After the first thirty minutes, I was ready to give up on 144, directed by G Manikandan and produced by CV Kumar, who’s quickly become Tamil cinema’s answer to the venture capitalist funding small-time techies with big ideas. To the directors of his films, cinema means more than just the opportunity to direct Singam 23. (Not that they’d refuse the opportunity to make Singam 23 if it came their way – just that they seem to realise the story, not the star, comes first.) Here too, we have a screwball set-up no big star would touch – something involving feuding villages, a cache of gold biscuits, a Ganesha statue made of glass, and some inspiration from Sujatha’s story Vasanthakala Kuttrangal. But the initial scenes are a rhythmless mess. Instead of plot and character development, we get quirks, more quirks, even more quirks.
Manikandan badly wants us to accept him as “hip” and “new-age” and whatever else we call the makers of CV Kumar’s productions – he fractures the narrative to an extent that leaves it in a shambles. The thinking in these portions is along these lines. “Let’s show the audience how cool we are. Let’s have a village big shot watching The Gold Rush, in a theatre (never mind how improbable it is that a cinema hall in Tamil Nadu is going to be screening Charlie Chaplin classics), and after the scene where Chaplin turns into a chicken, let’s superimpose a chicken’s head on the big shot.” A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, but this is what we get, scene after exhausting scene.
But slowly, the film began to draw me in. I began to tune into its vibe. I began to laugh. Once we get why certain things happened – why the girl with the key on her necklace was kidnapped, why the women step out of their homes and act as if possessed – 144 really takes off. The writing isn’t entirely of a piece, but the laughs keep coming as if on an assembly line. I cracked up every time a gangster named ‘Feelings’ Ravi (Udhayabhanu Maheswaran) was addressed as ‘Feelings’. I loved his absurd methods of torture. I loved that he kept a doctor alongside all the time, to keep measuring his BP after losing his cool.
I loved that various characters kept stuffing pori urundai into their mouths, even though I didn’t understand why. (It’s very hard to explain why this is funny.) I loved the couple that played cards way past midnight. I loved the bemused cop who kept saying “kandippa.” (It’s as hilarious as ‘Feelings’.) I liked the curly-haired crook who starts sculpting a statue of an accomplice (Oviya), and then starts to paint her likeness. Just because. I loved Desu’s (Shiva) efforts to ensure that this sculptor-painter doesn’t keep high-fiving his girlfriend. The plot has to do with Desu and Madan (Ashok Selvan) pulling off a heist that involves crawling into a rodent’s bottom, and just thinking about the little bits now is making me smile. I suspect this is one of those films that will reward repeat viewings.
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