There are good films, there are bad films and there are so-bad-its-good films…and then you have Ranjith's 2007 Rock N' Roll. It's a film that's wrong on so many levels that one can't dismiss if it's wrongness was, in fact, intentional. Because no film can get you to open your eyes to toxic masculinitzy parading as 'coolness' the way this film can. Kumbalangi Nights, though very much intentional, comes close, but it never gives you the disturbingly satisfying feeling of watching an entire film full of 'Shammis'; even Chadramouli's ponytail gets a meatier role than the women in this film.
Is this just a bad film or was it Ranjith's masterplan to get us to laugh at ourselves as we laugh at this movie? Is Rock N' Roll more than the man dealing with his mid-life crisis the way a balding man buys his first wig? Am I telling you that Ranjith is basically an evil genius? Let's explore.
Before we get to jazz legend Chandramouli (Mohanlal), we need to first meet his talented buddies, starting with keyboardist Henry (Rahman). His introduction scene, where he's namedropping AR Rahman and other bigwigs, involves him promising an aspiring female singer a chance to sing for these legends if she were to 'listen' to him. Is it a disturbing scene? Nope. It's just supposed to be a funny scene where a man's just being a man. Casting couch much?
What about his other buddy played by Mukesh? He explains how he handles his two wives using the example of a musician handling two call sheets. It's like "9 to 6 and 6 to 9," he says. He doesn't even call them by their names. Just…KK Nagar and Anna Nagar. And when a character asks him which wife he will go home to that night, he says, whichever place his car takes him to. What a loving husband no? We also get Issac (Lal), the brooding alcoholic violinist, music director Guna (Siddique) and Balu (Harisree Ashokan) on the tabla.
When Guna gets stuck looking for a particular kind of beats for his new song for Lal Jose because the director wants the 'rhythm to be live', he calls on jazz musician extraordinaire Chadramouli.
But where could he be?
When Guna last heard of him, he was busy filling up the Wembley Stadium as he played along with guitarist Earl Peters. He is then said to have moved to South Africa after getting married to a karambi (black woman). After that he was caught for growing weed in Latin America. In India, he usually chills with Rahman, Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram (though they never feature in the film). He's just as comfortable jamming with Shankar Mahadevan and gang or even Mattanoor Shankaranarayanan when he's in India.
I think these are the lines that were the clincher to get Ranjith the Ujala Asianet Medimix Pankajakasthuri Musli Power Award for Best Dialgoues that year.
We also get a super funny meet-cute when Laksmi Rai's Daya Sreenivasan, a Malayali raised in Bombay calls Chadramouli, 'Chandi'mouli (Chandi = butt). LOL
So after this mega introduction we find out that our hero Chandramouli is not too far away. He's just chilling with a white chick in a bar in Mumbai when Guna contacts him.
One phone call, that's all it takes for him to leave everything behind to reunite in Chennai. And when he listens to the track that requires his expert additions, he's not impressed at all. "Did you call me all the way here for this?," he insults Guna. He was, after all, planning on going for a world tour with an African Band named K Town. It is only after listening to a programmed version of the song that he agrees. The least you expect after all that pomp about him being the 'only true Jazz musician alive' is to infuse, well, jazz beats into the song. But what does he do? He ponders and uses the steelpan, a kind of steel drum used mainly in Calypso compositions for the Guna's song. Pure jazz my a**. Even using Harisree Ashokan's throat as a musical instrument isn't something jazz purists use too often, I'm guessing.
The film also has a way of using musical jargon to make everything feel more "real", like they know what they're talking about. So when we're introduced to Mukesh's character in a studio, he awkwardly lists instructions to his conductor which sound something like…"Cello base-il -staccato kodukku. Violas arco. Violin legato. All down beats timpani strokes, OK?"
Even later, terms like B-flat major, tempo (14324) and key are thrown around even though they add nothing to the scenes.
It's only when the film's two women are introduced that we get to have a lot more fun. First, we get Meenakshi the 'tom-boyish' dancer played by Swetha Menon. She first abuses Chadramouli when he says something sleazy to her over the phone. But the second she identifies its him, she becomes totally cool with it. Because a minute later when she hugs him in excitement when he goes…'your sweat smells nice.' (WTF) Later, when he insinuates that she never slept with him, she jokes about how she needs his Elisa Test results to prove Chadramouli is safe. Trust this writer to use a man's promiscuity as a major bragging right.
Later, he even mansplains sex to her when he says a man's attraction to a woman is only physical. If it wasn't, St. Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi would have been the most attractive people in the country, he says. He says, "when you have seen as many women as I have, in every niram (complexion), roopam (shape) and gandham (smell), there's nothing left to see. Which is why he doesn't believe in marriage. But hey, at least Meenakshi tells him, however nicely, that a woman is more than just 55 kgs of mamasam (flesh).
But that doesn't mean anything to Chandramouli because him falling for Daya (Lakshmi Rai) too is only physical. He hasn't spoken to her enough to really know her; it's only love at first sight. What makes me curious is how little she speaks in the entire film. Maybe that's what attracts him to her in the first place. And as Daya explains herself later on, "I'm not like my rich cousins. I'm just a middle class girl. I just want to be famous all over India as a singer." She's so pavam that she even feels embarrassed when she catches herself dancing like Meenakshi.
After Chandramouli creepily flushes down Daya's flight tickets to return to Mumbai, he manipulates things in such a way that he calls her over to his place for a party. The set design here is sheer brilliance. "Buffalo Soldier" is spray painted multiple times across the walls so is lines as unpretentious as "Paint On Silence". The walls are lined with phots of composers Devarajan and Raveendran. He even tries to woo her with lines like, "it's my hobby to collect musical instruments wherever I go."
At a time when we're rethinking the portrayal of Muslim characters in Malayalam films, it's really educational to look at the character played by Jagathy Sreekumar in this film. From a veiled hint at where he gets his 'illegal' money from to this obsession with food. From a terribly unfunny Talasherry accent to the seemingly lack of decency in his behaviour…no offensive stereotype is spared in the way he is shown in his film.
From the creators of 'Mone Dinesha' and 'Savari Giri', we get the immensely unforgettable 'Cool Guru'. Not just this but we get the characters in the film addressing each other using terms as hip as 'machi', 'dude', 'guru', 'machane' and much more. They even moot renaming love with a term called 'Sudolphi' because 'premam' and 'ishtam' have been used too many times.
After sex, Chadramouli even gets to mansplain the idea of a true marriage to a divorcee and no it's not the alcoholic husband that needs his advice. He sits Rohini's character (his friend's ex-wife) down and explains why her alcoholic husband is the way he is because he's a "pure" uncompromising artist. And instead of asking him to change his ways, Chandramouli convinces her to be more understanding and give him another chance. And given the expert in love the hero is, she even listens.
So once Chandramouli chops of his ponytail and decides to compose songs for an unwritten film only so he can he spend more time with Daya, he struggles to come up the nine songs he needs for it. It is only when he falls in love with her that he gets the music to pour from within him, even though he's a talent great enough to chill with AR Rahman, Vikku Vinayakram and also sell out the Wembley like it is mentioned before.
But there's a twist. They very moment he gets THE tune, right from the soul, it is Daya's engagement. He being the OG he is, storms into Daya and Vivek's (Anoop Menon) engagement and demands that she listens to his song before agreeing to marrying Vivek. Of course he slays it (and her) with 'Raverayaayi Pove'.
But given the guy she would have married, she seems luckier with Chandramouli. After being floored by Chadramouli's composition, she begs him to not let her go. "Can't you please keep me," she says demurely to Chandi, sorry, Chadramouli.
To this, her fiancé Vivek says, "Get Lost You Slut." But that's cool because in their happily every after, as Chandramouli is chilling in the beach checking out white women in bikinis he calls his wife a 'durantam' (disaster) or in the writers words, "I'm in love with this durantam". I can almost see the Ujala Asianet Medimix Pankajakasthuri Musli Power statuette, looking at the writers and going…cool guru.
Can one of think of another Malayalam film with so much so-bad-its-good GOLD? Yes I can. Watch this space for a piece on another classic…Cassannovva.