Despite the long gap between releases, the ‘Muni’ franchise is extremely successful in Tamil cinema.

Sarathkumar as trans woman Kanchana in Muni 2 film
Flix Flix Flashback Monday, November 02, 2020 - 18:00

The Muni series, directed by actor-choreographer Raghava Lawrence, is among the most successful franchises in Tamil cinema. The first film was released in 2007, the second in 2011 and the last in 2019. Despite the long gaps in between, the franchise has stayed popular with audiences, spawning several more attempts at the horror comedy genre. If box-office collection reports are to be believed, the 2019 instalment collected over Rs 100 crore.

The Hindi remake of the second in the series, Kanchana, will be released as Laxmii (it was first titled Laxmmi Bomb) on Disney+ Hotstar on November 9. The lead role, which was played by Raghava himself in the original, is being reprised by Akshay Kumar. Raghava will also be making his directorial debut in Hindi with this film.

Made nine years ago, Kanchana may not have aged well in all aspects. With its modest budget of Rs 5 crore, the VFX predictably lacks finesse and looks tacky in retrospect. However, the film relies more on the technique of building up the creeps through classic horror tropes and then offering respite with silly comedy tracks. It’s a formula that works well because the audience is never bored. The film also has sufficient drama and emotions in the second half, with a storyline that veers away from the conventional. 

As in Muni, Raghava plays a young man who is terrified of ghosts though he’s capable of beating up a gang of thugs single-handedly. He’s so scared that he even asks his mom (Kovai Sarala, who was also in the first film) to go with him to the toilet when he wants to pee. He sleeps with a Hanuman bedsheet covering him, the bed surrounded by chappals and brooms to keep supernatural beings away. And oh, he also jumps on to his mom’s hip when he’s frightened.

We catch a glimpse early on of Sarathkumar as trans woman Kanchana, dressed in a saree, with a giant red bindhi on her forehead. There’s also more than a suggestion of the violence that she and those associated with her experience. However, it’s not until the last 30 minutes of the film that we see Kanchana again and find out her story.

Till we reach that point, the film is a typical haunted house mystery. Raghava’s mother and his sister-in-law Kamakshi (Devadarshini) experience strange happenings. A rocking horse that rocks at night with no explanation, a shadow moving across the room and so on. The plot mostly revolves around Raghava, his mother and Kamakshi, as the young man starts acting strange and the two women are the only ones to spot it. The narrative largely relies on the loud comedy performed by the two women to keep it going, and for the most part, it works. Kovai Sarala’s plaintive tones and exaggerated expressions, and Devadarshini’s comic timing pretty much propel the film till the mystery starts to unravel.

Lakshmi Rai, as Kamakshi’s sister, however, is sadly reduced to the ‘love interest’, with the camera focussed on her body in titillating angles. Though it’s a disappointment in this respect, several from the LGBTQI+ community welcomed the film for its sensitive portrayal of a trans woman character. Typically, cis male actors have worn women’s clothing and adopted overtly effeminate gestures on screen for comedy. In Kanchana, however, Raghava is possessed by a trans woman’s ghost, and the actor plays the change in his body language without letting it slide into derision.

Later in the film, we see Sarathkumar, who has thrived on burly, macho hero roles, playing Kanchana in the flashback. Ideally, as people from the trans community have been saying, a trans person’s role should be played by a trans person. But the portrayal of Kanchana was still a leap ahead as far as Tamil cinema was concerned.

Usually abused on screen with derogatory words and slurs, and used for offensive comedy, trans people have seldom been represented in Tamil cinema with respect. Kanchana, which not just showed a trans woman as a positive character, also depicted how important community support is for trans people.

In the film, Kanchana adopts a young trans person and educates her to become a doctor. It is in this quest that she ends up getting murdered and her ghost seeks revenge. 

The film has a final sequence where Raghava, who allows Kanchana to possess his body after hearing her story, dances before the deity of Aravan (a character who changes gender in the Mahabharata and is celebrated by the trans community, especially in Tamil Nadu) along with other trans women. It’s a powerful performance and one of the few times when the trans community has been shown in control and with agency on screen.

Watch: 'Kodiyavanin Kathaiya' song from Kanchana

The film also tries to be inclusive of religious minorities and people with disabilities, with a sort of tokenistic earnestness that’s present in many Tamil films. After Kanchana is thrown out of her house for wanting to dress like a girl, she finds refuge in a kindly Muslim man’s house. The man, a single parent, has a son with intellectual disability, too. When Raghava’s mother and sister-in-law try to drive the ghost away, they seek help from Hindu priests and later Muslim shamans, praying to all religious men with the same intensity (this was before outraging over ‘Ekatvam’ became the norm). Of course, in the process, it lends legitimacy to superstitions, but considering the genre, this could perhaps be forgiven.

Even before Bollywood discovered Kanchana, it was remade in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. There was a Kannada remake too, with Sai Kumar playing Sarathkumar's role. The Hindi remake seems to have a fearless rationalist hero as opposed to scaredy-cat Raghava. The premise appears to be Akshay Kumar’s character arriving at his girlfriend’s (Kiara Advani) house to impress her family, and then getting possessed by the trans woman’s ghost. The remake certainly looks glossier than Kanchana, but it remains to be seen how the tweaks will alter the spirit of the original – and if the Hindi audience will embrace it the way Tamil people did. 

Kanchana can be watched on Sun Nxt.

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