Cast: Ashok Selvan, Samyuktha Hegde, Riya Suman
Director: Venkat Prabhu
Venkat Prabhu is one of Tamil cinema’s adventurous filmmakers. That he continues to remain so within the infamous mainstream is all the more evidence that he’s been successfully adventurous. Because no one else would have dared to make a full-length feature about an unremarkable man’s gaaji (can be loosely and mirthlessly translated to horny), stacking boring events repeating themselves, running in a narrative and visual parallel, across two timelines. In Manmadha Leelai, Venkat Prabhu not only attempts this, but manages not to bungle it entirely.
Manmadha Leelai, thoughtfully captioned “A Venkat Prabhu Quickie”, is the story of Sathya (an unassumingly effective Ashok Selvan) , the aforementioned man who runs around in gaaji. Over ten years, he remains a creep, gets caught in the act in the same silly manner of coincidence, and emerges miraculously victorious by repeating his single unbelievable trick.
It is as if the prescient director — who shares screenplay credits with Manivannan Balasubramaniam — knows that there is barely any substance in his film. So, he keeps it well under two hours. He also structures it as parallel tracks, self-consciously admitting to the audience that the events are going to repeat themselves. When the intermission came just under an hour, I found myself delighted that we’ll get to the end of it soon. Because in Manmadha Leelai, unlike his meticulously written previous film Maanaadu, the destination is more important than the journey. In fact, the journey itself is fairly painful.
There is barely anything funny or interesting about the first two acts of the film. It is so commonplace that you and I are likely to have had more curious encounters. The film grinds on like it is written by college students amused by themselves. The only trick that breaks the monotony is the switch between the two timelines. Even that is squeezed dry, leaving the viewer restless for movement.
Premji Amaren’s background score doesn’t do much either. At places, it’s especially jarring. Take, for instance, the scene where after a few rounds of drinking, Sathya goes to another part of the house to pour them their next. Then, suddenly, Leela doesn’t respond to Sathya’s question from afar. He goes looking for her, during which Premji Amaren fills the scene with ominous music — perhaps expecting us to think she’s been murdered or something. Yet, the obvious follows. I can say with confidence that no one was fooled by this effort at cheating the audience.
The gaze is often voyeuristic, as we have come to expect of films that peg themselves as adult comedy. Cinematographer Thamizh Azhagan uses several shots of Leela’s (Riya Suman) disembodied legs, arms and breasts to represent Sathya’s horniness. In doing so, the film condones Sathya’s behaviour, making us see the world from his amoral perspective.
On the other hand, Manmadha Leelai doesn’t shortchange the women entirely, though. Anu (Smruthi Venkat) isn’t presented as a nagging wife — the film in no way implies that she is the reason for Sathya’s meandering ways. She isn’t there to invoke sympathy for Sathya, nor does she behave in any manner of self-loathing or inadequacy. In that, Manmadha Leelai is no Chinna Veedu.
Even Leela isn’t written as easy. She is manipulative and that’s there for all to see. In fact, when the manipulation is revealed, we distinctly see Sathya as stupid. There are several shots of Sathya cheating on his wife in their bed, with a huge family photo hanging by the bed.
The best of the roles is written for Poorni (a pleasantly surprising Samyuktha Hegde), who is brimming with amusing amorality. The point at which her lies fall apart is the only funny scene in the film. Without giving too much away, the situation — and the emotional aftermath — in which Sathya finds himself at that point is how Manmadha Leelai should have ended. That’s the adventurous Venkat Prabhu I’d pay money to watch.
Except, in Manmadha Leelai, Venkat Prabhu settles for much much less. Despite the glorious opportunity, he hangs on to the idea of Sathya as the hero and gives him a dramatically victorious resolution. As a result, Manmadha Leelai is an unsatisfying quickie, especially if you’re a woman in the audience. Even if the pain isn’t unbearable, the effort to sit through it is most certainly not worth it.