Michael Madana Kama Rajan, which turns 30 today, is one of those gifts that keeps on giving. Let's begin with screenwriter Kamal Haasan and his Kamal-isms. This is the story of four brothers: if you note the company sticker on a car, it says "Sri Ramajayam", and what is that epic if not the story of… four brothers. (Some of this is discussed in the video below.) And these are identical-looking quadruplets, which means we also get several identical-looking scenarios. The now-legendary "meen" (fish) stretch that introduces the now-legendary Kameswaran is matched with a situation where Manorama tells Madan that her daughter (Rupini) makes a mean meen kuzhambu. Another echo with Manorama: she is introduced in the garb of a widow, which is a match with Urvashi's kleptomaniac grandmother (an ass-kicking SN Lakshmi). Raju is into Tamil theatre, as are the Manorama/Rupini characters. There's even a bit of mathematical matching, with the numbers 6 and 25. Avinashi (Nagesh) embezzles Rs 25 lakh, of which he "returns" Rs 6 lakh. Raju borrows a mere Rs 6 thousand, which has now ballooned, with interest, to Rs 25 thousand. You could go on.
Actually, I think I will go on. Just one more Kamal-ism, bear with me please! Avinashi has eight daughters, and he clubs them as "ashta Lakshmi". Later, Manorama tells Madan-Kamal, "Neenga siricha appadiye ashta Lakshmi sirikkara maari irukku"! And in between, during the kalyana mandapam confrontation after klepto-paatti is caught klepto-ing, what hangs above Delhi Ganesh, bang in the centre of the frame? A portrait of Vishnu surrounded by… ashta Lakshmi.
And yet, as we know today, Kamal-isms alone — fascinating as they are to cinema-archaeologists — aren't enough to fully sustain a film. (Yes, Uttama Villain, I'm talking about you.) And I thought it would be interesting to take a "critical" look at one of Kamal's most beloved comedies. Ask any Tamilian about MMKR, and you'll hear some version of "I love that movie". I love it, too. But — trigger warning! — not as much as I love Apoorva Sagodharargal.
Why compare the two films, you ask? For one, both are Kamal Haasan-Singeetam Srinivasa Rao–Crazy Mohan-Panchu Arunachalam collaborations. Both came about a year apart. Both are unapologetic celebrations of "unrealistic" storytelling, harking back to escapist fiction and the grand tradition of making art out of absurdity. In a recent Zoom interaction, Kamal said that MMKR was an echo of The Importance of Being Earnest. But you could point equally to a novel that was published around the same time (The Prisoner of Zenda), or to a play published three centuries earlier: The Comedy of Errors.
Another similarity: both films open with the patented Manmohan Desai track of a family being hunted down by ultra-villainous villains, followed by the birth (and separation) of multiple Kamal-s. In Apoorva Sagodharargal, two Kamal-s are born after a dramatic stretch. In MMKR, four Kamal-s are born in a song stretch ('Kadha kelu…'). Another similarity: both films play with the trick of the "normal" (i.e. the typically handsome, quirk-less) Kamal versus the "abnormal" Kamal that we know from many films. In Kalyanaraman, the "normal" Kamal was paired with a buck-toothed Kamal. In Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey, the "normal" Kamal was paired with a posh, accented-English Kamal. In Oru Kaidhiyin Diary, the "normal" Kamal was paired with an aged-makeup Kamal. I'm only mentioning a few pre-Apoorva Sagodharargal films. Later, of course, there would be many, many normal/abnormal pairings.
My catch-my-point? thesis of this essay is that the "normal" Kamal brings MMKR down by several notches. He is too… "normal", too straight, too boring, he occupies too much screen time, and he is burdened with the unenviable task of holding the plot together. The film opens with his "father" dying, and he becomes the lynchpin for everything that follows. (One of the film's funniest running jokes, intentional or not, is how his mother, played by the star's former heroine Jayabharathi, always knows where to find him.) Now, compare the "normal" Kamal in Apoorva Sagodharargal. He is essentially a precursor to the Chennai Tamil-speaking Subramanya Raju character here, and he's howl-arious. He has a great foil in the "dumb blonde" character played by Gautami. But in MMKR, the romantic track with Rupini fizzles out faster than the lovemaking at the end of Sivaraathiri, if you know what I meen.
Everything — I meen every single thing — comes together magically in Apoorva Sagodharargal. In MMKR, not so much, especially given the lengthy runtime, capped by a clumsily staged (and never-ending) Gold Rush climax. The villains in Apoorva Sagodharargal are better integrated into the screenplay; Nasser and his father here come off as afterthoughts. The "normal" Kamal's duet in Apoorva Sagodharargal ('Vaazha vaikkum kaadhalukku jai') has a superb payoff; in comparison, Sivaraathiri is just a random "matter" number. (No complaint with Ilaiyaraaja's songs, though, especially 'Paer vechaalum…'). In MMKR, writer-Kamal is constrained by the fact that he has to serve four avatars of star-Kamal (plus, three love interests), and it doesn't help that the milieu he's chosen is a generic one, as opposed to the colourful circus milieu of Apoorva Sagodharargal.
Every time I watch MMKR (and I've lost count of the number of times, now), I wonder how much better the film would be if Madan had been funnier. There's a gem of a bit with Avinashi around where Madan asks Bheem to jump from the window, to prove what loyalty is. He then turns to Avinashi and says something like, "Innum oru vaaram time tharren…" Nagesh, with his impeccable Nagesh-ian timing, cuts him off: "Kuthichu practice pannrathukka? Oru varusham kuduthaalum mudiyaadhu." It's a huge belly-laugh. (Crazy Mohan, zindabad! Rather, zinger-abad!) And it's made even better by accented-Kamal providing the punch line: "Bloody silly fellow, I say!" Michael is a weak link, too, given that he doesn't get much to do, but at least he doesn't hog as much screen time as Madan. I keep imagining a parallel movie where the Santhana Bharathi (in the Michael-verse) and Manorama/Rupini characters (in the Madan-verse) get more time to shine.
Trigger warning ends!
I also keep imagining a parallel movie where we only have Raju and Kameswaran, the two glorious characters who lift MMKR into its despite-all-its-issues stratosphere, and double-handedly justify the film's comedy-classic status. Kameswaran, of course, is the star of the show, but let's first show Raju some love. At times, I feel he doesn't get as much as he should — at least, as much love that should be directed towards a firefighter so in love with the idea of a moustache that his home is decorated with photographs of Subramanya Bharati, Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Lenin and Hitler. (Only in the Kamal-verse…) I love the cartoon shirt he wears for 'Rum bum bum'. I love the dress change to the baby-blue cowboy outfit, with that baby-blue sombrero, and I love the cartoon grin he grins after exchanging a kiss with Khushbu. This is peak-level "dance acting", not just peak-level dancing with the body but also peak-level acting with the face.
What will wokesters, today, make of the scene where Khushbu bends to fish out (I meen, see what I did there?) her visiting card and Kamal's fire-fighting colleague peers at her behind and tells Kamal: Vaazhvu dhaan! (The line puts the "bum" in Rum bum bum, no?) The visiting card is wet. Raju says, with a straight face, "Parava illa. Kaaya vachu padichukkiren." Belly laugh. There's a complicated effects shot when Madan and Raju exchange places, but all you remember is Raju shaving off his beloved moustache and wondering: "Bangalore ponadhukku apparam thirumbi meesai valandhichu naa?" Belly laugh. And his reaction to Khushbu admiring Madan's garden? "Flower liking aa?" Belly laugh.
But despite Raju's delightful Raju-isms, Kameswaran is king, from the moment — around the half-hour mark — the meen falls into his pocket (he's on his scooter) and he looks around and says: "Aaraakum adhu? Plate oda vegetables-a thookki adikardhu!" The way he says "vegetables" (belly laugh, to the power of infinity) tells you exactly who he is, where he is from. The scenes thereon have the sustained comic genius few Tamil comedies can match, with Crazy Mohan entirely in his milieu. ("Sambar la vizhundhuduthu. Kaadhula vizhundha enna!") The lines and situations are sublime. Imagine the orthodoxy ingrained in Delhi Ganesh when they are looking for a ladle to fish out the fish (see what I did there?), and he doesn't want to use a particular ladle because "Adhu jaangiri karandi! Nalla karandi!" Even in this moment of panic, he doesn't want to sully that jaangiri karandi! That, too, tells you exactly who he is, where he is from. And from there to Usilai Mani echoing his famous "besh besh" Narasu's Coffee ad…
There's another reason Raju and Kameswaran stand out. Unlike the tacked-on love track with Madan, their romances are actually funny. Think of the fabulous (to the power of infinity) chemistry between Kamal and Urvashi. Think of Vennira Aadai Moorthy (Khushbu's father) calling Raju's fire-fighting profession a "hobby", or later, the way he presses the pillows that are pretending to be Khushbu in the 'Paer vechaalum…' song sequence. Unlike Sivaraathiri, even the song sequences with Raju and Kameswaran make narrative sense. 'Rum bum bum' leads to Raju dancing with the money-lending Pathan, which leads to Kameswaran's introduction. 'Sundari neeyum' — with a rotating overhead camera, which would later be used to far better effect in Iruvar — leads to klepto-paatti and Delhi Ganesh stumbling on the couple and deciding to make them… a couple. (The song effectively serves as their marriage sequence.)
Everyone (and everything) ups their game when they interact with Raju and Kameswaran. The phrase "catch my point" is first uttered by Madan's father, but it really blooms only when it re-emerges in Raju's presence. ("Idhellaam apdiye varradhu dhaan, ille?") Nagesh gets his biggest belly-laugh scene when he barges into Kameswaran's wedding night, sits on the bed with Kamal and Urvashi and says, "Souriyama irungo!" An appalled Kameswaran replies, "Idhula enna souriyam? First night-la moonu paer naan kaettathe illai." (At this juncture, let's not forget the armpit-scratching Varadhu Kutty.) Even Bheem gets his true moment of glory only when Kameswaran makes a catchphrase of his name: Bheem boy, Bheem boy…
What wouldn't I give for an MMKR that's just… KR. Even the character writing is so consistent with these two. Early on, Kameswaran is shown to be the kind of man who melts at the sight of a woman's tears. This is why he succumbs to Urvashi's manipulation. Later, in Madan's mansion, he melts at the sight of Khushbu's tears. Some of you may (perhaps rightly) ask: Why be such a grouch? Why look at things like "character consistency" as long as the film makes you laugh? But that's the kind of thing that separates the great movies from the merely good ones. Apoorva Sagodharargal is an all-round great movie. MMKR is a good one, that K and R elevate to greatness whenever they appear. The film is30 years old, but whenever these two are on screen, it feels like we are watching them for the very first time. MMKR has aged, but its comedy hasn't.