Conversations on Michael Madana Kamarajan

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?

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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?

Image result for michael madana kamarajan bheem boy

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?

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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”.

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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?

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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.

How to pick it?

A few days back, I was talking to someone about Mohan (the actor) and ended up wondering what was my favorite Mohan song. It is a very difficult question whose difficulty is enhanced when the SPB-Ilayaraja filter is applied. First, there is ‘Ilaya Nila’ where the Flute sways in harmony with the Electric and Bass Guitars in the second interlude. Then, we have ‘Sangeetha Megam’ which is one of those Raja songs which gives you so much joy even in the first listen. Thinking of joy, there is the legendary ‘Paatu Thalaivan Paadinal’ where SPB’s singing of the Pallavi matches the drunken antics of Mohan that lead to the song.

And it was not only the happy songs. There’s so much melancholy in say a ‘Nilaave Vaa’ which portrays the dynamics of the Mohan-Revathy marriage. She is the ‘Nila’ (the distant moon) and he sings in yearning for her. Then, we have the legendary ‘Pyaasa’ tribute ‘Naan Paadum Mouna Raagam’ and the tragic ‘Vaigariyil Vaigai Karayil’.

Overall it is really hard to zero in one song from this trio. Hence, I came up with the following shortcut which is one of the very few songs that Yesudas sung for Mohan. This is one of those songs where you don’t need any instruments and the tune will hold up on its own. Don’t let the video spoil your experience of the song and if you do make it till the end, there is S. Janaki singing like a child! 🙂


If Sita visits Krishna’s abode?

The 1996 movie ‘Gokulathil Seethai’ explored this intriguing question in a fairly convincing way. In this post, let me draw your attention to an extraordinary musical moment in it — ‘Gokulathu Kanna’.

At a high level, this song considers the scenario in the title. Nila (Suvalakshmi) is the stand-in for Sita and wonders what she is doing in Gokulam (actually referring to Rishi’s (Karthik) house). By the second stanza, she describes Rishi’s womanizing and drinking habits (with a secret admiration for him).  Let’s pause for a moment on these two lines:

போதையிலே நின்றானவன்
பூஜைக்கின்று வந்தானவன்

This is the exact time when Rishi enters the frame of the celebration and guess what? He is carrying a glass of alcohol (a perfect sync!).

Rishi then launches onto the next stanza and now it is obvious that he has feelings for Nila. But still there is an air of indecisiveness, which is cleared when Manivannan (playing Rishi’s dad) launches into the next stanza. In particular, he asks him to leave all his bad habits (see the following lines), reassuring that Sita is the right one for him.

கோகுலத்து கண்ணா கண்ணா
லீலை விடுவாயா
கோகுலத்தில் சீதை வந்தால்
நீயும் வருவாயா

Overall, this song shows us three things:

  1. Nila’s respect and admiration for Rishi, hinting that it could turn into love.
  2. Rishi’s feelings for Nila and his indecisiveness, since he is portrayed as a Man-Child.
  3. Manivannan’s approval for Nila and Rishi’s togetherness.

This, indeed is the crux of the movie (from what-we-saw-so-far to what-we-will-see) and is causally tossed off as yet another song. Unsurprisingly, this is what makes this song endlessly fascinating to analyze!