To really get ‘Crazy’ Mohan, perhaps you could begin with the American Jewish comedians like Sid Caesar and Neil Simon. Their comedy was rooted in their inherent Jewishness, and you could say ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s comedy was rooted in his inherent Tam-Brahm-ness. This is a subculture with very specific (and eminently entertaining and spoof-ready) traits. Think of the Rajaparvai bit where YG Mahendran gives the visually impaired Kamal Haasan a shave. He’s humming the Shankarabharanam (film) song, Dorakuna ituvanti seva. Only, he transforms it to Dorakuna ituvanti ‘shave’-aa. This line isn’t by ‘Crazy’ Mohan, but the feel is.
With writers, they say: First write what you know. Maybe it’s the same way for comedians. In Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, the protagonist’s mother tells him her grandparents wept because they realised the Statue of Liberty wasn’t a Jewish woman. The protagonist responds, “That would be a riot. A Jewish statue of liberty. In her left hand, she’d be holding a baking pan… and in the right hand, held up high, the electric bill.” I’m reminded of a two-character exchange (I can’t exactly recall the names of the characters, so let’s call them Madhu and Cheenu) from Crazy Thieves in Palavakkam. Madhu asks what 70mm is. Cheenu says, “Engappa varushaa varusham devasam pannuvaa. Appo panchakacham kattipaar. Paathirukkiyo?” Madhu says yes. Cheenu says, “Adha pirichaa eppidi irukkum?” Madhu says, “Romba asingama irukkum.” Ba-dum-dish!
The theatre scene of the seventies and the eighties was something else. It was thriving. If you opened The Hindu and went to the entertainment listings page, you’d see as many plays as films. Many of these plays were presented by groups or sabhas (not to be confused with the performance spaces, like Narada Gana Sabha).You paid up some money, became a member of a sabha, and you’d get a couple of tickets every fortnight or every month to the hot new plays. And there was a range of plays. There were the Tam-Brahm-y comedies by ‘Crazy’ Mohan, S Ve Sekhar, Kathaadi Ramamoorthy. There were the special effects-laden historicals by RS Manohar. There were the socially conscious dramas by Komal Swaminathan. I guess video, and later, 24-hour television killed that kind of theatre-going. (Do those sabhas still exist?) I’m not mourning the loss of an era. I’m saying things come and go. Once, Nagesh’s brand of high-volume slapstick was the rage. Today, comedy means making fun of Yogi Babu’s looks. Whatever!
Here’s another joke I remember. Maybe it’s ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s. Maybe it’s someone else’s. It’s the tone that matters. Someone starts the sloka, “Shanta kaaram...” The other guy responds, “Sharada sweet-u…” I guess older folks may have found this blasphemous, but the wordplay is what’s special. I found it liberating that someone was making fun of the stuffiness of this subculture. I’ve always felt that ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s zingers were the most flavourful when he wrote for characters in the milieu he was most comfortable with, the Tam-Brahm milieu. Think of Avvai Shanmugi. Think of Aaha, where Delhi Ganesh tells the deaf old man, “Ungalukku Bhagavan kannaadi maattikardhukku dhaan kaadhu kuduthirukkaar.” Think of one of ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s legendary collaborations with Kamal Haasan, Michael Madana Kamarajan. When Kamal’s Palakkad-Iyer character tells Urvasi that he’s from a “kugraamam,” she replies, “Graamam–um cook-aa? Neengalum cook-u!”
I suspect Kamal Haasan did a lot to veer ‘Crazy’ Mohan away from these roots and make him a more (for lack of a better word) “cosmopolitan” writer. And maybe the cinema, where there were fewer Tam-Brahm characters than on stage, helped, too. Their first official ‘Crazy’-Kamal collaboration was Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989), but even as far back as Poikaal Kuthirai (1983), directed by K Balachander from ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s Marriage Made in Saloon, you can see the beginnings of a teasing rapport. The film opens with a student upset about the question paper in an exam. Instead of being given a map of India and asked to name the various states, they are given a woman’s outline and asked to name the various body parts. When this student protests, another one mentions that this is a result of Kamal Haasan becoming the education minister. (It’s a dream scene, of course.)
In the movies, the Kamal Haasan collaborations stand out the most: Apoorva Sagodharargal, Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Indran Chandran, Magalir Mattum, Sathi Leelavathi, Avvai Shanmughi, Kaathala Kaathala, Thenali, Panchathanthiram, Pammal K. Sambandam, Vasool Raja MBBS. Maybe they vibed well. Maybe they pushed each other to bring out the best. Maybe Kamal’s amazing screenplay structures inspired ‘Crazy’ Mohan to the maximum. Whatever it is, it’s not that evident in the non-Kamal Haasan movies, enjoyable though they are (like Chinna Vathiyar, with Prabhu). The sheer “craziness” in these films is something else. Take the scene in Avvai Shanmugi where the Nasser character, a Muslim named Basha, comes looking for a job in Gemini Ganesan’s ultra-orthodox Brahmin household. When he blurts out that his name is Basha, Kamal Haasan deflects the gaffe by ad-libbing: “His name is (um) Palavakkam (um) Swaminathan. Basha for short.” It’s so absurd, it’s genius.
Different comedians have different styles. Goundamani and Senthil worked out desi Laurel-Hardy routines. Vadivelu had his thing. (I just realised it’s so hard to “define” what he does, in English.) Santhanam likes rhymes. ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s passing brings to mind the Tuesday-evening TV dramas on Doordarshan, when there’d be jokes like how the postman fell down: “thabaal-nu.” In Tamil, you’d call it a kadi joke. The closest English translation I can think of is slapstick with words. When you look at his plays, the plots themselves aren’t much. But if you are from that era, you know what it is to replay those audiocassettes on loop, waiting for the jokes to land. I’ll leave you with one. Son: “Petha appa! Neeye ippidi thittariye! Father: Adhukkaga, akkam pakkam veetla irukkara appa-laam vandhu thittuvaangala!” I will remember ‘Crazy’ Mohan with much gratitude, much fondness.