The politics genre in Tamil cinema boasts of some true gems amidst a slew of wannabes. I have lost count of the number of films that take cheap shots of contemporary issues without wit, depth or meaning. To do satire well, you have to have a grasp of the source material that extends beyond mere surface-level detail. Manivannan was a master at this. He was a well-read, societally conscious filmmaker who, at his best, carried a pen that was much sharper than the Hattori Hanzo sword in Kill Bill! There is a reason why his Amaidhi Padai is still hailed as the best political film in Tamil cinema. For instance, he understood the futility of caste-based violence so well that he skewered it mercilessly in the film. Not far behind is his erstwhile assistant RK Selvamani. It pains me to note that there is not much literature (even online) on his 1995 film Makkal Aatchi, which I reckon, is the best film of Selvamani’s checkered career.
Makkal Aatchi is the story of a petty thief (Mammootty) who, through a mix of a huge slice of luck and dollops of street-smart intelligence of his confidante and advisor (R. Sundararajan), becomes the chief minister of the state. He is a bumbling crook who can’t believe his luck, not a cunning politician covetous of power. Roja plays his love interest. Mammootty steps into the parlous world of politics without quite knowing what’s in store with his fellow politicians. Anandaraj, Radharavi, Livingston and Mansoor Ali Khan are all embodiments of realpolitik, not averse to double-crossing and shifting allegiance to suit their needs. All is fine and dandy for Mammootty as long as he is corrupt. But when he decides overnight to turn a new leaf – and the reason packs tremendous punch – his life becomes miserable. (The twist around his wife is also superbly written. It blindsides us but is convincing nevertheless.)
What sets Makkal Aatchi apart from many other political films are the many subtexts that Selvamani and his writers embed into the film. Small time crooks and rowdies are jailed, yet scores of blatantly corrupt politicians get away with murder (literally so). Big money and dirty politics get intertwined so much that to escape from that stifling net becomes an impossibility once you are caught in it – to hell with noble intentions! A woman’s infidelity and a man’s lust setting a series of heinous activities in motion speaks volumes to the base instincts that shake the core foundations of humans. A man’s drinking habit, which on the surface seems an acceptable foible, ends up assuming gargantuan proportions. It is a testament to the intelligence of the story author (P Kalaimani), the felicity of the dialogue writer (Liyakath Ali Khan) and the vision of the director that all these themes are part of a cogent plot, not a series of disparate elements.
A word about the written word. Liyakath Ali Khan’s pen must have the same ink as that of Manivannan’s! The dialogues are spectacular. This is a talky film. But you never get overwhelmed by the verbosity because the zingers keep coming at a fast clip. The Anandaraj-Radha Ravi confrontation is especially memorable. The way Anandaraj threatens Livingston (“Nee paadai-la yeranuma illa maedai-la yeranuma nu mudivu panniko!”) and the manner in which the latter kowtows to him are as scary as they are sharply delivered. But the dialogues sparkle the brightest in the sequence where Mammootty decides to mend his ways. The genuineness of emotion displayed by the actor is supported in no small measure by the potency of the lines he delivers. The traffic signal comment hits a raw nerve, especially because so many of us have lived through it.
Selvamani also gets the casting just right. Every actor in this film inhabits their part with much assurance. Mammootty is charmingly casual in the first half and delivers a knockout performance in the aforementioned reformation scene. Roja lights up the screen not just with her dancing in the irresistible “Melooru Maman” song but also in the late-night scene where she makes dinner for Mammootty. He is the man of her life, whom she hastily got married to the wrong person for what she thought was the right reason. It is not only a deeply poignant scene but one that has complex emotions associated with it. (I wish Selvamani had dwelled a little more on this fascinating relationship.) Among the antagonists, Anandaraj walks away with the acting honors. He makes a menacing presence and displays controlled aggression throughout.
Selvamani’s films boasted of superlative technical values and here too, his sense of grandeur is seen throughout the film. MV Panneerselvam is a sadly underrated cinematographer who has done some fine work in films like this one and R Parthiban’s Housefull. The tracking shots and the top-angle shot (from the tree) make even a slum look appealing in the “Melooru Maaman” song. The shots in the climax where the camera follows a raging crowd from the sidelines are brilliantly executed. Ilayaraja’s background score is magnificent in places. My favorite piece is the one that marks the end of the titles (6:52-min point in the video above). The beats of the percussion instruments are epic in nature but the score ends with a violin piece that evokes the eventual sad fate of the well-meaning protagonist. It takes a music director of his stature to come up with such a short piece that is in line with the arc of the lead character.
Makkal Aatchi was received well commercially and critically upon its release. But the film and its politics, which are (sadly) relevant even today, deserves more recognition and shelf life. Despite being Manivannan’s assistant, Selvamani branched out to be very much an original filmmaker. With Makkal Aatchi, he created what deserves to be regarded as a well-deserving companion piece to his guru’s finest film in the same genre. The two great minds executed differently but certainly thought alike!