive in any 9 to 5 job and says he finds his calling in the fighting. He says he wants to be like Bruce Lee, to which his grandfather says that that's not how one should see it. "Bruce Lee did not want to be like anyone else. Don't aspire to become like someone else. Don't ask others want you want to be. Ask yourself," he says. Even later, when Lee goes to his grandfather to seek advice on love, he tells him things such as 'hate is the first stage of love' and how 'he should convince his lover that he is, in fact, a real hero'. In both these discussions, notice how Jiiva stands eclipsing an image of Bruce Lee in the background?
Given that this was Mysskin's most mainstream film until then, a love story was inevitable. But the first meeting is hardly what one would expect. It takes place during a fight in a market when Lee challenges the people there to chop off his left hand as a ploy to get more people to join his master's Kung Fu class. This is when Shakti (Pooja Hegde) walks in and calls the cops. We see her feet, we see her back but never her face, even when he uses pepper spray to get the hero caught.
Much later, when Lee gets his love-at-first-sight moment with Shakthi, she is hitting him with a rod, throwing bricks at him before she uses her pepper spray again. For Lee, love really comes very close to making him blind. We then get K's splendid 'Vaaya Moodi Summa Iru Da'. The video of this song isn't just another love-duet-we'll-shoot-in-
It is also interesting how important the love story is to Lee's transformation. Lee first wears the makeshift costume to see Shakthi because she thinks he's a porikki. And if he'd not gone to her terrace to see her that night, he would not have caught one of the villain's thieves, entangling him in the whole thing. Like how the love story with Jessie helps Karthik find himself and become a successful director in VTV, it is Lee's love for Shakthi that sets him on the path to become Mugamoodi.
Even if you were not the biggest Mysskin fan, Mugamoodi still offered some of the coolest fight sequences in our films. Without vouching for the authenticity of the Kung Fu within the film, at least the film tried something with the action choreography. And this includes the fight between Lee's master and Dragon (Narain), which ends abruptly without ever telling us what happened.
Of course, the film offered little more than these great action scenes if you were not familiar with Mysskin's own cinematic universe. And even if you were a die-hard fan, it was asking a lot to accept Narain, one of the most 'eligible-looking' among actors, as a deadly, campy villain named Dragon.
The flaws are many and the film remains difficult to sit through even today, but at least it tried unlike the other superhero movie we got. And in the end, when Shakthi hesitates before kissing Mugamoodi on his forehead and putting the mask on him again, we realise what Mysskin was trying with the film's existential theme. To him, the life of a superhero is like accepting sainthood. It goes beyond temptations like love that limit mere mortals. Who he was before doesn't matter anymore.