In the scene that opens Manjapai, directed by N Ragavan, an elderly villager (Raj Kiran) writes out “amma” and “appa” on a writing slate and asks his grandson to read the words out loud. The boy says “thatha.” The heart-warming (or bile-inducing, depending on your constitution) song that follows lets us know that the boy wasn’t dyslexic – his parents are no more, and his grandfather, really, is his all. We then cut to Chennai, many years later, when the boy – Thamizh (Vemal, sleepwalking through the part) – is employed as a software engineer. He dreams of going to the US, and he invites his thatha to stay with him till he leaves. And we’re strapped squarely into a time machine whose dial is set to the 1980s. Or the 1960s. Or maybe even earlier, to the time cinema was a single-celled organism crawling out of primordial ooze. The film is that primitive.
Like villagers do in the movies, thatha bathes in the fountain outside Thamizh’s apartment complex. (Serious question: Do all rustic men wear those striped, baggy underwear? I mean, isn’t there a single man who, girded with the spirit of adventure, tries on a pair of tighty whiteys?) He meddles in the affairs of neighbours, who, inevitably, come in units of nuclear families lacking wisdom-spouting elders. He slaps an eve-teasing creep, and then slaps the girl’s father for allowing her to wear clothes that invite eve-teasing. He thinks a Mac is a sandwich maker, and – in a scene sure to make Apple consumers close their eyes and cower under their seats – tries to toast a chickpea sandwich on the keyboard. Better yet, he turns purple with rage upon seeing the American flag at the US embassy. When Gandhi and Nehru have fought so hard to grant us our freedom, how can anyone tolerate the fluttering of this “white man’s flag”? The question isn’t mine. It’s thatha’s.
We’ve heard of movies that push the audience’s buttons. Manjapai grabs a live wire and gooses the audience’s behind – so desperate is it to evoke a reaction that it even has a little girl munching on rat poison. And wait till you see the end. There is a love interest somewhere (poor Lakshmi Menon), but the film is all about thatha and his quest to make human beings out of the monsters that inhabit a big city. How do these films get made? Is it under the assumption that there is a large (and undemanding) audience in the smaller centres that craves simplistic, sentimental fare? No one can deny a filmmaker the right to make money, but when money is apparently all that the filmmaker cares about, when the craft is so non-existent, we have to wonder why he chooses to make movies. Why not get into the business of manufacturing, say, striped, baggy underwear? (There’s clearly a huge rural market for it.) Why venture into art?
* Manjapai = yellow bag
* thatha = grandfather
* Lakshmi Menon = see here
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