"Everything about the film was joyous. Despite the turmoil in my personal life, the film always brought a smile to my face. It was just the balm I needed to keep me calm."
These were the words of actor Kamal Haasan in June 2002, the year his movie Panchatanthiram released and brought the people of Tamil Nadu to literal tears, as they were assaulted by one joke after another, all timeless in their nature.
And 18 years later, these words hold true for anyone who rewatches this film, because Panchatanthiram is a gift that keeps giving.
The film is the crown jewel in the repertoire shared by comic genius 'Crazy' Mohan and Kamal Haasan, and came at a time when the actor's life - personal and professional - was hanging by a thread. His previous film Aalavandhan was a massive box office failure, leaving his producer bitter and his audience disappointed. On the personal front, he had undergone a painful and public separation from his wife Sarika.
But if any of this had dampened his confidence, it was not visible in the movie where Kamal Haasan stole the show with his comic timing, dialogue delivery and range of emotions. However, none of this could have been achieved without Mohan's immaculate writing and director KS Ravikumar's comic sensibilities.
The film's title draws from the Panchatantra, the age-old fables which are often read to children, with moral values as a takeaway in the end. The fact that the movie begins with Simran's character Mythili narrating the story to a baby, is a tribute to the tradition. But from there on, the writer, actor and director completely throw logic to the wind as five men, representative of the Pancha Pandavas - Kamal Haasan, Jayaram, Yugi Sethu, Ramesh Aravind and Sriman - covering all south Indian states, appear in a story about Ram (Kamal) and Mythili (Simran), another name for Sita. Their lust for the same woman - in this case a sex worker called Maggi (Ramya Krishnan) - is reminscent of the story of the five brothers who were married to the same woman. Except here, the woman's fate is tied to theirs through a marriage that doesn't involve her!
Fun fact: Cricketer Srikanth was actually approached by Kamal Haasan to play the role essayed by Yugi Sethu and while he considered it, he opted out of the project.
The film revolves around how Ram, after getting separated from his wife due to his philandering past, ends up with a sex worker whom his friends arrange for his birthday in Bengaluru. He accidentally 'murders' her as he professes his love for his wife Mythili alone (playboy only till marriage...Indian culture duhh!). The rest of the film focuses on how he and the four others attempt to hide their crime, when in actuality they are part of a scheme concocted by diamond smugglers. If that seems convoluted to you, we've barely scratched the surface
When you watch Panchatanthiram the first time, you may not notice most details because you are busy guffawing at the smart humour on display, line after line. But, the film is all about inserting incisive comedy into the most inappropriate moments and the resulting havoc of these actions.
At his wedding with Mythili for instance, Ram decides to kiss his ex-girlfriend to make her leave, and is caught in the act. When his plane is hijacked, he decides to waste some time singing instructions to his co- pilot and later gets caught with the terrorists, and even Mythili decides that she should clap in celebration as Ram begins to cut the landing gear ('Ippo enna kadaiya tharakaren?' Kamal spells out our thoughts).
But even as you begin to laugh at the first joke, the second is already coming at you and sailing away, allowing you to catch up on the third joke. Take for instance, one of the film's most popular scenes - all of just five minutes - Ram goes to rescue Nirmala (Devayani), after she threatens to kill herself since her ex-boyfriend (Ramesh Aravind) married someone else.
First of all, how poetic is this because let's face it, this is not the first time Kamal Haasan is rushing to save Ramesh Aravind from a sticky situation involving a woman.
In what is actually just a five minute scene, from when Ram meets Nirmala to chasing Mythili out into the hallway, there are at least 14 jokes (I counted). And while some focus on smart wordplay - 'Tamil inni mella chaavum nu correct ah dhaan sonnanga' - others leave you in splits due to sheer timing - 'Apdiye thatti oru kadha sollu Ram'.
Crazy Mohan's wit is on full display in every scene and the film is an out and out comedy that doesn't even pretend to do much else. Even when fighting hijackers in the plane, Kamal Haasan is not given a scene to display his athleticism, flexibility or star power. Instead the co-pilot (KS Ravikumar) wryly comments about how Ram would have beaten them to pulp, and the narration simply moves on.
The writer uses the most mundane words to weave a comic tale that also carries a tension about it which will leave you rooted in your seats. One part of your brain is constantly saying that the men will get caught for their actions, and it is this emotion that escalates the smallest of jokes, making them stand out. Take for instance, the scene where all five men along with Nagesh, who plays Yugi Sethu's father-in-law, return from Bengaluru. A cop stops them and what ensues is a comic riot with the use of just two words - 'Minnadi' (front) and 'Pinnadi' (back).
And towards the climax, when Mythili comes to Reddy's (Sriman) house for Ugadhi, Ram is forced to come up spontaneously with different lies to tell different characters, to stop anyone from realising what is actually happening. And all this, while he is still coming to terms with the return of the 'dead' sex worker Maggi alias Maragathavalli.
Panchatanthiram's success lies in making the scripted look unscripted.
"Reddy oda blue sister or pacha driver oda odi poita," says Ram, as his friends throw him objects of different colours.
"Maggi vandhu Maragathavalli oda short form," he tells Nagesh in another scene.
"Appo Mythili?" asks the older man.
"Adhu medium form" Ram immediately interjects.
"Full form la irukan," his friends add.
And I would be remiss if I don't discuss the glorious women in this comedy. Although the film can today be slammed for sexism, it still remains one of those few movies where women had pivotal roles to play. Also, I believe that everytime the men lied to their wives or girlfriends, only more difficulties came their way.
The film brought heroines whom you could never imagine doing comedy, into the genre, extracting the best out of them.
Devayani, for instance, has always played the prim and proper heroine but she shone in the small scene that she was given, matching Kamal Haasan dialogue to dialogue, as she's reduced to a belligerent child who fights over sleeping pills.
Simran, meanwhile, who had already proven her comic timing in Pammal K Sambandam, couldn't have been cast better. She went from naive to angry and jealous in seconds, and reacted with ease to the constant change in emotion and pace in the film.
But the woman who got the most screen time in the film is Ramya Krishnan, who played the role of Maggi. At the top of her popularity, having acted in Padayappa just two years before this, Ramya was clearly in the market for roles that showed her versatility, and if it meant that she wasn't the heroine, she didn't care. The actor sizzled on screen and while she didn't have to constantly spout comedy, it was around her that most of the comic situations were sculpted.
The star studded cast included Kovai Sarala, Urvashi, Sanghavi, Aishwarya, Mannivannan and Ramesh Khanna, who all excelled in their roles, lending great strength to the comedy.
Jayaram, Yugi Sethu, Ramesh Aravind and Sriman meanwhile held their own, propelling the comedy forward, none of them missing a beat as they took the jokes forward. Yugi Sethu adding hilarity with his cluelessness, Jayaram fussing over his son, Sriman complaining about his father-in-law and Ramesh Aravind trying to keep his marriage together, were all crucial to the plot. Their actions and families drove the plot forward.
When Ram angrily says, 'Appove nenachen, Ennamo idikidhe nu', while on the way to Bengaluru, Reddy prophetically slams his car into an auto at a signal and out comes the questioning father-in-law played by Nagesh, forcing the men into a frenzy of lies.
But if there is something that Panchatanthiram tells you, it is that every lie has its ramifications.
MORAL OF THE STORY: Keep your lies simple and BE NICE to your wife.