Ahmed’s Manithan is a remake of the Hindi hit Jolly LLB, and the surprise is that it Tamil-ises the original without hero-ising it. Udhayanidhi Stalin, who plays small-time lawyer Sakthi, isn’t out to get us with his gethu. Sakthi is a failure in every sense – and he knows it. He laughs along when others make fun of him. (“Naan oru mokka piece,” he shrugs.) There are hints that a macho transformation lies ahead – a Bruce Lee poster on the wall bellows “Unnaal mudiyum,” and the song Mun sellada is anthemic enough to play over that stretch of a Rajinikanth movie in which he rises from his ashes over the course of a song sequence. But where the traditional Tamil hero would vanquish evil by resorting to vigilante justice, Sakthi is bound by the law. He has to win without sending fifty goons flying.
The title of Manithan, of course, acknowledges an older Rajinikanth movie, but Naan Mahaan Alla may have been a better choice. Sakthi accepts a bribe – not because he is evil, but because he is human. He sees his job as a means of making money. How does he transform into someone who now sees what his job really means, that it has the power to address inequalities, deliver justice? How did this bumbling lawyer turn… less bumbling? Jolly LLB did not do a good job convincing us about these changes, and Manithan doesn’t either. And how does Sakthi take up a big case – revolving around a very rich brat who ran his Land Cruiser over people sleeping on the pavement – without doing some preliminary research and satisfying himself that he does have something (overlooked evidence, a missing witness) with which he can hope to win? These plot points come by casually, much later. In other words, Manithan isn’t about character. It’s purely about plot.
But even with the plot, so much more could have been done. The way the last-minute witness is found – in these films, there’s always a last-minute witness – could have used some dramatic tension. The fact that Priya (Hansika Motwani) stays with Sakthi in his bachelor pad could have given rise to some sexual tension. Aishwarya Rajesh is there too, as a journalist running around with a mike. She’d have made a more convincing Priya, but it’s a relief to report that Hansika displays some amount of restraint. I mean, the character doesn’t jump up squealing in court and plant a kiss on the judge. Baby steps, I guess. Radharavi plays the judge beautifully, like the world’s most patient headmaster forced to listen to two squabbling kids, which is how Sakthi and his opponent Adiseshan (Prakash Raj) come off. Yes, Prakash Raj plays a corrupt lawyer named after the king of snakes. The film is subtle like that.
Manithan generally hovers in the hmmm-not-all-that-bad-zone because it’s such a crowd-pleasing script. Just look at the contrasts. Penniless lawyer from Pollachi versus the richie-rich son of a North Indian business family. A rich lawyer (Adiseshan) who sneers at people “using the footpath as their bedroom” versus the poor who don’t even have a house, leave alone a bedroom. Corruption versus honesty. Greenhorn lawyer versus a lawyer who fights cases in the Supreme Court. (Prakash Raj is as hammy as ever, but this time it works. You want to sock that smug grin off his face.) Plus, the ever-reliable mechanics of the courtroom drama. (A witness turns hostile! A dead man is actually alive! Your honour! Your honour!) Udhayanidhi Stalin is nowhere the actor Arshad Warsi is, but even he’s charged up in court. He sells his big speech at the climax… somewhat.
Like Jolly LLB, Manithan’s end is bittersweet. Small lawyers may have their day in court and the bad guy may even end up behind bars, but there’s always an appeal, and it’s just a question of finding a judge who can be convinced to sell out. But you know who hasn’t sold out? Santhosh Narayanan. I wondered if he’d continue (or be allowed to continue) with his kind of music – quirky, layered, unexpected tune detours, the oddest bits of orchestration that somehow end up sounding just right – for his first big film. But the soundtrack is the best thing about Manithan, along with the bit of background score that uses just one word (adho) like an ethereal echo. The music isn’t hero-ised either.
- Jolly LLB = see here
- gethu = see here
- Naan oru mokka piece = I’m a failure.
- Unnaal mudiyum = You can do it.
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