'Crazy' Mohan never got tired of telling the story of how he ran into Kamal Haasan outside a burial site, where the actor was shooting for his film Sathya. It was the year 1988.
Crazy Mohan, after his less than successful foray into films through Poikkal Kuthirai in 1983 (a rehash of his popular stage drama Marriage Made In Saloon), had stayed away from Kollywood. But veteran director (and old Tamil drama hand) Muktha Srinivasan got 'Crazy' back to films through the movie Katha Nayagan (a remake of the Malayalam cult hit Nadodikkattu). It was a middling hit in Tamil, but the humour in the movie was noticed, but nobody really registered who the dialogue writer was at that time.
It was also the period when Kamal, in the post-Nayakan phase of his career, was creatively dissatisfied and bored with the same typical Kollywood talent, and was looking for newer names to take on board and collaborate with for exciting, novel experiments. A few years earlier, he had roped in 'Sujatha' Rangarajan for Vikram. He was to soon bring in names like Balakumaran, Jeyamohan et al.
Even though Kamal had done a cameo as himself in Poikkal Kuthirai, and knew 'Crazy' fairly well, they were, at that time, operating in different orbits. One, the most experimental actor-star of the era. The other, a small-time comedy drama writer whose appeal was mostly restricted to urban, bilingual, upper caste audiences. It was delectable destiny, the sort that Crazy was wont to bestow on his drama characters, which ensured that the twain shall meet.
The crematorium that Kamal was shooting at was nearby Crazy's residence. Seeing the crowd and the flurry of excited activity, Crazy, out of curiosity, ventured near the place, and even as he neared it --- such a coincidence would have been too tacky even in formula films --- Kamal spotted him and waved him in. The two chatted together in general for some time, and Crazy left shortly. He didn't think much of the meeting for long, but two days later he got a call from Kamal's office asking him to come and meet the actor.
Even as Crazy was going to Kamal's place, he was not sure what was he being called for. He was thinking that Kamal would probably give his consent to come and preside over one of his plays. But waiting inside Kamal's famed Alwarpet office was an offer that would change Crazy's life and career unimaginably and spectacularly. After general talk for a few minutes, the penny dropped. Kamal was to do a movie for Panju Arunachalam. It would have some interesting innovations. Would Crazy be interested in being part of the film as its dialogue writer?
The film, as it happens, was Apoorva Sagodarargal. Crazy, of course, had no hesitation in agreeing to join forces with Kamal. He quickly and quietly agreed to what proved to be a long-lasting profitable alliance that would make him laugh all the way to the bank, and, more importantly, make Tamil movie-goers laugh uncontrollably all the way to the theatres and back.
Crazy's strength, from his drama days, was his innate ability for puns that would adroitly and agreeably muddle Tamil and English (the likes of: Gramamum cook, neengalum cook.) He also had a zany yen for situational comedy arising out of mistaken identities and character confusions in a Wodehousian way. Kamal's smartness lay in using this talent and putting it to exemplary use first in what was essentially a revenge potboiler.
Kamal's genius screenplay and his sensational 'Appu' act walked away with deserving plaudits. But consistent comedic underpinning to a gory revenge drama is, in a sense, what makes Apoorva Sagodarargal the gold standard in the mainstream masala movie genre. In the same year, Kamal had Crazy pen the dialogues for his bilingual effort Indrudu Chandrudu/Indran Chandran. Again, the swapping of character identities, mixing of situations in a corruption-crime story made it engrossing, and it was straight up Crazy's alley. Though the film was not a big success in Tamil, the dialogues again caught the eye for the easy humour and hilarity.
In 1990, Kamal and Crazy would get together for what remains the most popular and successful creation in their partnership --- Michael Madana Kamarajan. The film and its --- yes, that is the word --- jaw-dropping jocular scenes deserve a separate doctoral dissertation. It's a one film comedy festival that it is at once intelligent, innovative and intriguing. It is tempting to argue that Kamal would not have been emboldened to conceive this project had he not had the dependable drollness of Crazy around. For, MMKR is at heart, the street-smart movie version of a typical Crazy play.
Kamal again made it all come together magnificently with his seamless screenplay, acting and by being an enthusiastic bridge between every department. But comedy, as Crazy never forgot to mouth this cliche, was a serious business. And Kamal kept goading Crazy, and coaxing him to the extreme to get the best out of his whimsical wit, For instance, the famed "Nekka? Nokka? Nekkum Nokkumma?" (no point in translating these words, the humour isn't going to work) dialogue emerged after 28 unsuccessful tries.
"I kept coming up with random lines and he also improvised a lot on them. But he was not satisfied with any of them till we stumbled on this one on our 29th attempt," Crazy revealed to me several years later. "With Kamal you can never rest in your comfort zone. He will keep pushing you, and before long you will realise you have gone above the bar you had set for yourself," Crazy told me in that interview.
In Raju and Michael you can see Kamal's mind ticking, and in Kameshwaran and Madan you can espy the working of Crazy. The film was basically, Michael Madana Crazy Mohan! In general, Crazy was never averse to mentioning that his skill would have remained as a comedic carbon, had Kamal not burnished, polished and made it into a veritable diamond.
In Panchathanthiram --- a levity-filled lark of a film --- most of the dialogues were made up on the fly at the shooting spot with the actors also chipping in with their creative bits. Crazy had the nous to understand the dynamics of the performers and match their moods and methods with the right bon mots.
In all, Kamal and Crazy worked together officially in 11 films including Avvai Shanmugi, Kaathala Kaathala, Thenali, Pammal K Sambandam, and Vasool Raja MBBS (their last film together.) But Crazy was part of most Kamal projects, as he was a permanent fixture at the Rajkamal office. Also, Kamal had imbibed 'Crazyisms' ever so naturally that the climax stretch of Manmadan Ambu was almost straight out of Crazy's copybook. Ditto with certain portions of that absurdist film Mumbai Express. It is also tempting to suspect that some of the lines of Balram Naidu (Dasavatharam) belonged to the Crazy stable. In some sequences in Uttama Villain (in that movie inside the movie) the invisible humorous hand of Crazy could almost be seen.
Tamil cinema comedy till the Kamal-Crazy combination came around was mostly serviced by 'comedians' who combined flair for timing with some interesting dialogue deliveries. The comedy, as it were, lay in who was saying it and how. To be sure, there was the occasional Kasethan Kadavulada, Kathalikka Neramillai, Ninaivil Nidraval, Galatta Kalyanam. But comedy never managed to get underlined as a gleeful genre. It is this duo that made it possible, and Tamil cinema now has a body of comedic work that is smart, savvy, relatable, one that could work even if mouthed by anybody. Not surprisingly, pop culture references that are the stuff for Tamil memes --- aside from the Vadivelu assembly line --- belong to the Kamal-Crazy planet of films.
Another reason why Kamal-Crazy combo is special is this: Crazy could not recreate as well the magic in non-Kamal films that he was able to casually conjure up in Kamal movies. "Humour works as a give and take, it comes off better with creative cues. Kamal was my creative cue," he was to say later. In that sense, Kamal was like former English cricket captain Brearley, getting his Crazy Botham perform remarkable things that he was seldom able to reprise under others.
With Crazy's unexpected demise, a special partnership in Tamil cinema has well and truly ended. Death has had the last laugh. But we should believe that Crazy has humoured it, too.
To contrast, five of Crazy's non-Kamal films:
1) Katha Nayagan: Being a remake of the mirthful Malayalam comedy Nadodikkatu, Crazy had some contours to build on. But he brought his own touch and made it work without killing the soul of the original. The one-liners of Pandiarajan and S Ve Shekher were rip-roaring.
2) Aahaa: A Brahmin cook, a love story with mistaken identities and confusions. The film was in his own territory. It was a stage drama on screen. But not many complained. The film was a hit.
3) Chinna Mapillai: Again, one man, two identities. Crazy revels in such stuff. Prabhu also was in spectacular form. And with Radha Ravi as a goofball, it was a riot. Ilaiyaraja's songs were the icing. Probably Crazy’s best outside of his most favourite collaborator.
4) Chinna Vathiyar: Identities mismatched. Some mumbo-jumbo passed off as science. All tame stuff. But the comedic portions were a hoot. The film that gave the memorable pop culture line "MA Flaasaafy". As it happens, it was taken from Crazy's stage drama Maadhu +2. Many suspected that Crazy's dialogue may not suit Goundamani and Senthil. Heck, they did splendidly.
5) Arunachalam: A man has to spend Rs.30 crore in 30 days. There is a caboodle of comic characters. The humour should have worked big time. But it didn't. The Rajini universe and Crazy cosmos had little in common. Or so it seemed. Punch dialogues are not meant to be funny.
K Balakumar is a journalist and humour writer from Chenai. He tweets at @kbalakumar.