Lights, Camera, Conversation… “We don’t need another hero”

Posted on February 3, 2012

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But there’s certainly place for a quiet, almost-hero – like the refreshingly ordinary protagonist of ‘Mounaguru,’ a film that’s anything but ordinary.

The recent Tamil film, Mounaguru, the season’s sleeper hit made by first-time filmmaker Shantakumar, is a lot of things, many good (a solid three-quarters of the narrative, after which it sort of falls apart) and some not so good (the performances; that title), but it’s most striking aspect may be the way it details the protagonist’s heroism. (For those not in the know, the traditional Tamil-film hero is a hero not just because he is the movie’s male protagonist but also because he is necessarily a heroic figure. He needs to be shown as one, showcased as one.) The college student Karunakaran is introduced to us – in a montage-driven song that wonders Yaar ivan (who is he?) – as a most ordinary fellow. The most emphatic moment in the song may be the one where he rinses out his stainless-steel tiffin box, round in shape and recognised instantly as a repository for tightly caked rice, under a tap by the roadside. He is, in short, utterly unspecial.

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But as the song shows us, he is also quietly heroic (perhaps the fount of the title), a man whose courage is in no need of advertisement. When he finds a cobra in a habitable area, he coaxes it onto a pole and sets it free in the hills. When he inserts a coin to make a call from a public phone and when the call doesn’t go through, he demands, from the person manning the phone, his change back. When asked to return after a while, he smashes a furious fist into the machine’s belly, and it obligingly vomits out its contents. He picks up his change and walks away. Later, when he is admitted in a hostel, for higher studies, he doesn’t shy away from the only available room, one whose previous occupant committed suicide and which has therefore been shunned by other (unheroic) students.

And thus the character of Karunakaran is steadily endowed with heroic stripes. He is not afraid of the snake or of the tainted room (fearlessness is a trait of a hero), yet he won’t kill the snake (compassion is a trait of a hero); he will claim what is rightfully his, not a penny more or less (a keenly honed sense of justice is a trait of a hero). Like any self-respecting hero, he will not take things lying down. When slapped for the incident by the public phone, he retaliates with violence that occurs offscreen, and yet, afterwards, after heroically affirming that he is no pushover, he walks up to the nearest police station and surrenders to the cops (that keenly honed sense of justice again). When a lecturer at college is slapped and the students decide to strike in protest, the others scatter, like birds at the sound of a handclap, when the police fire a warning shot, but Karunakaran continues with his strike. A hero is not easily rattled by empty threats, especially when he knows he is on the side of the right.

But when the forces of evil multiply and when faced with thugs with guns, Karunakaran is smart enough to realise that he is in over his head and that he’d best retreat into a shell. (He is, after all, an educated man, someone who reads even while he eats.) He becomes, once again, the boy from the small town who rinses out his tiffin dabba by the roadside tap. When he escapes from corrupt cops who have targeted him, he doesn’t plot out a single-handed course of vigilante revenge, but seeks shelter with an authority figure, the priest who runs the hostel. He can do this because the actor who plays Karunakaran, Arulnidhi, doesn’t arrive with heroic baggage. The success of Mounaguru, really, is the success of the small hero, the actor whose name isn’t emblazoned on the marquee in dazzling lights and who can therefore afford to scale down the heroics. He can be a hero (and not a superhero).

And I was reminded that, almost exactly eighteen years ago, a huge star’s Pongal release saw him as a similar kind of hero (and not a superhero). In Mahanadhi, Kamal Haasan’s Krishna was, like Karunakaran in Mounaguru, an ordinary man, a straight man, caught in a crooked world. As I write this, I realise, by utter coincidence, that the names of the two films under consideration begin with the same alphabet, as do the names of their protagonists. More superficial similarities are seen in the closing portions of both films, which feature a vengeful act where a knife slices into a limb, and a many-years-later scenario where the leading man’s blight is alleviated by a splash of audience-pleasing sunshine.

But I invoke Mahanadhi not to revel in these discoveries, these connections of chance that make film-viewing such a happy hunting ground for buried treasure. I was struck by how both Mahanadhi and Mounaguru employ, successfully and in a small fashion, the phenomenon that was blown to elephantine proportions in Dasavatharam: the Butterfly Effect – or its watered-down cousin, the what-if. If Krishna’s friend hadn’t descended from foreign shores – like a showman with a trained-monkey of a son spouting rhymes in (aspirational) English – Krishna wouldn’t have decided to forsake small-town happiness for a life in the city (even these dreams are like a hero’s dreams, of going to the city and becoming a star), and if this idea of betterment hadn’t burrowed into Krishna’s head like a twisted root he wouldn’t have considered selling his prosperous factory to an unscrupulous man, and if he hadn’t gone to the city, he wouldn’t have ended up in jail and lost his son to gypsies and his daughter to prostitution. Of course, you can trace this what-if chain far beyond the scope of the movie – as in, if Krishna’s wife were still alive, she might have counselled him well and warded off the big-city temptations like a bad dream.

Similarly, in Mounaguru, if Karunakaran had chosen to make his phone call at a time the person manning the phone possessed exact change, he wouldn’t have gotten into a scrap and been expelled from college, he wouldn’t have had to go to the city to continue his education, and he wouldn’t have had to stay in the hostel, which is where the troubles lie. The what-if scenarios multiply. (Slight spoiler alert ahead.) If the cop hadn’t desired the prostitute, if he hadn’t brought her home, he (and Karunakaran) wouldn’t be in this soup. If the constable hadn’t felt the need to relieve himself, the cops would have never stumbled upon the car crash, upon the money. But the film’s biggest what-if demonstrates what a big heart the director has, redeeming a character that we never thought was worth redeeming. If a father had performed his duties, if he’d done right by his son, then there would be no kleptomaniac, no link to Karunakaran, no story.

Shantakumar, as if by force of habit, as if to not do so would result in the wrath of the Tamil movie gods, opts for a few of our uglier clichés. There is a sentimental scene involving an embroidered portrait of Mother Teresa, and there’s another with special children (that finds an echo at the end). The hero is still being built in these scenes – it’s just that the heroism isn’t overt. But another conception that looks ugly at first is pleasantly subverted. Karunakaran’s elder brother, the one settled in the big city, is shown as someone who eats from his lunch box with a spoon and he wants his mother to come stay with him so that she can take care of his infant (or wash the latter’s pee thuni, as Karunakaran says with scorn). But just as you sigh and brace yourself for yet another city-people-are-evil caricature, he begins to turn in front of our eyes, proving himself a good son to his mother and a good older brother who doesn’t wash his hands off his sibling’s frustrating antics even when faced with a mildly disapproving wife. This character is a triumph, someone who, like many of us, attempts to find an agreeable balance between rocks and hard places and go about life.

The writing, except towards the end, is consistently involving. The film opens with a bit of drama, when a title card informs us that it is “3 am, Chennai.” There are flashes of music from a car radio, the sounds of someone crying, a gun tucked into somebody’s pants, and a fade to black. Who are these people? What is happening? We are gripped from the very beginning. The best-written stretch is probably the one in the forest, where Karunakaran is almost killed (but only if the gun had gone off). The seeds of dissent between the villains are sown here, and the payoff comes in an exciting scene at a warehouse where these villains converge on the hapless hero. But the story threads have crisscrossed even earlier, when Karunakaran surrendered to the police for the public-phone incident. The inspector who receives him, the pregnant cop who sets him free, is the same one who will (almost) set him free at the end.

Her investigation is depicted as a solid and plodding and unheroic endeavour, dependent on piecing together scraps of mundane detail. (For heroism-infused investigation, refer “Raghavan instinct” under Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu.) The unflashiness of the film, which works very well till a twist at a mental asylum, is refreshing. There are stretches – an accident, followed by a scene in a bedroom, followed by a scene at a restaurant – where Karunakaran is completely absent, and you cannot imagine a big hero consenting to play this part. This isn’t to knock big-hero films – they are studded with their own pleasures. But the small hero, who is imbued with heroism in ordinary amounts and attended to by a fairly ordinary heroine, is a necessary counterbalance if the heroic kind of cinema has to thrive and not devolve into self-parody. Mounaguru may be the first Tamil film where the intermission point is marked by the protagonist relieving himself of a full bladder. An action hero with bodily functions? Why, we exclaim, he’s just like us.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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