Cast: Rangaraj, Shweta Tripathi
Director: Raju Saravanan
Among the newer crop of filmmakers, Raju Murugan may be second to none in his love for Ilaiyaraaja. He appears to be working his way through the maestro’s catalogue. If Joker featured Alli thandha boomi, from Nandu, Mehandi Circus — for which Raju Murugan is credited with story and dialogues — has another song from that very film, Manjal veyyil. O paapa laali plays a key role in the scheme of things here, and the narrative revolves around Jeeva (Madhampatti Rangaraj), who owns a recording shop named… Rajageetham. The year is 1992, when a young upstart named AR Rahman has appeared on the scene. (He’s dismissed, at first, because there’s no “thanana thanana” in his music.) And it may be no accident the first song we hear in Mehandi Circus is Vaa vaa en veenaye, composed by Ilaiyaraaja’s brother Gangai Amaran. This film has been directed by Raju Murugan’s brother, Saravana Rajendran.
But that apparent diss to AR Rahman is not really a diss. (Though I think it’s safe to say that, after the thorough dismissal of a Minnale song, Harris Jayaraj will not be working with this team soon.) It’s just that 1992 was a cut-off point for Jeeva. He knows all film music from earlier, from the popular (Aadhi manidhan in Bale Pandiya) to the obscure (Kangalil aayiram sweet dreams in Vandhaale Maharaasi). But 1992 is when Jeeva lost Mehandi (Shweta Tripathi), and that’s when the music stopped. She’s a circus performer from Maharashtra (she’s in the knife-throwing act), and they fell in love when the circus pitched its tent in his village in Kodaikanal. She hears Yeh raatein yeh mausam from Dilli Ka Thug floating down from his first-floor shop. She stops in her tracks. That’s the power of film music. The song is about two fictional characters in love. You hear it and you feel it was created for you.
Mehandi Circus wants to be a romantic epic in the classical mould. (Selvakumar SK’s cinematography envelops the film in a blanket of amber-toned nostalgia.) The circus becomes a metaphor for life and knife-throwing becomes a metaphor for the one thing that keeps us going. In Jeeva’s case, that one thing is love. All this is rather clumsily narrated by the priest of the village (his one thing is Jesus) — but the character is marvellously written, and Vela Ramamurthy plays him with just the right mix of sternness and mischief. He’s a wine-sipping romantic who helps young couples elope. (And how did these young couples fall in love? Through the music of… Ilayaraja.) The scene that affected me the most was the one involving this priest and a ladies’ watch. It’s a small moment that blooms into the epic Mehandi Circus strives to be.
The film itself, though, falls short. The romantic track between Jeeva and Mehandi lacks the little “nothing” moments that made something like Kadhal so special. But worse, there’s no palpable chemistry between the leads. Shweta Tripathi is a charming presence, and she proves how committed she is to her craft by learning her lines and delivering them haltingly. (Her lips are always in sync.) But Madhampatti Rangaraj is completely blank, and apart from the lines he utters, we get no sense of what he thinks and feels. I’m usually not a fan of huge scores in intimately scaled films, but Sean Roldan helps a lot to fill in the gaps in the romance. (Plus, his songs are lovely.)
The knife-throwing assumes a very interesting dimension once Mehandi’s father learns about the romance — as a conceit, it’s simply fabulous. But it needs the kind of madness that’s beyond the reach of this very literal-minded movie, that shows us a caste-based confrontation and then leaves us with a framed photograph of Ambedkar. Even more literally, a casteist man ends up being saved by the very Dalit individual he wouldn’t allow into his home. This is almost a parallel track in the film, and this 1960s-style melodrama clashes badly with the gentleness of the romance. Towards the end, we get a villain — I saw him coming from a mile away. Mehandi Circus is written more from the head than the heart. It’s been thought through, not felt. I wished it had taken a hint from the music of the composer whose songs are featured throughout, the maestro who effortlessly straddled head and heart.