IN THE SOUTH OF MADNESS
A kitschy spoof of Tamil Westerns has big laughs and one small problem: even at an hour-and-a-half, it overstays its welcome. Plus, a dark comedy that’s better than you expect.
AUG 30, 2009 – AFTER A SCREENING OF SHASHANKA GHOSH’S Quick Gun Murugun, I ran into a former colleague who’s now a television reporter – and she wanted what she called a “byte.” She wanted to know if there was anything in the film that was hurtful to Tamilians. “Absolutely not,” I assured her, and walked away – but an instant later, I wondered if I shouldn’t have turned back and made a few politically correct noises, especially in the aftermath of the Kaminey controversy, wherein a decades-old reference to masturbation was interpreted as a brand-new insult to Lord Jagannath. Have we really become such a prickly, sensitive lot that the merest attempt at a joke (affectionate or otherwise) makes us break out in a rash? Whatever next? Will the Marwari seths of Chennai demand to be recompensed for the way their staccato speech was ridiculed in the Tamil films of a certain era? Will the Sardars follow suit, frothing at the mouth at being reduced, by Bollywood, to shoulder-shaking “balle balle” stereotypes?
Quick Gun Murugun will no doubt set a few tempers aflare – but the audience I was with, thankfully, appeared genuinely tickled (a lot more than I was, I admit). Early evidence that the director had a screw amiably loose was strewn throughout his Waisa Bhi Hota Hai: Part II, especially when a boisterous bunch of Sardars attempts to overtake a car driven by a timid Parsi. The latter, for no apparent reason, acquires an unhealthy amount of up-yours attitude – he sticks his hand out and flips his pursuers the bird. In absurdly disproportionate response, a Sardar pulls out a machine gun and begins firing away, at which the Parsi chucks away his newfound courage and flounders into a ditch. It was a hilarious bit of anything-goes nonsense.
Quick Gun Murugun is stuffed to its gills with this spirit of anything-goes nonsense. Where Ghosh earlier aimed his pointed (but never poisonous) darts at the Parsi and the Sardar, he now targets the Tamil masala film hero, embodied in the endearingly ludicrous person of the eponymous “South Indian cowboy.” The small problem, however, is that what was funny as a throwaway bit in the earlier film gets quickly wearying when stretched to feature length. After about a half-hour of laughing at the loud clothes and the ridiculous names (Rice Plate Reddy and Mango Dolly and, in particular, the Molagapodi Boys; the gamely hammy cast includes Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Nasser, Rambha and Raju Sundaram) and the priceless accents delivering “punch” dialogues that are even more priceless, you begin to wonder, “Is that all, or is there going to be anything else?”
The plot, so to speak, revolves around the efforts of the villain to get his grubby hands on the recipe for the best mother-made dosa ever – it sounds a lot funnier than it plays out – and the feel that Ghosh is going for appears to be the sambar Western (say, the Jaishankar starrers directed by the Tamil cinematographer Karnan, or Rajinikanth’s Thaai Meedhu Sathiyam) as filtered through the trippy stylistics of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, where an innocuous Japanese spy thriller was rendered ridiculous through hysterically off-kilter (dubbed) English dialogue. (The latter film was even about the quest for the most perfect egg salad recipe – go figure!) Ghosh follows Allen’s template faithfully by having most of his dialogues in Tamil and subtitling them with the appropriate amount of absurdness.
Several of these lines are sidesplitting, as are many of Ghosh’s choices. He gets silly with the background score. (Happy Birthday plays whenever the villain is about to move in for a kill, plus I thought I heard the opening bars of Für Elise during a seduction scene.) He stages elaborate instances of wordplay. (A wife who, in a former life, devoutly performed karwa chauth is reborn as a praying mantis, a creature that devours its mate. I think we’re meant to complete the joke in our heads – she used to pray for her spouse; now she preys on him.) He recreates, amusingly, popular movie clichés like the heroine tearing off an item of her clothing to bandage the wounded hero. He even takes a wicked swipe at the Big B, who’ll apparently endorse any product that comes his way. And yet, after a while, it becomes awfully hard to shake off the feeling that you think you’re enjoying this comedy more than you actually are.
Tamil audiences, however, are likely to have themselves a lot more fun. It’s not just the pitch-perfect reproduction of the cherished traditions of Tamil cinema – the “minor chain” on the villain’s neck, or the anni (riotously subtitled “elder sister-in-law”) whose sole function is to flash indulgent smiles. It’s also the South Indian hero’s refusal to kill the North Indian villain before educating the latter about the intricacies of the Tamil letter “zha,” as also the subtitles that are doubly hilarious when you remember the original lines from a hundred older Tamil films. (“Is she an ancestral property of your father?) What thrilled me most was the inclusion of an old TM Soundararajan number from Sivaji Ganesan’s Neela Vaanam. “Oh little flower, see your lover,” it goes, and it’s a small stroke of genius to have included this instance of a “pop” song that, like the films spoofed here, must once have seemed oh-so-cool but is so laughably dated today. What, though, will a non-Tamil audience make of all this?
ONE OF THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN the Hollywood comedy and the Bollywood kind (exemplified by, say, Govinda and David Dhawan) is that the latter is typically a loose collection of set pieces while the former has the well-oiled sheen of a professional product. The scenes segue neatly into one another, the actors have graphs you care about, and there’s almost always a setup in the first act (in this case, a eulogy at a patriarch’s funeral, which explodes into chaos) that finds a payoff in the third. This difference is on display in K Murali Mohan Rao’s Daddy Cool, an “official” remake of Death at a Funeral, which is much better than what the cast (Suniel Shetty, Aftab Shivdasani, Jaaved Jaffery) leads you to expect. I’m very partial to scatological humour, so my inner 12-year-old split his sides at a poop joke involving Prem Chopra, but I was also pleasantly surprised that Tulip Joshi managed an empathetic performance that elevates her amidst this ensemble. Movies, sometimes, surprise you in the strangest ways.
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