Yuvaraj Dhayalan’s Tenaliraman isn’t about the real Tenaliraman, that wise jester of Krishnadevaraya’s court, but it opens with a classic Tenaliraman episode. (The character is played by Vadivelu, who also portrays the king of the realm, a man with 36 wives, 52 children, and a Salvador Dalí moustache.) Tenaliraman is guarding a temple when thieves pounce on him. He tells them that there’s treasure buried in a nearby well that’s run dry. They jump in and begin to dig, and after a while they hit water, which the locals direly need. This is the Tenaliraman we know from the folk tales and the Amar Chitra Katha comics, the fool who’s really not a fool but a wily tactician who gets his way by pretending to be a fool. Later, one of the king’s navaratnas – nine ministers – dies and Tenaliraman auditions for the post, answering such unanswerable questions as which came first, the chicken or the egg. The smiles come easily. We think this is going to be that kind of film, one that tweaks the antics of the legendary jester to suit Vadivelu’s wisecracking persona.
But soon, Tenaliraman turns into a more contemporary satire. The king is essentially a representation of our ivory-tower government, with its pro-rich schemes. The ministers are corrupt. Bribery is rampant. Wrongheaded economic policies, like the facilitation of foreign direct investment, have driven citizens to the streets. No one is happy. And Tenaliraman, who calls himself thozhan – “comrade” – goes about setting things right.
It’s always dangerous when a comedian turns sanctimonious. In his heyday, Vivek wove in a lot of messagey material into his routines, but these were little bits strewn throughout the films. When these bits become the movie, it’s not as funny. The director, to his credit, wants to keep things relatively sober. In other words, there’s none of that zany Irumbukkottai Murattu Singam shtick, save for a menu listing that announces Poonai Mandai Kuzhambu. But Tenaliraman is too long and too one-note a conception, and it becomes tiring after a while.
The romance (with the king’s daughter, played by Meenakshi Dixit) is redundant – though film historians may want to acknowledge the song where the princess inhales a magic potion and barges into Tenaliraman’s bedroom. Not since Lalitha played the Naga queen in Kanavane Kankanda Deivam has someone hiccupped her way through a seduction number. But Tenaliraman is after another kind of cinematic history, having positioned itself as the film that marks the return of Vadivelu. The actor’s timing is intact. He has a terrific scene where he spouts gibberish, unable to put together words to describe his plight. But one cannot dismiss the feeling, again, that this may have worked better as a bit.
* Tenaliraman = the Birbal-equivalent of Krishnadevaraya’s court
* a Salvador Dalí moustache = see here
* the chicken or the egg = see here
* messagey Vivek comedy = see here
* Irumbukkottai Murattu Singam = see here
* Poonai Mandai Kuzhambu = Cat’s Head Stew
* Kanavane Kankanda Deivam = see here
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