Tamil cinema too has its own MCU, the Muni Cinematic Universe. Yes, that is how the Muni-Kanchana series of horror-comedy movies have come to be known as. The first installment in the Muni series released in 2007. And the makers continue to entertain (and terrorise) us with their flavour of comedy. Kanchana 3 was the biggest hit of the summer of 2019 and it was the fourth film in the MCU. Let’s first take a look at how full-length comedies evolved through these years.
In the initial years (1930s and 40s) Tamil films mainly narrated stories from popular myths like Baktha Prahalada, Meerabai, Harichandra and so on. It also relied heavily on the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Tamil literature to make films. There were occasional film adaptations of stage plays and stories from Tamil weeklies, like Maathruboomi and Sathi Leelavathi. And there were a set of films on popular personalities like Tenali Raman, Patinathar, and the like. Interestingly, there were also sporadic outbursts of thrillers like Pakka Rowdy, Madras CID, etc. Yes, there was Sabapathy (1941), a rare comedy. But hands down, the favourite of the initial decades was mythology.
Gradually, the themes veered to the Raja-Rani domain (basically, stories on power struggle set in faraway lands), patriotic fervour, and magical stories that were slotted under Brand Vitalaachariyaar.
In 1952, the Dravidian tsunami set the screens on fire with Parasakthi. Sivaji Ganesan’s debut performance is still considered the gold standard for dialogue delivery in films. But as a whole, the decade was filled with the likes of Madurai Veeran, Manohara, Gulebakavali and Nadodi Mannan. Coming back to humour, though there were ‘comedy tracks’ in films, full length, successful comedy films were not easy to locate. Sabash Meena (1958) was the one that stood out. Even if decades had passed after the roaring success of Charlie Chaplin world over, the reluctance of Tamil film makers to find comfort with full length comedy continued. But due credits to N.S.Krishnan for adding humour to Tamil films during this period.
Adutha Veettu Penn (1960) starring T. R. Ramachandran in the lead role provided a hilarious opening for the new decade. It was a laugh riot, a situational comedy soaked in those old tricks boys play to impress damsels. There is this famous funny song ‘Kangalum Kavi Paduthey…’ that serves as a template even today.
AVP was a truly successful comedy film. Sivaji Ganesan’s Bale Pandiya, another landmark comedy, followed it. Still comedy as a genre was not tried often. Kadhalikka Neramillai, from 1964, is a cult comedy that actor Nagesh carried effortlessly on his shoulders. The scene where Chellapa (Nagesh playing an aspiring film director) narrates a story to his father is rib-tickling even now. Rajnikanth used a similar scene in his comeback film Chandramuki (2005), to the same comic effect. Then came the crop of Nagesh-K Balachander comedy-dramas like Server Sundaram (KB as the writer), Bama Vijayam, Ethir Neechal and so on. Outside these films the concept of ‘comedy track’ was still in vogue taking a helping hand from J.P.Chandrababu, Manorama, Cho and other ‘comedians’. Galatta Kalyanam with its amusing premise was a feather in the cap of the 60s. Again, Sivaji Ganesan proved his mettle with humour.
1970s was a tumultuous, milestone decade for Tamil films — it marked the generational shift from MGR-Sivaji to Rajni-Kamal; from MSV to Ilayaraja; from Raja-Rani and mythology to serious social and family dramas. Also the legendary directors like KB, Bharathiraja and Mahendran delivered their best in this decade. But what about comedy films? The species had just slipped from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically endangered’ in this time.
Thillu Mullu (a remake), the evergreen comedy heralded the 1980s. It presented a very new dimension to Rajnikanth. Supported by Thengai Srinivasan, Sowcar Janaki and an ensemble of cast that includes even Nagesh and Kamal Hassan in minor roles, the film became a benchmark for the genre. Due to the continued efforts of film makers and actors like K.Bhagyaraj (Indru Poi Naalai Vaa, Dhavani Kanavugal), R.Pandirajan (Aan Paavam, Oorai Therunjukitten) and Visu (Dowry Kalyanam, Manal Kayiru), the genre continued to be relevant. In fact the comedy films gained traction in Kollywood during this period. While many of the these films were great comedies, the comedy of the decade was still Thillu Mullu, which released in 1981. The eight years that followed only helped the genre escape the deterioration from ‘Critically endangered’ to ‘Near-extinct’.
Yes, there were great ‘comedy tracks’ during the period, performed exceedingly well by the comic legends like Goundami-Senthil. The 80s too witnessed a revolution in Tamil cinema with the introduction of Mani Ratnam. But comedy was never his forte. And the auteur even dropped the ‘comedy tracks’ from his films very soon, after attempting it for one last time in Agni Natchathiram (1988).
So this was the B.C. of Tamil comedy films. Before ‘Crazy’.
Now let us move to A.D., in the year of Tamil comedy God ‘Crazy’ Mohan. It was 17th October, 1990, and Michael Madana Kamarajan, in my opinion, the greatest Tamil comedy of all time, got released. The very previous year, with Apoorva Sagodharargal, Crazy Mohan had established himself as a real talent as a dialogue writer. ‘Sir.. neengaengeyo poitenga!’ still lingers in the air. Even Crazy’s Kathanayagan (1988) had many funny moments (‘Gaja ka dost’). But with MMKR, Crazy took the onscreen comedy to an altogether higher plane, and set a fresh benchmark.
International Decade of Tamil Comedy Films
The Crazy-Kamal combo went on to roll out one comedy after another —Magalir Mattum, Sathi Leelavathi, Avvai Shanmugi and Kadhala Kadhala, all released in the same decade. Crazy also collaborated (though with less success) with others, and gave memorable comedy film like Chinna Mapillai. The decade also had non-Crazy hits like Nadigan (1990, a 1962 Hindi film remake), Singara Velan (1992) and Ullathai Allithaa(1996) that were high on humour — but nothing could outwit the Crazy waves that consistently lapped the shores of onscren humour.
The new millennium too kick started with the Crazy-Kamal combo. Thenali (2000), Panchathantiram (2002), Pammal K. Samandham (2002) and Vasool Raja MBBS. Switch on your TV and play any Tamil comedy channel, and don’t be surprised if you end up watching clips from any of these films. The other filmmakers collected the baton and continued to run up the humour track with all sincerity. Soon we had two more cult classics of comedy —Imsai Arasan 23-aam Pulikesi (2006) and Chennai 600028 (2007). The 2000s was easily the most humour-packed years of Tamil cinema.
But why did it take so long for humour-comedies to evolve? Simple. Even full-length comedies got established only in the recent decades. Before Crazy Mohan, there were hardly any takers even for the evergreen material of slapstick or the comedy of errors.
There have been directors and writers who have given us a series of blockbusters. Ellis R. Dungan, B. R. Panthulu, S.P.Muthuraman, P.Vasu, Panchu Arunachalam, Gangai Amaran, Shankar and many more. But to hand out consistent hits in just the genre of comedy — is actually a big deal. Before Crazy Mohan there were just old sprinklers struggling to keep up the grass green. In A.D. the genre progressed from critically endangered to just vulnerable. A giant leap for any species. The genre blossomed.
Now, in the second decade of the third millennium, in spite of gems like Soodhu Kavvum (2013), we seem to be staring at a scenario of over-population. The makers are worried more about the numbers than about the DNA. But that is another story, unfolding every Friday. The latest, weakest member being Dharma Prabhu.
Maestro Ilayaraja — just a single person defined the whole of Tamil cinema music throughout the 1980s. Other than him there was perhaps no other person who stood as the only identity for his field of work; the one who had total domination. The sky always had a couple of shining stars and a few dazzling shooting stars. May be a rainbow here or a full moon there. But never a sole star glittering with a beaming smile. But from the year 1990, the comedy sky had one such star. It was ‘Crazy’ Mohan.