Readers Write In #239: Six great movies of Goundamani

Posted on August 7, 2020


(by G Waugh)

I have a fair amount of cinema-viewing experience that spans different countries and different time-periods. But the ‘masala’ genre similar to Kolams, the numeral Zero, sarees, Basmati Rice and ‘female modesty’ is a pure Indian invention. But the South has something more to its credit. It is the only cinema industry in the world that has mastered the art of having something called ‘separate comedy tracks’ in its films. These comedy tracks most of the time have nothing to do with the main story line and I am sure foreign film critics and audiences would find this practice annoying and confusing. But that is not our problem. Masala movies are made for Indians to consume and they are very much part of our culture and hence there is no reason to renounce them.

Though the history of the masala genre can be traced easily to the Amitabh- MGR-NTR era, the history of comedy tracks is not so easily traceable. Nagesh, I remember had a separate comedy track in MGR blockbusters but the practice was not, if I am not wrong institutionalized until after the arrival of the hero of this essay, Goundamani. The dark, bald man with a loud voice emerged in the early 1980s as a professional comedian and even film-makers like Mani Ratnam were forced to make use of him in their early films. When Senthil joined him later, even if the overall quality of Tamil Cinema was going down post the exit of Balachandar and BaluMahendra from the scene, there was one major improvement in our mainstream films. Comedy, under the reign of the supreme Goundamani and Senthil improved leaps and bounds smashing all restrictions of boring political correctness and traditional conventions of decency.

The reason why I choose to talk about Gounderhere is manifold. I haven’t seen any other comedian who has such a sense of wry humour, his sense of satire is other-worldly as a result of which even the biggest stars of Tamil cinema like Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan allowed a great deal of screen-space in their otherwise hero-centric films. I will start with one example in Singaravelan to prove how singular Gounder and his sense of satire are.

Kamal Haasan – ‘Idhu Mano veeduthaana?’

Gounder – ‘Idhapaatha Mano thottammaaritheriudhaa?Sevuru, JannallaamvechirunthaVeeduthaananga!’

I still cannot get out of my mind how one can respond with so much acidic wit to a very innocent question such as this. Gounder, just like how Virendar Sehwag tore batting manuals by hitting difficult and dangerous deliveries to sixes and fours over the heads of fielders, broke anything that stood in the way of his humour. As a result, he was criticized for having introduced a cheap brand of humor into Tamil Cinema which only worsened with the entry of Santhanam and Yogi Babu in the later decades. But the quality of his humour is not for me to discuss. I am his fan, the biggest fan of Gounder in the whole of Tamilnadu and his humour is like sunshine to me – ‘You don’t analyse sunlit perfection, you just bask in the glory of it’.

Following is a carefully curated list of six movies (in no meaningful order) where Gounder was at his peak and occupied almost the whole of their running-time even if they weren’t comedy films in the conventional sense of the word.  My purpose of this list is to remind the reader of Gounder’s glory which shall remain insufficiently appreciated even if subsequent generations coronate him from time to time in the kingdom of memes and political trolling.

UdhayaGeetham (1985)

This was one of the many blockbusters that ruled the roost in the late 1980s starring ‘Mike’ Mohan in the lead with music by Ilayaraja. My father used to say that these films, most of which were produced by a now-defunct Motherland Pictures Company were a great sensation among youth of his generation not only for Ilayaraja’s music, Mohan’s sweetly dubbed voice rendered by SN Surendar but most importantly – for comedy scenes performed by an upcoming duo made up of a faceless nobody called Goundamaniand an ‘ugly fatso’ named Senthil.

The comedy track in this film runs for more than an hour filling almost fifty percent of the film’s entire run-time. An uneducated youngster played by Gounder is often chided by his father played by KallapattiSingaram for not having a purpose in life. The youngster decides to reform and soon becomes a Swamiji with dedicated donation boxes planted alongside tree trunks spread all over the city. Gounder’s transformation from a penurious youngster to a rich, influential Godman is beautifully portrayed through a terrific montage set to a stylish trumpet riff. He soon gets caught by the police and meets another petty criminal Senthil in prison. Senthil procures Gounder’s address during his stint in prison and soon gets released. The very next day, a KallapattiSingaramcovered onlyby a towel at his waist arrives at the prison to meet his son. Singaram reveals that a young stranger came to the house a few days ago and wiped all their possessions away leaving only his towel, because it was wet at that time.

I am sure Tamil cinema fans wouldn’t have forgotten the Thenga-la Bomb (Bomb in a Coconut) stretch in this film which eerily reminds us of today’s fake news sensations like ‘plastic rice’ hoax spreadingrapidly across a rumour-hungry social media. But my favourite bit arrives when Senthil and Gounder are engaged in mutual introductions in the prison.

Senthil- ‘Anne, yenneKovilladeepamkaatumbodhumaniadikraanga?’

Gounder- ‘Dei Kovil la Deepamkattumbodhu, chinna thee, chinnamaniadikranga, adhuveveedupaththierinja Fire Engine varum. Adhuperia Thee, periya Mani adipaanga’

If you may have noticed, this type of ‘philosophical’ conversations will go on to pepper most of the comedy tracks played by Gounder- Senthil Duo in the future in blockbusters such as ChinnaKoundar and other films starring Prabhu.

Mahaprabhu (1994)

This could be the most unique among Goundamani-Senthil combos in the sense that there is so much to do for the usually second-fiddling Senthil here. He is at his peak to pass off as an uber-cool, ultra-modern city freak even if he is a seller of black tickets outside cinema halls. Right from the start, he is shown to escape in a Maruti Omni with mysterious men whenever he gets caught red-handed by Gounder. But as the track progresses, he grows in defiance and threatens Gounder with a gun in one terrific ‘love-service’ scene. He reads magazines like the Cosmopolitan and the latest English newspapers whenever he gets time and often taunts Gounder for his ‘lack of culture’. He even gives fitness lessons to local girls including the heroine but only towards the end, when he applies for a day’s leave for personal reasons to the owner of the mechanic shop, his full personality gets ready to be unleashed. He resigns his job and vanishes for a while. He re-emerges soon to everyone’s surprise and shock, as a full-blooded ‘terrorist’ well-trained in commando operations. He reveals that those mysterious men who rescued him all these days in that Maruti Omni were actually militant terrorists. If you are a fan of absurd situations, it is better to watch these comedy scenes on YouTube ratherthan reading Kafka, Camus and Sartre.

Ullathai Allitha (1996)

Whenever people gather lists for the best comedy films in Tamil Cinema, I have always been surprised at movies written by Crazy Mohan and Kamal Haasan taking the top slot. I know art is subjective and one’s preferences need not resonate with others. But to forget the brilliance of UllathaiAllitha, in my opinion when recounting the funniest films in Tamil Cinema is an unforgivable sin. It is like leaving out Sachin Tendulkar when you are listing the top ten ODI cricketers of all time. I see this film atleast once in every two years and not on one occasion I had felt an impulse to fast-forward the film at any moment. The best thing about Sundar C’s work is that he makes a caricature out of every single character in his movies and seeing here a stentorian Jai Ganesh and the villain Kazan Khan turning into buffoons towards the end of the film was unforgettable. Gounder’s introduction as a Ticket Collector, his elevation from a petty thief to the heir apparent to Manivannan’s property, his frequent digs at Manivannan’s persona(which he does efficiently in every film) are all gold. People still remember the Gounder-Senthil Kidnap conversation which for the first time trolled the usually serious kidnap sequences beating the likes of SoodhuKavvum by more than a couple of decades. But when you look at the rest of the film, there is much more. UllathaiAllitha is a veritable orchard of multi-hued comedy with Gounder serving as the unshakeable and ever-reliable Banyan in the middle.

MaamanMagal (1995)

This is the most famous among Satyaraj-Gounder-Manivannan films that ruled B and C centres in the 90s. Gounder was the first comedian in Tamil Cinema to reach a position equaling the hero and stories were usually written for him or around him in Satyaraj and Karthik comedy-romances. This pattern was later inherited by Santhanam in the early 2010s when he was cast alongside Udhayanidhi Stalin or Shiva or Arya.

MaamanMagal looks a very dumb film if you imagine someone other than Gounder playing Satyaraj’sfavourite ‘Maams’. Whenever Manivannan appears on the scene, you see Gounder gaining double the energy he usually has, as a result of which you totally forget the film’s overall silliness.

When Manivannan rants about the cruelties he endured at the hands of his wife, Gounder gives him a very sympathetic ear. There is an unforgettable moment where Mani says he was treated lesser than his wife’s pet dog and that he was often fed only raw rice with no ‘kuzhambu’. Mani continues to reveal that that it has been more than two decades since he ‘touched’ his wife. Gounder is shocked at the knowledge and he orders the servant to give him an additional round of arrack-filled coconuts.

But later when Mani manages to get his daughter married to Satyaraj, the very next day of the wedding look at how Mani sways to the tunes of ‘KabhieKabhie’ in front of Gounder, drying himself in a bath-towel. Gounder discovers that Mani has atlast managed to cross the ‘final frontier’ after two decades duringthe very night when the newly-married couple were consummating their love in another room. Gounder is completely disgusted at the revelation and I request all of you to kindly tune in to YouTube to examine how he responds to Mani who literally is on ‘cloud-nine’ after touching his wife for the first time in ‘kaalnootraandu’.

Thai Maaman (1994)

This is a film that is on Raj TV as a result of which most of us wouldn’t have had a chance to see this film. Please watch this film which is very much a political satire in its first-half with an in-form Gounder and a ruthlessManivannan taking digs at Tamilnadu politics. The best scene is when Satyaraj goes to file his nomination for the by-polls where Manivannansuddenly decides to announce his intention to quit politics. I am sure you will not forget Gounder’s response in this scene if you revisit it on YouTube. But the fun doesn’t end there. It continues and builds gloriously till the momentSatyaraj wins the by-election putting his maternal uncle to shame.

It appears that Gounder was allowed to operate on his own by the director throughout this film, regardless of the tone and direction of the scene in question. But he doesn’t spoil the film one bit. Gounder is at his best only when he is left alone, like the scene where he tries to describe the new MLA candidate Satyarajto the assembled crowd in the curious lingo of street-performers.

There is also a very effective scene towards the end where a serious Gounder slams the indifferent yet whimsical attitude of voters who have assembled to collect relief from the now-reformed MLA Satyaraj whom they bashed ruthlessly only a day before. There is a companion scene to this in V Sekar’sVaravuEttanaSelavuPatthana where Gounder as AnjaaSingam mocks voter ignorance and their fetish for freebies and hand-outs from politicians in a political gathering. At a time when giving indirect references to real-time politics is treated as treason or heresy by today’s administrators, old films like these, starring Gounder and Manivannan which took direct digs at and satirized regional politics look too daring yet powerfully funny.

Naatamai (1994)

A recounting of Gounder-Senthil duos is never complete without a reference to the KS Ravikumar –directed blockbuster Naatamai. For almost all of their careers, Gounder and Senthil have played only the roles of the comedian and his sidekick respectively. But Naatamai broke this divine rule to reap unforeseen success.

Senthil plays a single-parent to Gounder here who is always on the search for his missing mother. An ageing Senthil is still a Casanova in the village and his unmarried son Gounder is baying for his blood for all his atrocious attempts at womanizing. Senthil’s meeting with the village Teacher whom he woos with abandon is a total riot. And the scene where Gounder discovers that the teacher is in an illicit relationship with Pasupathi, the younger role played by Sarath Kumar and what follows is a golden ten-minute stretch of unadulterated comedy.

Gounder is slapped by Nattamai, the senior Sarath Kumar for talking ill of his brother. Gounder spins on his axis for a couple of seconds and gives an unforgettable retort-

“UngathambiPasupathi, thangamnga, thangamanathangamnga, Goldnga Diamond ga!”

After a pause, he adds-

“Mukyamaana matter laam yen phone la pesikraanga nu ippothaanpuridhu”

I am sure Alexander Graham Bell would not have foreseen such a dubious purpose when he was busy designing his invention.

But the separate comedy track only grows in effectiveness with time. Towards the end, a tired Gounder decides to find a suitable bride for himself and decides to break with his irresponsible father. When things reach a peak with a split in the family seeming inevitable, a long-forgotten member of the family enters the scene. It is Gounder’s mother whom he has been searching for decades together. But that is not the best part. It is played by none other Gounder himself and the veteran brings the house down in a two-minute cameo like nobody else.

When the famous ‘NattamaiTheerpaMaathiSollu’ line and the ceaseless Kovai dialect kept ringing in the ears of the audiences who left the theatres that day, me and my father were hearing some other sounds. They surely belonged to another language spoken millions of miles away from India. It sounded something close to these unintelligible words ‘MankistaKinkista, KinkistaPaayaasa!’