Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj
Cast: Madhusudhan Rao, Sundeep Kishan, Regina Cassandra
If you've taken rides with app-based cab services in the city, you'd have encountered drivers from far-flung towns and villages, trying to fake their way through the urban maze. Charlie plays one such person in the Tamil drama Maanagaram (Big City) – but so does Shri, in a way. He's no cabbie. But he's equally lost in the city. He cannot understand the swearing. When a stranger approaches him with a sob story about losing his purse and needing money, Shri instantly reaches into his pocket to help – only to receive a rebuke from a friend who knows a conman when he sees one. In the film's opening scene, Shri is being interviewed for a job in a BPO. He doesn't fake it, though. He's from Trichy, which isn't exactly a small town – and yet, he admits that a job in Madras, one in an air-conditioned office, one that fetches him 25K a month, is something of a status symbol.
Note that I have left the character unnamed. I am merely following the lead of the director, Lokesh Kanagaraj. We learn that Shri's girlfriend is Divya, that the gangster who plays a major part in the proceedings is PKP (Madhusudhan Rao). But the leads – Shri, Charlie, the hot-headed but good-hearted lover boy played by Sundeep Kishan – remain anonymous, living-breathing metaphors for unremarkable people you'd pass by in a big city. But look closer, and their stories are remarkable – each one is facing a crisis. Degree certificates have been stolen. An act of do-goodism has backfired, and necessitated a temporary relocation. A child suffers from chronic asthma. The criss-cross of these lives is the film.
To get to the heart of Lokesh Kanagaraj's design (he also wrote the screenplay), we have to pay attention to the early scene in a bar. All characters converge here, though each is on their own. Even the way we get to know them indicates the director's desire to be different. We've already met Shri in a scene that's chronologically correct – he's at the BPO interview before he hits the bar, and that is the sequence of these scenes. But we get to know about Charlie and Sundeep through a combination of flashbacks and present-day dialogue. And then, the writing turns really audacious. There are hoodlums outside, waiting to beat up a man wearing a red-checked shirt. Small problem: Shri, Charlie and Sundeep are all wearing red-checked shirts. What are the odds?
If you scoff at this scenario, you'll call it contrivance. If you buy into it, as I did, it will seem like chance, coincidence. And then, you'll no longer wonder at the exactness with which these characters collide. The bike carrying Shri comes to a screeching halt in front of the very bus that Sundeep has boarded. Shri exits the police station just as Charlie walks in, carrying Shri's missing certificates. Munishkanth (who's uproarious as a bumbling kidnapper- wannabe) happens to be in the very same police jeep that the little boy named Karthik (one of many Karthiks in his class) is ushered into.
The air-tight deliberateness of this structure is given room to breathe by the randomness of the characters, who behave in ways we don't expect
The air-tight deliberateness of this structure is given room to breathe by the randomness of the characters, who behave in ways we don't expect. A character you think is going to conform to the Exasperated Father template turns out to be a corrupt cop. You think Sundeep is waiting to board that bus because he needs to attend an interview and get a job to impress the girl he likes – but there's something else on his mind. You think a kidnapping drama is coming to a close when a kidnapper capitulates, but his cohort suddenly gets angry and decides not to give in. This is terrific writing. Unlike, say, a Chithiram Pesuthadi – where the heroine's father turns out to be someone who frequents a brothel – the character revelations here aren't intended to set up a shocking interval-point twist. These people just are.
And they reveal themselves in convincing ways. When Shri says he does not want that BPO job, the interviewer (Regina Cassandra) keeps badgering him to take it up. Eventually we see the reason for her persistence. We also see the reason for Shri's reluctance to share with her what he's going through. He's an out-of-towner. He sees her as part of the clique that's out to get him. The only real downer is the half-hearted decision to create a romantic track around Sundeep and Regina Cassandra. (And maybe the end, which leaves things dangling after satisfactorily tying together all threads.) But this is easily brushed aside in a film made with such assurance and style. (Javed Riaz chips in with a moody score, and songs from 1980s Rajinikanth films fill out the rest of the soundtrack: Devamritham, Sandhana kaatre, Unnai azhaithadhu…)
The more you think about Maanagaram, the more you smile at what you find. For instance, the irony of an RJ's pronouncement that Chennai is the safest city in India – after the song over the opening credits has already warned us, Iravu vettai aaduthey (the night will prey on you). Or the other irony of Enga ooru Madras-u (Madras is our city) playing in a film whose characters feel nothing of this inclusiveness. Or the cheekiness in the mirror-events. A kid goes missing/a file goes missing; the wrong man is beaten up/the wrong kid is abducted. Sundeep sets out to help someone in distress, but his friends dissuade him; the same thing happens with Charlie. Later, these characters change. They discover a core of selflessness. They end up helping others. "None of my business" transforms into "We're all in this together, it's our city, it's our business." A tad idealistic, perhaps. But I wasn't complaining.