Director: Venkat Prabhu
Cast: Silambarasan, S. J. Suryah, Kalyani Priyadarshan, S. A. Chandrasekhar, Y. G. Mahendran, Vagai Chandrasekhar, Karunakaran, Premgi Amaren, Manoj Bharathiraja
Maanaadu is not for Simbu fans. By that, I don't mean Simbu fans won't enjoy it. On the contrary, Simbu fans have finally got a film worth their time after years of waiting for their star to buck up. But this film is more for writer-director Venkat Prabhu fans or those of us who are willing to indulge the quirky, callous and unfalteringly commonplace films that he makes.
His latest outing Maanaadu is the story of Abdul Khaliq (Silambarasan) from Dubai, who gets intertwined in a plot to kill the chief minister. In the process, he gets killed, only to wake up at the beginning of the day. Khaliq is stuck in a time loop. Every time he dies, his plane lands again. How does he get out of it, does he save the chief minister, does he prevent national-level disasters makes the rest of this film.
In quintessential Venkat Prabhu fashion, the characters are superficial or lame or both. All we know about Abdul Khaliq is that he's a Muslim from Dubai. His introduction scene follows a massive buildup of a flight kept waiting, describing him as a VIP, who is more important than an MP and so on. But we never really learn why he's important or what he could do with such importance.
His friends, played by Premji Amaren in his zillionth film as the goofy frivolous lecher and Karunakaran as the clueless joker, are indistinguishable everymen. The film relies on you to 'relate' to them from your own experience. It does so little to make us connect with them that when one of them dies — and Khaliq weeps a river wailing "avan yen friend-u saar" (he's my friend, sir) — we feel next to nothing.
Kalyani Priyadarshan as Seethalakshmi is the only woman who is not getting kidnapped or being rescued from kidnappers. Her job in the film is to give cue for Khaliq to launch into his origin story (which is just more myth-making than character building). One can't be especially upset about a woman being written frivolously because in this film, everyone is.
Venkat Prabhu spends much of the first act laying his cards on the table. He wants the audience to pay attention to every little detail because the rest of Maanaadu is almost entirely of elaborate and repeated callbacks to this part. So, not only do we see mundane occurrences, the film lingers, almost waiting for the audience to check off a box that they've registered it. A child running past, a luggage wheel breaking, the airport ceiling crashing on the floor — these aren't treated as occurrences in the background. They are underlined in slow motion telling you to file away for future use.
The film wants to comment on contemporary politics and pop culture, but doesn't find a voice. So, these efforts sound like the world's most generic quips. Just referring to cash-for-votes or the unsafe Chennai airport hardly makes for commentary! At one point, Khaliq says "ellaarun manushanga thaan" (everyone is human) in response to Seethalakshmi's reluctance to tell a Muslim man about Hindu mythology seem vacuous. More so, in a film that does complex dance moves around saying the word Muslim, replacing it with the safer word 'samoogam' (community).
Maanaadu also has a lot of inside jokes, but most of them are as though Silambarasan came to set and wrote them for himself. For instance, there is an elaborate scene fat shaming someone, only to slyly tell the audience that he has lost weight. There is a 'reference' to Manmadhan (an earlier film in which he plays a serial killer), only to establish that Abdul Khaliq is trustworthy.
But, if you can survive this self-absorption, when the central conflict is introduced, Maanaadu takes off. It strings together information, little by little, allowing the audience to make sense of the event. It stages what looks like easy ways out, only to escalate the conflict slowly. The interval block makes us want to sit up and take notice. The second half of Maanaadu had all the makings of a film jumping off the cliff, but it doesn't. It hides more in shorter folds. It trusts the audience to fill in the gaps — by now, they're used to it.
What works for Maanaadu is that it's not trying to be clever. None of what Abdul Khaliq does is especially mind-blowing or even intelligent. It is the same ordinary things a common man would do when faced with dire circumstances. Khaliq hurriedly falls on the guillotine, every time his plan goes south, so he can start over. This is perhaps the only film where the hero not trying hard enough can be entertaining.
Take, for instance, the action sequence where Khaliq is attacked by men with lethal weapons. Action director Stunt Silva stages a rather enjoyable encounter where Khaliq walks into danger, without any fear of consequence, because well, he has none. He lets his attackers take a swing at him, watching them, remembering their move, dropping dead, and starting over, this time prepared for their attack. In just these few minutes, he dies and returns a dozen times, drawing out audience anticipation, which could have been boring. Stunt Silva brings in a little bit of backhanded humour to make it work.
On the other hand, the main antagonist Dhanushkodi, played by an over-the-top SJ Suryah, isn't any smart either. He meticulously counters every one of Khaliq's moves, but he is equally unresourceful and desperate. Maanaadu is entertaining not because the two leads are smart, but because they are ridiculously ordinary. The scene where Khaliq tries to manipulate his captors into killing him, while Dhanushkodi tries to keep him alive is exemplary of this ordinariness.
Maanaadu is not the best sci-fi film you'll ever see. In fact, it's hardly the genre film. It's a mainstream film that uses a sci-fi trope for its convenience. There is a scene where Khaliq swings his fingers like the Simbu of yore to invoke mass (P.S: That scene works!). Cinematographer Richard M. Nathan frames both the hero and the villain in regular mass movie fashion — you know shots of their shoes, slow motion, wearing/removing sunglasses etc. Music director Yuvan Shankar Raja stirs the buildup a notch.
Yet, in a Venkat Prabhu-esque way, Maanaadu travels the periphery of traditional Tamil cinema mass. For the most part, it works.