Lokesh Kanagaraj has always been a gambler. He put machine guns into the hands of his idol, reviving his career as an action hero at 67 in Vikram. He pulled people back to the theatres during COVID by making a screen icon play a drunken slob in Master, and consciously placed a moving father-daughter story bang in the middle of a cocaine bust in Kaithi. But perhaps his biggest gamble would have to be in one of his better written films. In Maanagaram, Lokesh tells an ambitious hyperlink story about the various residents that populate Chennai city after hours, all with a technical crew as fresh as himself in the industry.
One could look at Maanagaram as a labyrinthine genre film, for it follows three unnamed men and their understanding of the city through various insider-outsider perspectives. Lokesh hits us with charged conflicts one scene after another up until its riveting finale. But it is in the middle of these conflicts that the film tries to sell us on a simple thought – that surprise packages can be found in the weirdest of places. So for every bullish cop like Neelakandan, there is an upstanding constable who will buy you tea and do the right thing. And for every callous child-snatcher (Arun Alexander), there is a crook like Winnings (Munishkanth), nevertheless anchored by his big heart.
As the film turns six, let’s look at the best six scenes that laid out the path for Loki's take off.
The Curious Case of the Red Shirt
Minutes before this scene, Lokesh establishes the milieu of its three main characters (Sri, Sundeep Kishan and Charlie), all found unwinding in a seedy local bar, contemplating new beginnings. Sri, obsessed with his original certificates, is on edge about his new job in a new city. Taxi driver Charlie laughs off an imminent danger, and Sundeep is waiting for a shot at romance and career. But Lokesh also earmarks these three men with one commonality — they are all wearing red shirts.
Now, in any other film, this might be a triviality, but here, the colour red is what sets off a chain reaction in Maanagaram’s umbrella of fate (“saffron red, beetroot red or rose red, what difference does that make?” asks a delirious Alexander). It is because of this red shirt that a bunch of crooks rough up the wrong guy. It is also this red shirt that rattles Sri’s faith in the city. With this scene, Lokesh diverts our attention to the three men, without saying much.
Trouble In The Bus
We know that the entire premise of the film is based on a sequence of blunders, which begins with the red shirt. But the main piece of domino that causes much of the film to unfold is the scene in the bus, which is masterfully cut (by Philomin Raj) with a scene at the school. Sundeep and his friend have sketched the perfect plan to take down a harassing rowdy on a bus ride—in a case of sweet irony, a vial of acid is readied for the man who threatened to attack a woman by similar means. But there is one problem. The bus comes to a screeching halt when Sri and his friend, late to office, stop the bus with their bike, causing the vial to fall down. This inadvertently pulls Sri into a world of chaos. Much of the movie is about being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and no scene depicts this delicious conundrum better than this one.
Maanagaram uses a lot of pauses in its visual language for dramatic effect. The camera zooms in on a little boy and takes a long pause before he menacingly utters his father’s name. We see Sri turn back and pause before he decides to finally stop running and fight back in a city that seems keen on rejecting him. But perhaps the granddaddy of all meaningful pauses comes in the scene that sees Sri and Sundeep meet for the first time. Sri, sick of Chennai and its mess, rejects his job offer in this scene. But not before facing the wrath of our hot-head hero (Sundeep). As they argue, without realising they met minutes earlier, the realisation dawns when a police officer enters. The camera zooms in on Sundeep and the two share a look — a look that conveys that they haven’t seen the last of each other.
Winnings’s Tragicomic Breakdown
Munishkanth’s Winnings is many things in Maanagaram. He is a clumsy knucklehead looking to make a quick buck. But what he is not is a murderer. So, when he is forced to call the city’s vilest gangster and deliver the unpleasant news of holding his son ransom, Winnings hits rock bottom. Lokesh places the actor in the middle of the screen and cuts his sobs with roars of laughter from the other line. “Sometimes we need a goat to take down the lion,” Alexander says, pointing to a devastated Winnings, who is bawling not just out of fear, but out of disgust at himself for threatening to kill a young boy. The next time we see PKP and Winnings, the roles reverse and we discover what a goat can actually be capable of.
The Philosophical Cab Ride
If you’re a frequent cab or auto patron like me, you would’ve encountered drivers dropping sage advice over some harmless small talk during the ride. Lokesh serves this ubiquitous cab-driver moment with a twist in this scene as Charlie (a living breathing metaphor for the film’s core), an outsider in the city, comes to its defence. “You cannot judge a city based on a few offenders,” he says, leading to an almost heated discussion with Sri, on whom the city has done a number on. “When a man is beaten up in the middle of the streets, no one will revolt,” Sri argues, to which Charlie says the film’s most poignant line. “Have we ever revolted?” This line gets a terrific payoff in the finale, when Sri stands up for a battered Charlie, stops running away and revolts.
The Mexican Standoff
Who doesn’t love a good Mexican standoff? Like many films in the genre before its time, Lokesh ends his thriller with a good old deadlock, trapping Sundeep, PKP and Winnings (in lieu of Neelakandan) in a murky stalemate. It’s murky because we have Sundeep and Winnings, who are pawns really in the game between PKP and Neelakandan. Mirroring Sri’s move to revolt, Sundeep too follows suit, deciding to finally use his temperament and fight for a selfless cause. The scene is intercut with Sri’s moment of revolt in the subway, illustrating that the men are two sides of the same struggling coin, trying to catch a break in the unforgiving fabric of a big city.