Cast: Arulnithi, John Vijay, Iniya, Uma Riyaz Khan
Director: Santha Kumar
It was a film I braved with a looming viral fever, simply because several people whose opinions mine tend to concur with had given me rave one-word reviews, mostly in the superlative. I knew Mounaguru was some kind of crime thriller. The start is intriguing, with Aghoris and Naga sadhus smoking up as a youngster walks about sullenly and silently. When he begins to talk, his voice carries that typical hot-headed college student petulance that makes a sudden transformation into maturity all the more potent.
But at some point, I began to wonder why most Tamil films do this – they start off well enough, keep you engaged, show promise of being ‘different’, by which, of course, we mean true-to-life; however, they feel compelled to bung in a ‘love angle’, film some song in South East Asia or wherever, and then make the movie trail off into an implausible end. The reason a film like Kaadhal works better for me than one like Mounaguru is that, for all the willing suspension of disbelief it called for at various points in its narrative, it conceded to reality in the end.
A film like Mounaguru comes up with explanations for almost everything – including how the lead character Karunakaran (Arulnithi) knows the sign language used by the deaf-mute – but flails towards the end. How does someone who’s spent most of his life turning over pages of textbooks and having fistfights fire a gun accurately, for instance? There are several twists and turns, and while they do keep you hooked, some of them distract by being too far-fetched.
Another issue that Tamil cinema often struggles with is character – we all act ‘out-of-character’ every now and then, but that itself is testimony to the fact that our individual natures have boundaries, outlines. Someone who’s moralistic may make exceptions when the right-thing-to-do could hurt someone close to him, but when he is caught out, how would he react? Or, let’s say you find out someone who matters to you has let you down, and you’re furious when you find out, and you go nuts, beat him up, and then help him cover up what he did; when someone else finds out what he did, do you go nuts again and beat him up again and then pour out a confession, or do you feel drained, give up, and confess? Unless you’re neurotic, the second scenario is far likelier, isn’t it? And if you’re neurotic, shouldn’t you have been shown that way?
As part of the audience, you wonder whether your intelligence is being insulted when a story builds up a certain way, and then turns to formula. Or, do people like it because it stretches their perceptions, but stops before breaking point? Or, do people forgive the disappointing end because the movie managed to keep their attention up until then?
Mounaguru is a laudable effort in that it’s hard to predict what comes next, a feature that any thriller must aspire to, but rarely achieves, especially in vernacular Indian cinema. To intersperse a thriller with a good bit of comedy of manners takes some doing too. I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s depiction of life in college, complete with the tricks the ‘hostelites’ play on the warden, the camaraderie between students and certain professors, and the boys’ propensity to call strikes. The actor who plays the mother of the protagonist dons her role with ease, grumbling away about her son in Madurai Tamil every time someone asks her how she’s doing. Uma Riyaz Khan makes her not-so-meaty role as cop Pazhaniammal count.
Which brings me to another thing I liked about the film – not everything in the movie necessarily ties in with what is about to happen in the story. If a woman is pregnant, that does not necessarily mean she goes into labour at a crucial juncture of the story, or has a miscarriage, or is blackmailed, or can’t chase the villains, or anything of the kind.
The story tells itself, and doesn’t require too much of the actors except to be the characters they play. Murugadoss of Aadukalam semi-fame executes this perfectly in his cameo as the inmate of a mental institution. Arulnithi has to remain the sulky young man, and to his credit, does not try to demonstrate the navrasa within the scope of the script. His love interest Aarthi (Iniya) has even less to do, though the moviemakers have done us the favour of not making her a ‘cute’ – read retarded – college girl. Among the antagonists, John Vijay as Marimuthu, and Madhu, Balakrishnan and Krishnamurthy as his underlings are believable in their roles, and make you forget quite often that they’re not actually a bunch of corrupt policemen.
Sadly, not all the actors playing small roles are content with limited expression. To the detriment of the movie, several of them make their faces unnecessarily mobile, as if this were a silent film. The movie itself seems to get carried away with this aspect, inducing headaches after a point with a series of flickering frames, with fades to black alternating with bright light.
For all that worked in the film, though, one leaves the movie hall with a sense of what it could have been if only its makers had been bold enough to see it through to a natural end. If it’s been called one of the best films of the year, that only makes a statement on the quality of cinema we’re satisfied with. Maybe we’ve learnt to use a separate set of parameters to judge Tamil cinema, as against Bollywood cinema, as against Hollywood. And it’s sad that these parameters should not only excuse a film which doesn’t fulfil its potential, but hail it for trying.
P.S.: No, I haven't figured out what that 'I'm not weird, I'm gifted' line is about; it ought to read 'I'm not weird, I'm just plain unlucky'.