Sai: Finally, I managed to arm-twist Karthik (Ramalingam) into discussing one of Tamil (even Indian) cinema’s finest comedies and our all-time favorite — “Michael Madana Kamarajan” (MMKR). Let me start with a very popular question: who is your favorite character among the four?
Karthik: Popular as it may be, that’s not an easy one to address. Each one of them is so well etched out with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Since at its core MMKR is an old school madcap comedy, it is very tempting to pick Kaameshwaran who has the most laugh inducing situations and lines. But to be fair it is really the interplay between the whole cast at large (how well the writing lets them cut loose) and the aptly written scenarios for these characters. If at all an answer is mandatory, it is a close call between Kaameswaran and Subramaniya Raju with the needle tilting slightly towards Kaameswaran.
Sai: I am so glad you brought in Subramaniya Raju. One of the lines that crack me up in every viewing is when he tells Khushboo — “En paer Madan, aana surukkaama Subramaniya Raju” (loose translation: “My name is Madan but my nickname is Subramaniya Raju”).
Karthik: That’s definitely one of the character-trait defining lines, that we can see in abundance throughout the film. These lines exist even for the minor characters. One example is Bheem boy who has this very unusual trait of watching cartoons and doesn’t think twice about jumping out of a window (and later exclaims “Jolly! Jolly!”). What do you think about this aspect, Sai?
Sai: I would generalize a bit and say character introduction is easily a great aspect of this movie (like any self-respect masala movie). When we first see Palakkad Mani Iyer for instance (‘Delhi’ Ganesh), his love for Vethalapaaku (betel nut) is immediately established. Later, this becomes a motif and the loss of his betel nut cache (which he fondly calls ‘chella petti’) is used to move the story forward. Similarly, when Manorama and Santhana Bharathi are introduced, their greed for wealth and prosperity is immediately established. Now that I think about it, the movie has a huge ensemble (comic) cast for its time. Karthik, how do you think they managed to pull this off?
Karthik: That’s something I myself wonder quite often. Let’s start by applauding the casting coup which is a Himalayan feat, right from managing dates to making sure everyone is excited about the film. It is worthwhile to note that there is not even a single supporting character or even an extra in the film who does not make an impression. For instance, we still remember the guys who are just passers-by in the wedding scene saying ”But they can’t be so mean”, since it is placed in between a scene that has already acquired your undivided attention. All credit goes without any doubt to the writing of the film, be it the screenplay or dialogues. Actually when I come to think of it, it is very difficult to differentiate the effect of the screenplay and dialogues in this film. They are so intricately woven that if you pull one line or action out, the structure would fall (alluding to Salieri’s comment about Mozart from Amadeus).
Sai: Yes, your point about screenplay and dialogues is spot on. But I think the music (especially the background score) also plays a significant role in binding these things together. What is your take on that?
Karthik: Do we have 5 hours (laughs)? Yes, the music sort of acts as a glue here and does much more than that. It is such an integral part of the narrative that you cannot think about any scene without the score at that precise moment coming to you right away.
Typically, the purpose of the background score in any film is twofold. One is to say things or set a specific context that words can’t really do. The other is to set the pace the scene or the film in general. What is interesting in this film is that the background score actually complements the plot points and even gestures the twists and turns in the film (also literally). The most memorable piece of music in the film is not the usual dramatic music that plays when Madan’s father meets with an accident, but the portions where the henchmen continually follow the wrong Kamal. There is a shot where the henchmen miss Madan and start following Kaameshwaran when he is going to the grocery store and we can see his scooter front tyre moving and at that exact moment, Ilaiyaraaja decides to go into the theme associated with Kaameswaran. To add coherence to the film as a whole, he places themes from songs that are yet to come in the film, to establish character relationships. The scene with Kamal and Urvashi fighting and then agreeing for marriage has bits of Kaameshwaran’s theme as well as a motif from “Sundari Neeyum”.
Sai: Thanks for those really great insights into the score! I think Kamal is one writer-director who always threw a gauntlet at Raja. Though this movie doesn’t warrant songs as such, he throws a screwball like situation, which Raja transforms to the mind-blowing “Paer Vachaalum”. I mean what is not there to like in this song; if you close your eyes and listen to it, it is a melody at heart. But the visuals transform it to something else; watch out for Santhana Bharathi hitting Venniradai Murthy with a ‘urattakattai’, Kaameshwaran shouting ‘Bheem Boy’ and the talkie-like detours. It all comes together as a cohesive whole.
Karthik: Totally! And for someone like me whose biggest grouse with Tamil cinema has been the pre-climax song, this one actually leaves you wanting for more and drives the narrative with greater pace than even a scene. If you come to think of it except “Sundari Neeyum” and “Rum Bum Bum” (both of which provide proper transitions in all fairness) every song advances the story. “Kadhai Kelu” is the front runner in this category. It is such a pleasure to see a writer- director-composer trio trusting the audience so much that they decided to set the context for the story in a song and begin the film with it. This film did way back in the early 90’s in this regard what films like “Gully Boy” are doing now and what the kids call going “right into the action”. Why only music, I feel that the film doesn’t slack in any technical department, and each person from the crew pulls their weight ably.
I think we’ve cut the film wide and deep, but comedy films have this repeat watching value and I think MMKR is right at the top of the list along with say an “Andaz Apna Apna”, “Padosan” or “Kadhalikka Neramilla”’. What do you think makes us forget the nuances every time we watch and completely surrender to the fun/nonsense?
Sai: I will start by saying something controversial. I think as long as a film keep us engaged, we don’t care all that much if it is interesting as cinema. It’s easy do this in comedy — write a solid script and bring in actors who actually could do comedy (like Nagesh or Mahmood). Just see the influence of MMKR. Crazy Mohan and Kamal made a comic career out of it with successful spiritual sequels like “Panchathandhiram” and “Kaathala Kaathala”. Later, Sundar C took a leaf out of their book and made fantastic comedies like “Ullathai Allitha” (which, by the way, is a loose remake of “Andaz Apna Apna”). Good comedies are hard to come by but when they do, they hang in for a long time.
Thanks a lot for your time, Karthik! Really enjoyed this discussion.