Like how Jai Arjun Singh observes early in the book, everybody has a growth phase with the film – Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro(JBDY). You see it as slapstick, haphazard skit and laugh along as a kid, with the Mahabharat climax being your favorite part of the film. As you grow older you catch the logic flaws, yes, but you also get the dark undertones, satire and the social commentary. But the Mahabharat scene continues to be your favorite part. Well that says something about the scene! The book is a marvelous read. Also an easy one. It starts with the man himself, Kundan Shah, his struggling days as a film student, the genesis of the idea, the people involved with the script writing process, how others joined in, the shooting gaffes and mishaps, on-location changes to the script etc. It’s worth more than the 250 bucks(or 188 if you get from flipkart) you pay for it and adds up as a nice companion piece to the movie itself.
The importance of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and it’s position in the broader sense of Hindi cinema is beautifully articulated by Jai Arjun Singh in his notes on JBDY in Caravan titled Reliving the Madness(I didn’t realize this had excerpts from the book when I read it first time). It talks about how he started with Kundan Shah and then progressed to every outlier with respect to the making of JBDY for the book. But the most striking part of that article is the one where he discusses some negative aspects and the datedness (that’s not a word?) of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, its amateurish moments and how in spite of them it remains a seminal work even to this day in the context of India. Here the excerpt:
In an overt way Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is a dated work—very much a product of its time—but it remains painfully topical in so many ways that matter. Watching the scene where a newly built flyover collapses because the builder “mixed cement into sand instead of mixing sand into cement,” one thinks about the countless similar incidents we read about in newspapers every day—the buck-passing that accompanied the fiascos preceding the 2010 Commonwealth Games, for example. Even lines that are incredibly hilarious carry strong undertones of rage at the world’s injustices. Making a speech about the benefits of a new bridge, the smarmy builder Tarneja says, “Aage jaake log is flyover ke neeche ghar basaaenge” (“People will make their homes under this flyover in the future”), and his listeners applaud heartily. The same scene contains the proclamation “Ek din ke liye shahar ke sabhi gutter band rahenge” (“The city’s gutters will remain closed for a day to mark the commissioner’s death”)—a funny line to be sure, but also a dig at the sycophantic tradition in India of having official holidays to ‘honour’ a leader’s memory.
And that’s what brings us to Michael Madana Kama Rajan(MMKR). The 1990 film is considered by many(ok, almost every) tamil film enthusiasts as the best screwball comedy film of all time. The sheer amount of work in terms of writing, performances, direction, jokes and moments transcends any other product from Tamil, or arguably Indian cinema. MMKR is unique in ways that few other Tamil films are. Quite frankly, MMKR is the last cult film produced in Tamil cinema. Yes, we talk about Nayagan, other Mani Ratnam films, Superstar’s films etc. but when it comes to MMKR, it is in a league of its own. This film, in more ways than one, becomes a talking point and conversation starter when two people meet for the first time. There have been several instance where you start relating to a particular person because that person would be a fanboy of MMKR as much as you are. It’s equally loved, revered and respected as a work of art across fans, enthusiasts and the general Tamil film watching fraternity.
That’s the reason Michael Madana Kama Rajan deserves a completely dedicated monograph. It’s because that things are so perfect here that this sort of pinnacle is impossible to repeat. This is the zenith. You have Kamal Haasan in his godly form with respect to writing, fresh after Aboorva Sagodharargal armed with another interesting tweak or twist or whatchamacallit to the beaten down lost brothers theme. You have Crazy Mohan and Singeetam Srinvasa Rao collaborating with Kamal, a combination that worked wonders in the aforementioned film.(And Singeetam + Kamal did wonders with Pushpak too, the silent film, which was believe it or not, Jai Arjun Singh’s first choice for his book – about which he writes here and here. Do read. And I digress) There is very little of what could be called film based literature in India, especially for the cinema crazy country that we are. And even more so, Tamil Nadu. So when I draw up a list of films deserving of some literature/monograph, Michael Madana Kama Rajan is what comes first to my mind.
JBDY, the book, talks about Kundan Shah’s introduction to the idea of comedy. More importantly, the concept of the comic foil. It talks about a scene in Paigham with Vyjayanthimala and Dilip Kumar, the former playing the foil to the latter’s fibbing ways. And that’s where we get our laughs from in Michael Madana Kama Rajan too. Especially in the second half, on one hand you have Madan plotting the swap with Raju for his covert plans and on the other, Avinashi sends in Kameshwaran to retrieve his cash from Madan’s safe. Now we get all the laughs from these two individuals from their own predicament of playing someone else. One does it for passion and money while the other is coerced and ends up being a reluctant performer. Therefore, they both become the foil in the grand scheme of things. Kundan mentions how your scene can fall flat if your foil is not working. And that’s why – ask anyone – Kameshwaran and Raju are the breakout characters of MMKR.
Any film would ideally pack in a handful of anecdotes through its production process as there are so many things that go into making a film, not to mention the number of people involved. It is more so when it comes to great movies with greater minds involved. As a cinema lover one would ideally be interested in the thought process and the mechanics of effort that go into the film. It need not – and in come cases it never is – be about bigger things and complex part of shooting scenes etc. The smaller ones, the moments here and there are worth a goldmine when you hear about them or read about them several years or decades later. Taking the example of Michael Madana Kama Rajan, there are so many layers here that it boggles the mind every time you watch the film. In this sequence, watch between 3.40-5.00. In a subtext laden film, here is something that has been spotted and revered by millions of fans – when Raju gets the confirmation that the guest house is free, Avinashi instructs the housekeeper to take them to the guest house. And then Raju asks him,” Indha Arumugam ogay dhane?! Dubakoorunga namba mudiyadhu, naa ootla illadha nerathla ootaye vadagai uttu sambadhichuvanga Anbe Vaa mathiri” And he says this to Nagesh, who played that exact character in Anbe Vaa! What follows is even funnier – “onnaku theriyadha vishayam kooda indha veeta pathi ennaku theriyun ya, oruthan 25 latcha rooba lautrukan!” Raju keeps trying to get ahead of his newly accepted role, that of Madhangopal, and ends up talking about Avinashi(Nagesh) to Avinashi himself! And says,”Seri onnanda solli enna prayojanam.” How do you think of something like that? Nagesh portrays that character, but is the subtext a coincidence or something that they really hit upon? Or that instance where Raju and Madan are standing in front of the mirror still reeling under the astonishment of bumping into each other, and ask Bheem,”Epdi enga double action?”, to which Bheem remarks,”Ennaku naalu theriyuthu boss“. That scene is a masterstroke. These are the kind of points a fan would possibly like a monograph to focus on and this film overflows with such examples.
The work ethic of Kamal-Crazy combo is another thing that you’d never tire hearing about. In the Pongal special program over the weekend titled Kamal Haasyam, Kamal and Crazy spoke with Mouli, Cho, KB, Chitralaya Gopu etc. and generally about humor and their work over the years. It was a lovely show and if you are a fan of the Kamal-Crazy brand of comedy, it’s a must watch. They discuss, among other things, the kind of extensive homework that went into the making of MMKR. Jai Arjun Singh writes in JBDY about the importance of enactment when writing a comic screenplay and how the trio of Kundan, Ranjit Kapoor and Satish Kaushik used to rehearse to find out if a scene is working or not. A similar homework was what Kamal and Crazy spoke about. There were some interesting quips about a chandelier at a hotel during the numerous rehearsals they undertook. They even spoke about how they had a number of rehearsals with just the three of them(Kamal-Crazy-Singeetam) taking on all the different characters of the film. There was a hint of the kind of insight into formation of the joke – “Nekka?…Nokka?… Nekkum Nokkuma?!” (Of course, this is impossible to convey in text, you can catch it here) – and how they used props that just happened to be there in the house they were shooting in. On Twitter a bunch of people(namely @equanimus, @dagalti and @complicateur) broke into a discussion on this Kamal-Crazy phenomenon days following the release of Man Madhan Ambu. There is a belief that every great one liner, joke or a piece of dialog from these movies need not be attributed to Crazy Mohan. Yes, he writes the dialogs but the way these two work it may not be true that the dialog writer came up with every funny line or a situational line in the film. This is not to undermine Crazy’s contribution but just to simply state the fact that there is no Crazy without Kamal and there is no Kamal without Crazy when it comes to these movies. This was all the more apparent in the way Kamal and Crazy Mohan discussed the effort that went into MMKR. (I am sure @equanimus was chuckling to himself all through that part of the show!) Now I wonder how many chapters this aspect would take in a book!
Yes, the eternal conundrum between the artist and the audience exists. There is always a question of whether the writer/director intended it this way or is it just us fanboys overreaching into forming our own subtexts and connotations. But then art doesn’t work that way. It’s a two way medium and the artist and the audience only compliment each other when they take their thoughts a step further this way. In the JBDY book, Kundan Shah says, ” When people talk about the ‘deeper meaning’ of the Mahabharat scene, I don’t know what to say to them“. It’s also true that only a fanboy can bring out such details and tap into the loop of thought process inside the creator’s mind. And that’s why we need someone as fascinated and as excited by this piece of work to write a book about it. After a conversation on similar lines on Twitter, I suggested this to Bardwaj Rangan and he said how a publisher has to bite something like this. He said it’s probably a far easier job to entice a publisher with a book on a more far reaching film like Nayagan(TIME Top 100 Films of the Century et al) than MMKR. But I hope it happens at some point in the future. This is a film that would be enjoyed, chewed and relished upon for decades to come and there has to be a record of the work behind the work, long after the people associated with it reach their ends of time.