Cast: Arya, Indhuja, Ilavarasu, Mahima Nambiar
Magamuni is written and directed by Santhakumar, who returns to filmmaking (in great form) almost eight years after the brilliant Mouna Guru (2011). Is 2019 perhaps the year of "The Return of the Crafty Filmmakers"? (cough, Thiagarajan Kumararaja, cough) Magamuni follows the journey of long-separated brothers Maga and Muni (both played with restraint by Arya). They look alike, sure, but are two very different individuals. Maga is a cabbie in the city, who used to do the 'dirty job' for a local politician played by Ilavarasu, but is attempting to transition into a regular and more responsible life, for he has gotten married and has a child. Muni is a farmer by day and a tuition teacher by evening, living with his caring mother in a small, beautiful village with people who discriminate him based on his caste.
Maga is fierce, yet patient and tolerant. He doesn't really believe in God, and values taking up responsibility. Muni, on the other hand, is paavam (innocent) though he has a very clear perception about various topics. And, oh yes, he (or is it Santhakumar?) also has a beautiful take on God, caste and various other matters.
The lives of Maga and Muni don't intersect in the film (and the transition between the two narratives is done with pleasing finesse) until the climax. But the characters around them, and basic human issues that loom over all of us do crisscross their respective stories. For instance, you first get a scene where the Maga's manager at the cab company refuses to give him an advance, saying that in these times of high unemployment, if he refuses to grab whatever (money) he gets, there are lakhs waiting to settle for the same price, and replace him. Later, over a montage song, Muni makes his students watch Modern Times (1936) by Charlie Chaplin; a film that comments on the desperation for employment among the working class.
Talking about commentary, Magamuni weaves into its central plot (which is largely about the two characters and their lives) some of the now-over-saturated "issues that must be brought on the big screen to educate the masses". Caste Discrimination? Check. Corrupt Politics? Check. Religious symbolism? Check. But, the good news is that Magamuni isn't about these things; it just weaves these issues into the lives of its two central characters, and tracks the consequences that arise.
Of course, there are places where they stick out sore. Example, a scene where Muni says "Indha jaadhi-yum plastic maari, ozhikka kashtam ah irukku" ("Caste is like plastic, difficult to get rid of") as he looks up at a dead tree covered in plastic bags. But, there are fun scenes too, such as the one where politician Ilavarasu's leader (played by Bala Singh; couldn't help but notice the role reversal from NGK) says something along the lines of "a true politician is one who can fart underwater, but still avoid the air bubbles from popping out". He follows this with "It is not necessary to know who Sekkizhar is or who wrote the Kamba Ramayanam, just be aware of the party's finances". The scene elicited laughter, which was otherwise scarce in the film.
Magamuni, for the most part, is very elegantly (but slowly) paced, grim and taut. It starts right from the first frame – the title – largely thanks to a semi-creepy background score from SS Thaman, which, at times, sounds like the stomach growl of a dinosaur, but that's good, dinosaurs are scary.
Even the scene where Arya (you don't know it it is Maga or Muni until the climax) is introduced is something out of a supernatural film – heavy shadows fall on his face as he sits in a meditative posture with his eyes eerily wide, behind the bars of prison. Add to that, a terrific Arya (after a long time), particularly given how physical his performance is. Be it the skin-crawling scene (which was released as a promo on YouTube) where he asks his 'doctor'-friend to pull out a jagged knife that's stabbed deep into his back; the camera is interested, not in the gore, but on Arya's shivering, sweaty face, as he bites hard into a folded cloth. Or, a scene later on, when he gets thrashed to the ground.
It is also a pleasure to see the two actresses get their space to perform. Indhuja as a doting wife who puts up with silly tantrums is very convincing while Mahima Nambiar gets two fantastic sequences. One, where she confronts her father and his aide (with a tight slap) over their complacency when Muni gets bitten by a snake "accidentally", and later when she vents her anger as she leaves the house… but what happens to her is anyone's guess, because that's the last we see her on screen.
Magamuni, after all that (it did feel like a long time) comes to the climax where the gore is unleashed. But, there is a back-and-forth towards the fag-end, just like in Mouna Guru. If it worked for you then, it will now too. Or, you might consider it meh. But, this film is anything but meh.