When Tamil cinema was gearing up to witness the comeback of Ulaganaayagan on-screen last year with Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram, the makers had a sweet surprise in the form of a promo video that took us 20 years back in time. Vedham (Yugi Sethu) sees an image of his friend Ram (Kamal Haasan) in the newspaper with the words ‘Wanted’ printed on it. The scene instantly took us back to a newspaper report that came out a day after five friends dumped a dead body near a bridge in Kamal Haasan’s classic comedy Panchathanthiram (2002). Like the hilarious scene in the film, Vedham nervously calls his friends Ganesh (Ramesh Aravindh), Ayyappan Nair (Jayaram) and Hanumant Reddy (Sriman), recreating the unforgettable conference call moment.
This June, Panchathanthiram, a film replete with ludicrous twists and satire, turned 21. Speaking to us on the film’s anniversary, Yugi Sethu recalls a particular conversation he had with Kamal Haasan during its filming. “At one point, Kamal sir asked me if people would be able to understand the film as the story moves at such a quick pace with an unlimited supply of jokes. I told him that even if they didn’t understand everything on first viewing, many other jokes might land when they watch the film for the third or fourth time.”
And that’s exactly what’s happening today, more than two decades after its release. “People are still discovering new jokes in the film. That’s why it remains evergreen.” So, for all the fans of the Fab-5, who have watched and relished every hidden joke in the KS Ravikumar and Crazy Mohan production over the years, Yugi Sethu takes us through the making of the comedy classic.
Edited Excerpts Below
What is your favourite memory of Panchathanthiram?
I had initially rejected the film. I was ruling the roost in television at the time with Nayandi Durbar (a talk show he hosted in the early 2000s). I didn't want to play one among the five guys despite being in Kamal Haasan’s company. I told Kamal sir, “If I play second fiddle to you, I might lose the rank I have in that space.” He told me that I was one among the five heroes, and shouldn’t think of it as 'one plus four'. And I was on board. Crazy Mohan had to leave for a different country three or four days after the shoot began. We had known each other for a long time and he needed someone to improvise on the spot in his absence. I realised this was why I was roped in only much later. Kamal sir gave me a lot of freedom.
I once told him that we should emphasise more on each of our character’s personality traits. To give you an example, I look like I have lost my mind, so my character will be like that throughout the film. Sriman looks like thiruvizha la kaanaama ponavan (looks like someone who has gotten lost in a huge festival crowd), and Jayaram exaggerates everything, especially with his cartoonish expressions. Naalu perumah mutaal ah irupaanga, oruthanaavudhu konjam thelivaa irupaan la (At least one of them would have some clarity), so that person was Ramesh Aravindh. We all had so much fun. The film’s shooting was more like a paid picnic.
Take us through that epic ‘Munnadi Pinnadi’ sequence. Tell us what went behind the famous wordplay there.
It was 5:15 in the evening and we had to finish shooting the scene by 5:45pm before sunset. We had to travel to a different place the next day, so all we had was half an hour to finish the scene. Kamal sir and I sat down to discuss and improvise the dialogues. As per the script, after dumping the dead body, we'd be stopped by the police. I'd be sitting in the back seat and this is how our conversation with the cop (played by Vasu Vikram) would flow.
Cop: Back la enna man? (What is in the back?)
My character: Bag iruku (There is a bag)
Cop: Back la enna iruku?
My character: Bag thaan iruku (There is a bag)
The scene then goes on to detail the confusion between the words 'bag' and 'back', and how the friends use that to escape. Kamal sir and I did a role play, where he played the cop and I was answering him. We bantered a bit and decided the cop would start questioning them in Tamil.
Cop: Pinnadi (back) enna da iruku
My character: Oh adhuva, munnadi irundhadhu ippo illa (It was there before but it is not there now; 'Munnadi' means both front and before in Tamil)
Cop: Munnadi enna irundhudhu (What was there before?)
My character: (Kamal sir would show me some signals) Adha pinnadi solren eh, munnadi irukuravaruku solradhu pidikala pola iruku (I will tell that later because I think the one in the front does not like it)
This was really fun. So, Kamal sir and I decided that we'll take it forward like this and just like that, everyone came up with their own dialogues. The rest of it like the joke on ‘brother Kobarathan’ and ‘co-brother Barathan’ were all there. And with a single take, we packed up at 5:45pm.
Tell us about the chaos that follows once the friends realise that Maggie (Ramya Krishnan) is dead in the film. That was a terrific turning point.
So, a nervous Vedham sees Maggie’s dead body, and the scene demands him to convey this news to his friends. But what is the fun in telling them this information flatly? So, we approached the scene with just Vedham’s actions. Everyone reads his actions differently before Ramesh Aravind jokingly asks, “Enna da kolai ah paatha maari nadungura” (Why are you trembling as if you saw a murder).
Similarly, when we wait to open the door, Vedham would start shouting in fear. When his friends ask for a key, he’d be terrified. But after the shot, I asked Kamal sir how it would be if the door was already open. So, we went for a retake. By the time we finish arguing and find the key, Ramesh Aravindh would have opened the door and rushed in.
So, whenever the five of us were together in a scene, we kept improvising. For instance, when Kamal sir would ask for a stick to push the body down the laundry ramp, Sriman would instantly give him a toothpick. We were all just in character and reacted purely to the situation. Even if anything went wrong, we knew that we had Kamal sir to take care of it. So, we were all in our element enjoying the shoot.
Do you have a favourite dialogue from the film?
I don’t know why but everyone liked the “bardarji saadi” comment. It has become meme material now. In the pre-climax scene, I would actually mess up a proverb. But Jayaram would immediately give a counter saying, “Yedho onnu da. (Whatever it is, let it be).” We would mess up in many places but it would end up becoming a scene.
In one scene, Ram (Kamal Haasan) would be so frustrated with all of us and would say, “Unga rendu perayum vechukittu kola kooda panna mudiyaadhu” (I can’t even commit a murder with the two of you). Such dialogues were all improvised.
If you were given a chance to play any other character in Panchathanthiram, which would it be?
It would only be Vedham. I was slightly the odd one out like Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, so my character always stood out. He’d always say the most inappropriate things with such conviction and boldness. A lot of twists in the film are triggered by Vedham, so there was a lot of scope to play around and improvise. I’d play him any day.
We can only imagine the fun you all must have had behind the scenes. Could you share the story behind any such moment?
If you had made a film with just the behind-the-scenes and break-time moments, you would’ve maybe gotten a better film than Panchathanthiram. One day, we were all having lunch. Nagesh sir had just finished eating and he was chewing a betel leaf. Kamal sir, on the other hand, was poking his fork into a piece of chicken, as he was telling us some anecdote. I noticed that Nagesh sir was quietly watching Kamal sir. I knew he was going to crack some joke. With the betel in his mouth, Nagesh sir sarcastically asked, “Dei Kamal, andha chicken inum saagalaya? (Hey Kamal, is the chicken not dead yet?) And we all broke into laughter.
Is there the slightest possibility of a sequel on cards?
I was telling Kamal sir once that the American film The Hangover, even if it was released after Panchatanthiram, had many sequels. "Panchatanthiram romba la illa naalum ‘konja thanthiram’ panirukalaam nu." He commented that it was a nice title. This talk has been going on for years and if we ever do make one, I’m sure the theatres will run to houseful shows. It's a win-win. But Kamal sir has grown so much, and is very busy. Crazy Mohan is also no more. Ravikumar sir and Kamal sir are good friends and leaders, so we would need a team just like that. Let's all hope it happens.