The lockdown has seen many of us revisit some timeless comedies in Tamil cinema. The many collaborations of Kamal Hassan and Crazy Mohan, the early works of M Rajesh, and more recent films such as Soodhu Kavvum by Nalan Kumarasamy, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom by Balaji Tharaneetharan, Balaji Mohan's films, and… films by Venkat Prabhu, who creates some truly original comedy sequences.
In Tamil cinema, pure comedies are rare, and every "commercial" film had its own comedy track up until the early 2010s. These employed humour that were dialogue-y (the slapstick/insult comedies of Goundamani-Senthil and Santhanam) or dependent on the comedians' performance ( all those absurdist comedies of Vadivelu with one-liners and the observational/spoofs comedies of Vivek). In contrast, the Kamal-Crazy films were true comedies that employed wordplay humour and physical comedy that drove the plot forward. Meanwhile, newer films introduced black and character humour tied to the plot.
So, where does Venkat Prabhu stand, and what is his brand of comedy? Venkat is probably the only mainstream filmmaker in Tamil (again, exceptions do exist) who has consecutively employed craft to make his jokes work. Some of his scenes often have very specific styles of filmmaking itself (apart from the numerous reference dialogues, musical and sound cues), just to work out an 'inside joke', which the audience is conditioned to, via years of Tamil cinema watching. It's a brand of humour that cuts across comedy genres. Here are five instances from his work that are shining examples of this:
We know this scene from Chennai 600028 just too well — it is the archetypical "hero intro" scene. The hero gets down from his vehicle; usually a car, jeep or a motorbike but here… it's a goods lorry! The music peaks and we get the shot of his feet landing on the ground. Dust swirls, the background song sings his praises and the villains grind their teeth. There is an extreme zoom-in and the mere gaze of the hero strikes his enemies like a gale.
See how Venkat Prabhu's choice of shots, cuts, and the music is so obvious that it is hilarious. The original song 'Hey Varaanda, Ivan MGR Paeran Dhaanda" ("Hey, he's coming, he is MGR's grandson") is a brilliant satire of the "hero intro" shot and ironic too, given what follows: Jai's character cries his heart out in the bathroom.
'Yezhezhu Thalaimuraikkum' by Yuvan Shankar Raja with Gangai Amaren's lyrics is the opening song of Goa. The credits roll in with "that 80s yellow font", and the images of the lush green fields of the Tamil countryside are grainy. Even the sounds are iconic of the time; the 'Amman Kovil' devotees ululating and the high-pitched 'naadaswaram' is played.
Village women walk down the field swaying their hips and carrying empty baskets. Later, they double up as background dancers when the Ajay Raj character and his fair-complexioned 'athai ponnu' dance, singing praises of their village Pannaipuram. All this while they behave and react in a manner typical of the mainstream 80s film – the 'athai ponnu' blushing and the 'hero' nodding with pride. This is cheekiness personified, but there's more nostalgia: Ilaiyaraaja and Gangai Amaren composed, wrote and sang most of these songs in the 80s.
In the 100 Years of Indian Cinema celebration, Venkat Prabhu made a tribute short on the evolution of cinema, focussing on the 'damsel in distress' plot. It is a series of very short films that depict the evolution of Tamil cinema from the no-sound era, through the cowboy and cabaret phases of Tamil cinema to reach the current phase where a "semma twist" is all we need. Once again, it is all about subtle filmmaking choices and the angles that are a signature of each era. It truly takes one to see it to appreciate it; just words don't make the cut.
But, Venkat Prabhu had a shot at this much earlier in Goa. When introducing the fathers of the three protagonists (who are also the 'fathers of Pannaipuram'), we get a series of action scenes, shot in Eastman colour and with sensibilities in line with that time. If you haven't seen it already, you must, it was like 'Once Upon a Time in Kollywood'.
Saroja, Venkat Prabhu's second feature, is a treasure trove of references. Not just of Tamil cinema but of the Tamil soap operas aka mega serials too. Siva's character is a soap actor and the initial bits of his scene plays out like one: with all the weird edits, repeat reactions shots and Carnatic playback singing along with over-the-top music and, of course, the conversation is about a mother-in-law wanting to file a police complaint against her daughter-in-law. You may even call it Venkat Prabhu's "appeasement letter to mega serials", because there is a song later in the movie featuring then-popular soap opera actors. But later on, it takes obvious digs at soap operas.
The references don't end with television soaps; they cover Tamil cinema too. I can't imagine how a non-Tamil viewer would get the inside joke about "vella dress poatta ponnunga" ("women in white") going around the girl who Premji's character has a crush on. It takes enough Bharathiraja-Ilaiyaraaja combination song viewing to make that connection!
Venkat Prabhu's films have established their own inside jokes. You know Premji will play a goofy character, and break the fourth wall and deliver a line that goes: "Evalavo panrom, idha pannamaatoma" ("I've done so much, this is not a big deal"). Some have grown over it, some still wait for it. There is also the tradition of playing the blooper reel over the end credits (for me, Biriyani's bloopers were the best, what's yours?).
That apart, you get the actual musical or dialogue references to other Tamil movies too. The musical cues are largely Ilaiyaraaja songs, unless, say it's the Kaththi score, when Suriya's character picks up a "kaththi" (knife) in Massu Engira Masilamani…. And hey, Suriya's character also says: "This is my fucking game" (a famous mass dialogue from Mankatha, directed by Venkat Prabhu). But you'll find some clever references too: the ghost of Jai's character from Engeyum Eppodhum and the Vaaranam Aayiram "Hey Malini" scene recreation.
More than the dialogue, it's the musical reference that really works. You are tickled to chuckle when the 'Thenpandi Cheemayile' score from Nayakan plays when a bar owner asks Ajith's character "Neenga nallavara, kettavara?" and you also get to laugh aloud when the 'Gopi Bat Theme' (a rocking remix of the sad theme from Apoorva Sagodharargal) plays out in Chennai 600028 – II, not only as a reference to the original movie, but also as a hilarious recall to a joke from Chennai 600028. That way, Yuvan Shankar Raja is one of the biggest assets in a Venkat Prabhu film, apart from his brother Premji, and the asthaana cast and crew.
Probably why, years ago, the team of Chennai 600028 won a "Best Crew" award. Quite right, actually. This combination of artistes has always managed to tap into nostalgia to dish out a stream of inside jokes in Tamil cinema. The audience laughs anyway, before taking a minute to guess the origin, and then laughs louder.