Massu Engira Masilamani comes with the tagline ‘A Venkat Prabhu Sixer.’ If this is a reference to Massu being the director’s sixth film, then fine. But if it’s a clearing-the-boundary cry, then sorry, there are a hundred fielders out there, palms cupped, looking at the sky. The only sixer in Venkat Prabhu’s career is his first film, the superb Chennai 600028. It was formally structured and scripted, and so moving and funny that it appeared a new voice had emerged. But then we got Saroja and Goa, not bad films as such, but so loose and scattershot that you wondered why someone who made Chennai 600028 would bother with this kind of B-level material. These days, though, I ask myself: “How did he make Chennai 600028 in the first place?”
But I have to give Venkat Prabhu this much: he is a great ideas man. The idea behind the supernaturally themed Massu is terrific, even it feels like a mashup of many spirit-driven films. (Ghost, The Sixth Sense, even Pisaasu – they all take turns possessing this screenplay.) And Venkat Prabhu keeps coming up with googlies. I loved the twist involving Jet (Premgi Amaren). But I loved it as an idea. This idea needs work. It needs to be shepherded from the inside of his head to the screen. But that’s the thing with Venkat Prabhu’s films these days. They’re all ideas and no follow-through. He’s like a batsman who knows exactly what kind of shot he should be playing, but remains happy with that knowledge. Who cares if he actually plays that shot?
Why are Tamil directors so content with concept-level filmmaking? It’s as if the mere idea were enough. Very few seek to lift that idea off the page, shape it with a great technical team and create a work of vision. Yes, I said vision. Massu could have been a visionary “mass” movie.. You have to watch the scene that references Engeyum Eppodhum. It’s a madly inventive bit, and it made me imagine what it would be like if characters from a particular film kept drifting into other films, like ghosts. The hero-introduction song also made me sit up. I didn’t care for the music (Yuvan Shankar Raja), but the staging is reminiscent of Raakkamma in Thalapathy, with the rowdy hero setting eyes on the heroine in a religious setting. But the heroine, Malini (Nayanthara), is essentially the twelfth man. There’s a line in the film that I kept wanting to use: “Edhukku ivvalavu periya scene potte?”
The initial portions are quite ghastly. The editing is frantic. It’s as if the editor guessed that we’d grow impatient with the extremely generic nature of the goings-on and knew that we’d end up fast-forwarding these scenes on the DVD anyway, so he decided to save us the trouble with an editing pattern that resembles fast-forwarding. Scenes whiz by. If you’d asked me, early on, what was happening, I’d have said… Mass (Suriya, playing, well, Suriya) is a conman. He loves Malini. There are some vague bad men. There’s an attempt at a joke about the composer SA Rajkumar. There’s another attempt at a joke when an overweight woman is referred to as Kung Fu Panda. A commissioner is killed by someone… But who and why? All that will have to wait. Right now, the film is just warming up.
But when the supernatural element kicks in, there’s finally something to hold on to. These scenes are still badly staged (someone actually does a thumbs-up to indicate they’re okay with a suggestion), and the tone is all over the place – but at least there’s a sense of going somewhere. Of course, it helps if you stop thinking about things like writing and execution. When watching an innings from Scotland, you have to be happy with the occasional single.
It’s only in the last hour or so that Massu begins to score. Venkat Prabhu may like to think he’s a prankster, but his film works best when he hunkers down to deliver hardcore drama, with a paranormal twist on Aboorva Sagotharargal. (Suriya plays a second role as well.) It’s a pity that the screenplay has spent so much time fooling around instead of imbuing the characters with depth and dimension, because this stretch could have really been something had we been emotionally involved with their plight. But maybe there are too many characters to begin caring about. The cast includes Karunas, Rajendran, Sriman, Riyaz Khan, Samuthirakani and Parthiban, all of them underutilised. And Brahmanandam plays a small role so Telugu viewers can find comfort in a familiar face.
Like a benevolent Santa, the overlong Massu tries to have something for every segment of the audience. Kids are going to love the scene where Mass smiles at a schoolchild after signing a report card filled with zeroes. International audiences will love the bit where someone, after listening to the Sri Lankan lilt in the second Suriya’s Tamil, asks, “Ceylon-aa?” and Suriya shakes his head and says, “Thamizhan.” The weak-bladdered will heartily embrace the unimaginative and drawn-out action sequences. (The songs, too, in the theatre I was in.) As for fun-loving family audiences, what do I pick? The scenes of drinking at a TASMAC bar? The beeped-out F-word? The stretch where a mother and her little girl are burnt alive? The film’s U-certificate may be its spookiest accomplishment.
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