“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I mean, but they can’t be so mean!”
“Enna ezhavu, ellarum meen meenungara?” (What the heck, why is everyone talking about fish?)
“Ava English meana pathi pesara” (They are talking about English ‘mean’!)
If you can understand Tamil, but don’t know where this conversation is from, frankly you’ve had a deprived cinematic life. “Michael Madana Kama Rajan” (MMKR), the Tamil comedy masterpiece featuring Kamal Haasan in impressive quadruple roles released 26 years ago today, and it still remains one of the finest comedies to come out of Tamil cinema to date.
Hatched from the comic partnership of Kamal and writer Crazy Mohan, MMKR was the start of a long and fruitful relationship that gave us such hits as “Sathi Leelavathi”, “Avvai Shanmugi”, “Kadhala Kadhala”, “Panchathanthiram”, “Pammaal K Sambandam” and “Vasoolraja MBBS”. As impressive as that list is, MMKR hit high-notes that, I think, none of the following films managed reach.
For those who came in late, MMKR tells the story of a series of accidental encounters that reunite quadruplets separated at birth. Soon after their birth, a killer hired by their father’s evil brother feels pity for them and leaves them at random places to be adopted by good samaritans instead.
All this we learn through the rather wonderful title track, “Kadhe Kelu, Kadhe Kelu”. As enjoyable as the song sequence is, it’s also an excellent plot device, couching the most melodramatic elements of the story in a lilting tune and giving the story substance without detracting from the comic tone of the film.
The four sons soon grow up in vastly different worlds: Michael, adopted by the killer, becomes a crook; Madan unknowingly returned to his own father as a foundling becomes the scion of the empire; Kameshwaran, follows in his adoptive father’s footsteps to become a mild-mannered Brahmin cook; and Raju grows up in an orphanage and becomes a fire-fighter.
The opening sequences that delineate each character are an object lesson late for how to introduce a hero in any film. With tight, short narrative arcs that demonstrate the basic archetypal qualities of each of the four Kamals, and near-encounters that hint at the hilarity to follow, these early scenes drop some of the comic gems that have you laughing out loud from the get go, including the “meen” sequence that kicks off with Kameshwaran accidently dropping a fish into the sambar at a Brahmin wedding.
While there is a fair amount of slapstick comedy, and a few slightly inappropriate gender and identity-based jokes, what makes MMKR work is the gold standard of comic writing. Much of that has to do with the fluidity of language, and the possibility of puns across language. And it’s the casual ease with which these lines appear across the script. Like when Thripurasundari (Urvashi) reacts to Kameshwaran saying that he’s from a “kukgramam” (small village) near Palakkad, saying, “Oh, gramam kukka, neengalum cook.”
Crazy Mohan’s lines again and again pick up on opportunities like this to mistake words across languages, or even deliberately misunderstand different meanings of the same word, to hilarious results. There’s also a wonderfully iterative quality to the comic lines, with brief dialogue exchanges stacking multiple jokes on a single series of puns, without ever crossing the line that turns a good pun into a PJ.
But the quality writing on the film isn’t just a question of coming up with a series of funny quips. Instead, the film builds a substantial narrative around a series of frivolous jokes. It’s this that distinguishes MMKR from later films in the Mohan-Kamal partnership, where many narratives simply become a setup for funny but not brilliant one-liners.
What’s really great about MMKR’s narrative is that it handles its multiple story arcs deftly, weaving them into and out of one-another, without ever muddling the scene. Just watch the events in the immediate neighbourhood of the song “Vechallum Vekkama Ponalum” – there’s so much happening in these frames, but you never lose track of what goes where and how.
Of course, none of this would be possible without Kamal Haasan’s impressive acting repertoire. It isn’t as if he changes outfits, wears a bit of makeup and changes the pronounciation of a few words and expects us to buy it. You can actually see four very different men on screen, with speech, mannerisms and behavior to match. From the crisp walk and accented speech of Madan to the gruff, ruggedness of Michael to the pudgy, roundness of Kameshwaran, there’s a great repertoire of acting on display here.
Of course, let’s not assume that Kamal carries the film entirely on his shoulders. With an impressive galaxy of stars including Khushbu, Urvashi, Manorama, Nagesh, Delhi Ganesh, and Nassar, the film overflows with quality acting inputs, and director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao makes sure they all get their due. The film doesn’t skimp on the goings-on around the four protagonists, and this enriches and fleshes out the narrative, thanks to some of the memorable moments the supporting cast contribute. Whether it's Avinashi's (Nagesh) mooning over Kameshwaran as the solution to all his problems or his interactions with Bheemboy, Madan's bodyguard, or Gangubai's (Manorama) double-take at unexpectedly encountering Madan where he's least expected or Venugopal's (RNK Prasad) kookiness after his accident, there's so much to enjoy from the whole cast in the film.
The film also benefits from the legendary song-writing skills of Ilaiyaraja. In the nicely varied tone, texture and composition of the various songs in the film, from the jazzy “Ram Bam Bam” to the saccharine sweet “Sundari Neeyum” to the sultry “Shiva Rathiri”, you see the range and skill that gave Ilayaraja his supreme status in Tamil cinema.
26 years later, there are elements in the film that we could poke at and criticise. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine how “Michael Madana Kamarajan” could have been a better film than it is.