Maga (Arya), a taxi driver, comes home one day to find that his young son has been beaten up by a teacher. Maga takes the boy to school, which is filled with pacific images: Jesus and a lamb, the Last Supper… Maga tells the principal that even if they don’t teach love, they shouldn’t be teaching anger. And yet, in order to make ends meet, Maga has another job. He enables killings. The contradiction between the two sides of the man are jarring — and we soon discover that there’s another man Muni (Arya again), who is in every way a contradiction to Maga. He buys books for impoverished children. He takes care of his mother (Rohini). He practices organic farming. He follows the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Muni is exactly what his name suggests: a saint. He could be in those pacific images.
Magamuni, written and directed by Santhakumar, is not your typical double-role story. (Translation: Do not expect a tearful reunion.) There’s a flashback to a widow and two little boys, but nothing much comes of it. It’s just a thread, flapping away. The stories of Maga and Muni proceed on parallel tracks, and we witness the criss-cross of life that deposits ordinary men in extraordinary situations. We saw this in Mounaguru, too. That was this director’s first film, and this second one comes eight years later. It has other similarities: a scene with a cobra, a stretch in a mental asylum… But, Magamuni is a more ambitious movie. For starters, just look at the way the twins (or brothers) are related. Maga is connected to a politician named Muthuraj (Ilavarasu), who is connected to a builder/landowner named Jayaram (Jayaprakash), who is connected to Deepa (Mahima Nambiar, not bad) who is connected to Muni.
The narrative is dense, and it builds slowly. Instead of introducing characters and then placing them in situations, we get the reverse. We see situations, and then learn about the characters in them — and new characters keep appearing, like the politician (Balasingh) who is Muthuraj’s boss and wants Thirumoorthy eliminated. And, who is Thirumoorthy? Another politician, who insulted Muthuraj’s wife. And, let’s not forget the big shot named Suryanarayanan who was killed, and whose brothers are thirsting for revenge. It’s not so much a cast list as a family tree, but the screenplay is filled with little touches that illuminate these characters. Maga’s wife Viji (Indhuja) likes to buy saris, but even before she parades around in a new sari, we see Maga open a cupboard and her old saris tumble out. (She must also be a bit of a slob.) And when Viji reads a newspaper item about an unscrupulous doctor (Kaali Venkat), she is connected to him in a way she doesn’t know, because this is the doctor who treated Maga for a knife wound.
In short, there is a sense of a larger world that we are just passing through, without knowing how our destiny intersects with someone else’s. (Santhakumar comes across as much a philosopher as screenwriter.) But, the film sounds better than it plays out — and part of it, I think, is the strain of striving to be a Great Movie™. There’s nothing wrong with aiming sky-high, but you get the feeling that more attention has been lavished on the conceits (like a subplot about caste) than the actual writing and execution. Take the framing device, in that mental asylum. A psychiatrist talks about bringing a character to the “yathartha ulagam“, the real world. By the end, we are no clearer about why this device was needed, or indeed, how this person ended up there. And, the huge fanfare accompanying the “hero introduction shot” belongs in an entirely different movie.
Arya, with his monotone and inexpressiveness, is unable to differentiate between Maga and Muni. (The clothes do the job, instead.) Indhuja goes OTT, but that’s at least something by way of character — Arya gives us nothing. After a while, the narrative asides get exhausting. Yes, it’s interesting that Muthuraj doesn’t know Maga is married. Yes, it’s interesting that Deepa’s mother considers stepping outside the cage her husband has her locked in. Yes, it’s interesting that there’s a sense of the cosmic, at the end, with thunder and lightning and a hint that the old ways need to change. But, these asides don’t add up to something unified and coherent, and we are left with a vague dissatisfaction. Taken as a genre outing, Magamuni is not thrilling enough, and taken as drama, it’s not deep enough. It’s certainly no failure. It’s just… interesting enough to make you wonder what it could have been.