Comedian Senthil, along with Goundamani, was a staple of Tamil films from the mid-eighties till at least the late nineties. the films themselves might have sunk without a trace, but the comedy tracks from many of them continue to play on TV channels. For all their popularity, the duo has also been criticised for being too loud, and for relying far too much on Goundamani kicking Senthil's hind. The way Senthil was depicted in many of these films was also quite unfair to him, in the same way a lot of films are unfair to Yogi Babu.
Being a junior member of the team, and also because of his appearance, Senthil played characters that were often harshly insulted by the characters played by Goundamani. Back then, it didn't seem like a lot of people complained. In fact, these insults rapidly entered the vernacular.
Given this history, is it possible to pick a list of films in which Senthil's character has a bit more to do than be the easy butt of Goundamani's insults? Surely, it would be impossible to find a Senthil-Goundamani comedy track where at least some amount of unfair insult is not hurled at Senthil. Well, it was not all that difficult to find some films that steered clear of the stereotype (to varying degrees) and yet made us laugh.
Senthil turned 69 yesterday, and here's a look at films where the characters played by him and Goundamani shared a more or less equal equation. In these films, the insults were minimal, and most of the kicking was just verbal. In some films such as Jai Hind, Senthil even fleetingly had the upper hand!
Director Shankar often tweaked the dynamic between Goundamani and Senthil. He also effectively used Senthil without Goundamani in films such as Jeans (1998) and Boys (2003). In Indian, Senthil is set up as someone superior to Goundamani right at the outset. He is RTO officer Paneerselvam, and is senior to Goundamani's Subbiah. This places a limit on how much Subbiah can insult him.
Subbiah still sneaks in some insults that are in bad taste. But, it is Panneerselvam who gives Subbiah a hard time. For example, in a scene where Subbaiah puts a bunch of pins into Panneerselvam's drink, the latter nonchalantly picks them out using a magnet and continues to have the drink, without batting an eyelid. Senthil's character is smarter, and a step ahead.
Ullathai Allitha doesn't have Goundamani and Senthil playing a comic duo. They have largely separate tracks that converge at different points in the film. Raja (Karthik) and Vasu (Goundamani) enter the house of a rich man Viswanathan (Manivannan), with their identities swapped.
Viswanathan's manager (Senthil) unsuccessfully plots against him throughout the film. After his attempts are foiled, Senthil's character eventually kidnaps Viswanathan, turning into a quasi-villain. When Goundamani tries to bargain for a cheaper ransom, his response 'Tempolaam vechi kadathirukkom' is probably being quoted by someone this very second, somewhere.
Some interesting tracks of Senthil-Goundamani may be found in obscure films. The comedy in Maha Prabhu doesn't exactly stand out, but it presents an interesting conundrum. Senthil's character in the film upsells himself constantly. He dresses stylishly and acts sophisticated, in spite of all the insults from Goundamani. He reads an English newspaper, prompting Goundamani to deliver his often quoted phrase, "Naalu English paper-ah menjittu". Goundamani puts him down as "someone who was born in a slum".
Senthil's character, though, continues to act blasé. He repeats that Goundamani's character 'lacks culture'. He might not really rebel, but by sticking to who he is, the character definitely makes a statement. Which begs the question, were Senthil and Goundamani self-aware when they performed such comedies? Were they aware of the subtext? Or, did they just go with whatever got them laughs?
Few might have seen the film when it released, but most are familiar with its comedy. The film is basically a tussle between Jayaram's Sirusu and Goundamani's Perusu on the one side and Khushboo's Indu on the other. Chinna Thambi, played by Senthil, is nominally with Sirusu and Perusu, but it's hard to be sure, as Perusu learns the hard way. Goundamani and Senthil are, in a sense, at their most relaxed, in the film. For the most part, the comedy is harmless and situational, without too many insults or innuendos.
Some of Senthil's gems exist in obscure films. In Mannai Thottu Kumbidanum, Senthil eats 54 idlis from a shop run by an old lady, and refuses to pay because he didn't like the food. He explains that he kept eating even though he didn't like it, because he didn't want to offend the lady. He was hoping the next one might be good. Goundamani asks him what was specifically wrong with the idlis, and Senthil, with a straight face, responds that 'they weren't sweet enough'. Now, this is definitely not funny on paper. But Senthil makes it work. He can make everyday lines unexpectedly funny.
Notable for its lack of the usual insult comedy from Goundamani, Lucky Man had Goundamani playing Yama, and Senthil playing Chitragupta. They've been banished from heaven in order to look for a book of records that they dropped on Earth. Both of them are on the same team for a change. And, they are respectful to each other, given that they are heavenly beings. A lot of the comedy comes from how neither of them can understand the ways of humans.
In Jai Hind, Kottaisamy (Goundamani) meets Pulikutti (Senthil) only in his dreams. The dreams influence Kottaisamy's behaviour in real life and land him in trouble. The comedy track is creatively set up, and is one of the few instances in which Senthil haunts the daylights out of Goundamani.
Who would have thought Goundamani and Senthil could make themselves at home in a traditional Brahmin setting? Arjun's Kichcha runs a home business making appalams with the help of local women. Mani (Goundamani) and Babloo (Senthil) work for him. The film is not devoid of insult comedy, though; Mani meanly mocks Babloo's complexion by calling him 'Karibaldi'.
Yet, a lot of the comedy in the film doesn't exclusively rely on the banter between them. It involves all characters in the workplace, and the comedy is organic. The argument about whether passing seventh grade was better than failing the tenth, or the scene in which Senthil tries to drink tea with a lizard in it are staples on comedy TV.
The comedy from Karakattakkaran is universally familiar. But it is worth pointing out that Senthil is the major mover of a lot of the comedy in the film. Both the Vaazhaipazha comedy and the episode with Soppanasundari's car (and Goundamani's later chagrin) are driven by Senthil's character. Even the minor scene where Senthil requests Goundamani to sell the aforementioned car for dates is a riot. Senthil is a relatively free agent in this film. He says and does what he wants, and often gets Goundamani's goat.
When re-watching the comedy scenes from Vaidehi Kathirunthal, I was surprised by the nature of the Senthil-Goundamani dynamic. Their banter had not yet gained the familiarity seen in Karakattakkaran. The insult comedy hadn't settled in. Senthil's character was a solid gadfly to Goundamani's all-in-all Azhaguraja.
I still have no idea why I've laughed at the petromax comedy over a dozen times. The writing is not especially funny. I'd like to believe that the heart of that joke was in the way Senthil crushed the mantle, destroying it) and then cheerily asked Goundamani how such a thing could even work!