Review: Mumbai XPress / Chandramukhi

Posted on April 21, 2005


Picture courtesy:


APR 21, 2005 – IT’S PROBABLY NO COINCIDENCE that Ilayaraja’s dynamic score for Mumbai Xpress draws on jazz elements, for the movie itself is structured like an elaborate jazz composition. It has masterful slapstick riffs, it has what appear to be spur-of-the-moment improvisations, and if a few of the notes it hits are off-puttingly self-indulgent, it always manages to draw you back in with its maniacally free-flowing rhythms.

The thing, though, is that Mumbai Xpress only appears to be free-flowing. It’s actually one of Kamal Haasan’s most tight-knit, most convoluted screenplays, where every pratfall, every pun, every preposterous moment seems to have been spat on, polished, and precisely positioned into an overall jigsaw pattern. The effort does show sometimes – notably in a song sequence that strives for a wistful happy-family feel, but ends up feeling very contrived instead – but the point is, it’s still effort; it’s still the painstaking work of someone who clearly cannot inhale or exhale without challenging himself (and his audience) with everything he does.

The director is ostensibly Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, but it’s Kamal whose fingerprints are all over – in the irony that a morally-loose mistress is named Ahalya, in a gag about a man lying next to a child that skirts with suggestions of paedophilia, in the scene of a lady’s pallu falling off and being hastily set right by another woman who clearly doesn’t want her nearby husband to get any ideas, in the absence of a conventional romantic track that’s instead replaced by an utterly unromantic union of convenience, in a character’s use of a hearing aid that seems to imply the blissful state of being able to tune out the lies and deceit around him… Kamal’s conceits no longer just push the envelope; there’s probably no envelope big enough to contain them anymore.

This is mostly good news, a little bad news. The bad news is that his relentless quest for The Next Great New Experience can get wearying – sometimes, you just want to breathe every now and then instead of, say, seeing more souped-up special effects at the end of an already long-enough chase sequence. Then there are the times when Kamal appears to have bought a bit too seriously into his own mythology, as when a character slyly references the unforgettable “naalu paerukku nalladhu senjaa…â€? line from Nayakan. And after Virumaandi and Vasoolraja MBBS, Kamal’s wide-eyed naïf here makes you wonder if he hasn’t played one simpleton-in-a-world-of-scoundrels too many.

But the good news, I guess, is this: so what? So what if Kamal gets carried away at times if the result is so entertaining otherwise? Crazy Mohan didn’t contribute to this movie, but his spirit definitely did – how else to explain the wordplay where Kamal’s stuntman character, Avinasi, is mistakenly called Pulikesi (like the running gag about name mix-ups in Tenali), the wacky parts inhabited by wackier performers (a money-minded, Telugu-speaking individual is right out of Panchatantiram), the uproarious moment where a grateful, bedridden patient touches someone’s behind simply because he can’t reach the feet? And a mostly in-form cast – Kamal, Santhanabharathi, Nasser, Vaiyapuri, Pasupathi, the young Hardik; only Manisha Koirala, at her most mannered, seems all wrong – gleefully milks every last laugh from the lines.

Yet Mumbai Xpress isn’t exactly an all-out comedy. Like Pesum Padam, it’s the blues with belly laughs, a stack of serious issues coated with smiles. Avinasi gets pulled into a harebrained kidnapping scheme where everything that can go wrong does, but in the midst of all the rib-tickling, you sense a chill around the heart. There’s a sister who dumps her brother, a man who dumps his mistress, and a woman who’s looking to dump someone interested in her welfare. Then there’s a scene where a car stops at a traffic light, and two poverty-stricken girls approach the passengers for money – one appealing to their hearts through the baby she’s carrying, the other appealing to their loins through the porn magazines she’s selling. But best of all may be the presence of a horse, a monkey, a daredevil stunt driver, and a whole bunch of bumbling clowns – why, life’s a bloody circus, the film seems to say, as it unpeels the sad lot of the human condition, one laugh at a time.

Picture courtesy:

IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, the smash hit Thambikku Endha Ooru had a famous comic highlight – a scene where Rajinikanth sputters and stammers in fright upon encountering a raised-hood cobra. I thought of that when I saw Chandramukhi, which has a scene where he sputters and stammers in fright as he imagines encountering a ghost. It just wasn’t funny this time around, and I wondered: Could it be that he’s aged and can no longer do physical comedy convincingly? Is it because we’ve gotten used to his rags-to-riches epics like Padayappa and Annamalai, and such fooling around doesn’t befit him anymore?

After the show, though, I realised the problem isn’t Rajinikanth; it’s that this movie doesn’t know what to do with its Super Star. Watching him do comedy isn’t an issue; watching him do only comedy for almost the entire duration is, especially when the film isn’t a comedy at all. When Rajini took eons after the collapse of Baba to decide on his next project, it appeared he was really concerned about what he’d play next – but who’d have guessed he’d play Parthiban?

Parthiban, in case you haven’t been following a certain kind of Tamil film, has perfected quite a comic routine with frequent costar Vadivelu, the kind that makes you smile simply by seeing them appear together, even before they’ve uttered a single line. That’s what Rajini is made to do in Chandramukhi, playing foil to Vadivelu’s occasionally-amusing hijinks that form three-quarters of the movie – looking at someone with a moustache and going, “Ei meesai, come I say,â€? or addressing a girl named Durga as Dargah. Yuks or yucks? You decide.

Actually, Rajini has a serious role here, so serious that he’s a psychiatrist who’s the foremost student of – you’ve got to hear this – the world-famous Dr. Bradley! And he uses his skills to fix a problem that forms the movie’s most interesting segment, one that involves a raja with a French beard, a headless Bharatanatyam dancer, and a monster of a computer-generated snake that looks like it’s lost its way from the Anaconda set. But all of this occurs at the very end – that’s when you see that this isn’t some aimless comedy, but an absorbing mix of past-life-mumbo-jumbo predecessors like Nenjam Marappadhillai, Madhumati, Manichitrathazhu and Aapthamithra. The happenings involve Saravanan (Rajini), his friend Senthil (Prabhu, completely wasted), and the latter’s wife (Jyothika), who enters a haunted mansion and sets off a spooky chain of events.

This isn’t a thalaivar kind of tale at all, so P Vasu seems unsure whether he’s after chuckles or chills, and sometimes the two occur simultaneously – like when Rajini explains the eerie concept of psychic vibrations, and the camera jiggles for about five seconds, apparently to induce in us a sense of the vibrations. I didn’t know whether to laugh or… laugh harder. But what’s worse is how dated it all looks. We’re in a golden age of choreography, thanks to the likes of Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva, so why would we still want to see the hero-heroine go one-two-three-clap? Vidyasagar’s good score ends up being served quite badly, especially Athinthom, where graceless dancers keep waving handkerchieves like flags to invisible bulls.

There are many faces on screen, but few leave an impression. (Sheela, of Chemmeen fame, appears to have been cast simply because someone thought it’d be nice to have Sheela, of Chemmeen fame.) Vadivelu and Jyothika do what they can, but the weight of Chandramukhi rests on Rajini’s shoulders. He does an inspired bit of slapstick where he hears anklet bells and, seeing no one around, shakes his foot to check if that’s where the sound is coming from. Besides, not many others can whip up such a storm in the fight sequences. (That, by the way, isn’t a figure of speech. He twirls his leg round-and-round so fast, it generates a gust of wind that… whips up a storm.) In one of the inevitable dialogues that extol his character, someone remarks that Ravana had ten heads, but Saravanan has the equivalent of ten brains. If only the same could be said about those behind this disappointing movie.

Copyright ©2005 The Economic Times – Madras Plus

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil