Is Mysskin an auteur (however loosely the term applies in the context of commercial Tamil cinema), a compulsive creator scratching at recurrent itches? Or is he simply a mainstream moviemaker with a firm sense of craft and a fondness for fetishes? Mugamoodi is not likely to resolve this question, though it does function as a furthering of those fetishes. No recent filmmaker has made, in so short a while, such a distinctive body of work with such a determinedly eccentric visual style. We may begin, for instance, with the colour yellow, featured not just in the item songs but also in the frequent use of auto-rickshaws in Mysskin’s cinema. (His first film, Chitiram Pesuthadi, even had a character, the one played by ‘Gaana’ Ulaganathan, whose backstory hinged on the colour. And let’s not forget the “manja selai” line in the item song in Yuddham Sei.) Mugamoodi breaks away from this trend – but raise your hands if you thought, as I did, that if Mysskin made a superhero movie, the costume would come in some shade of yellow.
Then there are the handicapped characters ( the heroine’s blind aunt in Chitiram Pesuthadi, the one-armed friend in Anjaathey, the hunchback in Mugamoodi), the fight sequence where the lone hero faces a number of thugs who come at him one by one or in pairs (we saw this in Anjaathey and Yudhdham Sei), a father gunned down in front of a distraught son (Anjaathey, Yuddham Sei), characters who often speak in English (the heroine in Chitiram Pesuthadi, the higher-up cops in Anjaathey and Yudhdham Sei), crimes involving abducted girls and women cracked by protagonists with little time for romance or a personal life (Anjaathey and Yudhdham Sei), the penchant for the prurient (the father caught visiting a prostitute in Chitiram Pesuthadi, the Peeping Tom villain in Anjaathey, the lecherous old men in Yudhdham Sei), the ties between an older brother and a younger sister (Anjaathey and Yudhdham Sei), those supporting characters in black sunglasses (the blind aunt in Chitiram Pesuthadi, the old aide of the villainous gang in Yudhdham Sei, the blind tipplers in a bar in Mugamoodi), and, memorably, all those shots of disembodied torsos and legs.
Mysskin’s fetishes go beyond the surface, beyond – say – the eastern iconography. (In Mugamoodi, a dragon puppet is designed for some Chinese embassy, and a Buddha statue sits on the terrace of a household. The film itself is dedicated to Bruce Lee.) There are, for instance, those hypnotic long shots that foreshadow dread – when the boxes with dismembered limbs are discovered in Yuddham Sei, or in the opening scene of Mugamoodi, where a garbage-pickup truck stops by a trash can. (The payoff will arrive later.) There’s the allusion to philosophy (even in its lighter forms) – in the symbolic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that the searching protagonist gifts the troubled youth at the end of Yuddham Sei, or at the entrance to the workshop of the hero’s grandfather (Girish Karnad) in Mugamoodi, where we see the Socratic maxim “Know thyself.” (The aimless hero asks his grandfather what he should be. The latter replies, “Unnaiye kettukko.” Know thyself.) And there’s a dysfunctional father-son dynamic here like the one in Anjaathey, where the disappointed father never thought that the son would amount to anything.
We are used to filmmakers succumbing to a fetish or two – whether it’s the Hitchcock cameo or Shankar’s painted vehicles in his songs – but few, if any, have rounded up such a formidable roster of must-haves. Do these hint at mere superstition, like a lucky pen we’d take along for an examination? I think not. I think there’s something more, something deeper. But this shallow superhero movie is not the place to go looking for answers. A filmmaker cannot always be making the movies we want him to make, and just because we have a certain image of Mysskin, certain expectations from him after three very solid films (for a number of reasons, I exclude Nandalala from the list), he is not obliged to meet them. But however much someone wants to stretch, there’s baggage that he carries along with him, and watching Mugamoodi –with its mix of the Mysskin of old, the quasi-philosopher, and the newly minted Mysskin here, the let’s-give-people-a-good-time entertainer – is to see someone struggle mightily to tell a story he thinks we want to see when the story he wants to tell is really something else.
Firstly, let’s examine the need for a superhero in Tamil cinema, where we’re used to the most ordinary of heroes beating up scores of villains and bringing them down. These heroes are derived from our myths, whose protagonists were endowed with divine powers, and who were incarnated on earth to vanquish evil. What used to be done with a quiverful of arrows or a serrated discus, according to legend, is now accomplished with flying legs and fists – but the underlying conceit is the same. This kind of conceit is prevalent in Eastern pop culture (we find the one-versus-many fight sequences in the kung fu epics too), but not so much in the West, where ordinary mortals, in order to begin fighting crime, need to be bitten by a radioactive spider or equipped with hi-tech gadgetry. It’s only after these transformations do we exclaim “a hero is born,” whereas, here, we know a hero is born the instant he is delivered from the womb.
Secondly, a superhero makes sense only in the context of a supervillain. Rama was put on this earth to dispatch Ravana, who was wreaking havoc on sages and demigods and men. An awesome embodiment of good, to be birthed, needs an awesome embodiment of evil. The evil, in Mugamoodi, comes in the form of a gang of masked safecrackers (talk about “mugamoodi kollaikaarargal”), who rob and kill, and to stop them, you think your garden-variety cop-hero would be enough. Safecrackers are the kind of criminals a superhero tests his nascent powers on, as he’s learning to wield them, before moving on to the real villains. There’s something fascinating about the way the head of the gang (Naren, who seems to reside in Dracula’s lair) is sheathed in a creepy mask – it suggests something far more disturbing about him, like the Joker, that he’s not just someone who’s after locked-up gold and stacks of rupee notes. But the character is hardly developed, just as the inventor played by Girish Karnad amounts to nothing. He’s depicted as some sort of electronics whiz, designing robots, and he outfits his grandson in a superhero suit with gizmos that are hardly used.
Even the superhero conceit is barely touched upon in the film’s first half, which is filled with the usual hero-heroine (Jiiva-Pooja Hegde) business. (She thinks he’s a rowdy, he pursues her, and so on – you may want to be alerted about the presence of heart-shaped balloons, in a Mysskin movie yet!) One school of thought maintains that these things are necessary for a Tamil audience because they are used to certain things (and, like Mysskin, they need their must-haves too) and progress – if we are to call it that – can only come in small increments. But on the other hand, when the Tamil-dubbed versions of Hollywood superhero films are such huge hits, are we still to uphold the sanctity of Alpine duets? (The one in Mugamoodi is as much a mood-killer as the heroine’s dream song in Anjaathey.) Why not shape the heroine’s character in ways through which we feel about her plight (and root for her union with the hero) by the film’s end, when she is held captive by the villain? Instead, we get “cute scenes,” like the one where the heroine sees the hero relieve himself on the street, in costume.
The one interesting idea Mysskin has is to show that the hero – named Anand, but he prefers to go by Lee (as in Bruce) – initially slips into a superhero costume in playfulness. He is hiding his identity in a way, like all superheroes do, but for a slightly different reason – because the girl he’s fallen for thinks he’s a rowdy and doesn’t want anything to do with him. And then, when his friend is killed, he ends up becoming a real hero. This is the sort of story that SP Muthuraman told briskly in Paayum Puli (also filled with martial arts, following the craze unleashed by the release of films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), where Rajinikanth’s sister was killed and he went after the villains responsible. Mysskin’s artiness comes in the way. His deliberately showy effects, his offbeat rhythms, and the way he stages scenes at the midpoint between reality and artifice – like how Jiiva is framed, early on, frozen in a doorway, posing like a model for a Renaissance-era painter or sculptor, or how Naren camps it up at the end – come in the way of this very ordinary story, which just needed a hack with a vigorous temperament.
A hack more attuned to the story (instead of the auteur-like showiness in the telling) may have avoided the scene of the dying friend sprawled out on the road in the midst of fallen flowers (reminding us of the dead youth in Anjaathey, whose spot on the street was similarly commemorated with rose petals), and he may have simply concentrated on showcasing a superhero. By the end, the villain mocks the hero as “Thamizhnaattin superhero,” and we’re shown that ordinary citizens will give up their lives to help him. But all he’s done, up to that point, is catch a thief and accidentally save an Assistant Commissioner (Nasser) from being fatally shot. And yes, after he gets his shiny new suit, he does ward off a deadly attack in a hospital, but even there his heroism is (deliberately?) diminished. A doctor and (I presume) a resident see the superhero for the first time. There is no shock. There isn’t even much wonder. He asks her dryly, “Batman?” She replies, “Illa doctor, idhu vera yaaro.” It’s as if the city is teeming with superheroes and this is just – yawn! – another one.
I enjoyed the futuristic world the film seems to be set in, with thieves wielding the latest gadgets, and even the police divisions seem to be all computerised. And the film’s finest scene – we may label it the Mysskin moment – is a fight between the hero’s mentor and the villain, which feels like the showdown between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, with the end left hanging. It’s showy touches like these that draw some of us to Mysskin’s movies – along with the bar song (last seen in Anjaathey). Unlike other filmmakers, Mysskin populates his bar not just with backup dancers but with blind men and drunk women and little people and a Socrates-spouting egghead and a sort-of godman (preaching in front of a picture of Rajinikanth) and several sales-executive types and an aged violinist who picks up a refrain from Annakiliye unnai theduthey. This single song has more character (and more audience-pleasing showmanship) than anything else in Mugamoodi, where it’s Mysskin who seems to be wearing a mask.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.