Sivakarthikeyan, the likeable boy next door, has transformed into Sivakarthikeyan, the big star – and Maan Karate is less a film than a ticker-tape celebration of this reality. He’s given a hero-introduction song, where he’s surrounded by posters of films of our two big “mass” heroes, MGR (Naalai Namathey) and Rajinikanth (Uzhaipaali). Even if we miss these references, the fact that he’s a man of the masses is evident from where he hails from: Royapuram. No Tamil-film star ever became big by playing a character that hailed from Boat Club Road. In an amusing twist, which I think is unintentional, he’s named Peter – though, predictably, he’s anti-“Peter” in the ways that really matter. He says “Darjeeling” when he means “darling.” He says “careless” when he means “careful.” No Tamil-film star ever became big by playing a character that spoke proper English. In another amusing twist – this one’s intentional – the antagonist (Vamsi) is named Peter too, and he snarls, “I’m gonna break you.” Gonna? Oh man, is he gonna go down.
The story is by AR Murugadoss, and it sounds like a leftover page from the binder that contained his research for 7aum Arivu. A sadhu in the wilderness hints at a future event. It involves boxing, and lots of prize money. We expect something strange and mystical. But the director, Thirukumaran, is content to give us something familiar and mundane. No Tamil-film star ever became big by stepping too far out of his comfort zone. One does wonder though: Would these slightly offbeat scripts be better served by non-stars? After all, the definition of a star – whether here or in Hollywood – is someone who plays the same part over and over, giving the people exactly what they like about him (or her), with slightly different variations. Cary Grant was a huge star, and no one ever called on him to play an axe-murderer who had a thing for little girls. Why hire a star to go through these motions when there are actors for this sort of thing?
With an actor (or a newcomer, or with Sivakarthikeyan in the early phase of his career), Maan Karate might have been a genuinely moving underdog story, with a touch of the supernatural. There might have even been a better use of that intriguing title, which, if you think about it, is really the USP of the film. We’ve seen the trailers that showed Peter as a boxer. We walk in wondering what “Maan Karate” is. And when we discover that Peter isn’t really a boxer, we await developments that detail his evolution.
But that would mean writing a screenplay that involved tiresome things like character arcs, thematic continuity, and a fair measure of serious and committed storytelling. Who has the time for that? We keep waiting for happenings that befit the gravity of the opening portions with that sadhu and his eerie prediction. Instead, we get a first half that’s almost entirely disposable, filled with lightness and romance, between a brown-skinned boy and a fair-complexioned girl. (Hansika Motwani does the duties. And as per the recent mandate that requires heroines of these mass-hero movies to have classical-sounding names – remember Koperundevi in Veeram? – she’s called Yazhini.) The love affair begins with a dreadful meet-cute, involving ice cream and an undone shoelace, and when the relationship progresses to something meaningful, she gifts him a crotch guard and a boxing robe with the inscription “My Peter.” Clearly, she’s unversed in American slang.
And we get a number of songs, which show just how big Sivakarthikeyan has become. Forget the script. He now has a proper stylist. He’s outfitted in scarves and tees with asymmetrical necks and, coolest of all, lungis held in place with two belts. He even gets to wear yellow sneakers in the inevitable sarakku song – of course, there’s a sarakku song; this is, after all, a “family entertainer” – that goes Open the TASMAC. In the middle of all this showboating, we are reminded, occasionally, that there’s a story. We get a bit of boxing. We even get the meaning of the title, which, instead of being presented as a highlight, a grand revelation, is casually tossed off by a random viewer of one of the fights. I suppose that’s alright. This isn’t about “Maan Karate” or even about boxing. It’s about the cult of the star.
And as is the case with these movies, some two hours go by during which nothing seems to be at stake. And then we get the last half-hour, soaked in melodramatic sentiment, where everything seems to be at stake. The coach was just a mute figure in the background. Suddenly he’s called in to deliver a rousing speech. Did Peter have any relations? We try to remember, as someone who looks like a father wishes him luck for the final match. And we try to pretend that we’re invested in Peter’s fate in that match, though his victory is a given.
There’s a decent Punnagai Mannan spoof. There’s a nice stretch where Peter mimics Tamil-film actors. These scenes remind us of the boy next door, who’s, of course, moved on in life – he can now afford a villa on Boat Club Road. We need to find a replacement soon.
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