I had the pleasure of driving 'Crazy' Mohan, 'Maadhu' Balaji and their troupe member Vasu back from a staging of “Chocolate Krishna” during their visit to the US in 2012. In this play, as fans know, he played the titular role of Lord Krishna. En route home, he glanced at the GPS in my car, turned to his brother and said, “GPS na God Positioning System. HE will guide us in the right direction as long as we follow him unquestioningly!” That moment was so symptomatic of the man. He could conjure a pun out of nowhere. He could create a joke out of nothing. In another instance, we were driving through AVM Studios at a time when the AVM family was going through a partitioning of familial assets. Looking at a huge wall erected in the middle of the studio, he quipped, “Chettiar kattina studio la paaru. Great Wall of China maadhiri idhu Great Wall of Naina!” But to those that knew him well, he was a lot deeper than the hilarity suggested. The moniker of ‘crazy’ fit his screen persona well. It even fit his happy-go-lucky real-life personality. But he was deeper than that. A lot deeper.
Hilarity – that was the gift that God bestowed on him.
Loyalty - that was the gift he bestowed on his family and friends.
Artistry – that came so naturally to him that you almost got the feeling that his paintings painted themselves. (Balaji once joked on Koffee with Anu, “Chinna vayasula avan paint adichathuku aprama naanga sevutha paint adikanum!”)
Poetry - that is where his deep piety shone like a newly polished diamond. One of his most masterful poems was the following:
Paiyyan Mannai Thindraal Veiyyathe…
Vaiyyam Theriyaavitaal aiyyame illai…
Nee Yashodhai Alla…
That last line is gorgeously understated and loaded at once. Every child being akin to God has never been more profoundly expressed. Over the past decade or so, he decreased his output for theater and cinema. But he had elevated himself to another plane – his poetry, which often dwelled on spirituality, became his forte. In his style, we could say, “Munaadi Drama, Ippo RAma!”
One of his best speeches:
One of his best speeches:
In my interactions with him, he has always emanated the kind of sweetness and warm vibes that mark the best of his plays. I have seen him enjoy the simple pleasures of life like the spontaneous hug of a child or a well-prepared cup of coffee. His needs were as basic as his thinking was advanced. His demeanor was as simple as his mistaken-identity screenplays were complex. His ego was as miniscule as the monuments of his talents were huge. Alas, the span of his life was as short as his character stands tall. But in this hour of grief, it behooves us to reflect, internalize and spread the joy that he gave us.
Joy he gave us aplenty. For a kid born in Chennai in the early 80s, audio cassettes of his plays were a constant fixture in the house. I vividly remember my Aunt and I listening to “Return of Crazy Thieves” and rewinding the tape to the immortal “B.A. Paashandi” line numerous times till the tape wore out! On stage, I remember marveling at the ingenious structures of his play where the plot unraveled in hilariously unpredictable ways. People wax eloquent about his dialogues but if you think deeper about his plays, the plots were deliciously convoluted sans any confusion. The eye doctor clinic sequence in “Madhil mel maadhu” is a case in point. What is absolutely magical is that the entire sequence plays out so well even on just audio even though there is plenty happening in the scene with multiple characters entering and exiting the scene. He had complete command over the medium which is why it rankles me when people dismiss humorous plays as ‘thunuku thoranam’ (string of jokes). His was a fertile mind that combined intricate plotting with inimitably witty dialogue and it behooves discerning critics to give credit where it is due.
His writing for movies peaked with his collaborations with Kamal Haasan. If you think about it, Kamal’s films up until “Aboorva SahodharargaL” (his first collaboration with Mohan, in 1989) never had the kind of zaniness that we were going to witness in the next 15 years up until 2004 with “Vasool Raja” which was the last of their credited combinations. (Mohan was heavily involved in the scripting of subsequent efforts like “Dasavatharam.”) Kamal understood the breadth and depth of Mohan’s talents and contributed handsomely as an actor and screenplay writer. Their synergy was the stuff of legends. And in “Michael Madana Kamarajan,” “Avvai Shanmugi” “Sathi Leelavathi” and other comic classics, we have to reflect on how even if the creator dies, the imprints left by the ink of his pen never dries.
But to me, Mohan gained true immortality with not any of his Kamal collaborations but with “Aaha,” which, to me, was his best work as a screen writer. Some of his collaborations with Kamal Hassan have probably resulted in even bigger laughs. But "Aaha" remains very special. I think I know why. The other movies made me laugh, yes. But “Aaha” is the movie that makes me smile. It is not a nuance; there is a world of difference. This movie was sweet but not syrupy. Every smile is well-earned. Every tear is worth shedding. And the dialogues play no small part in this respect, especially Banupriya’s interactions with Rajiv Krishna. Even the advice-laden lines like the cute scene in the supermarket are laced with Mohan’s witty lines. And beyond the smiles, there are, of course, some big laughs in “Aaha.” Famous for his imaginative, witty puns, Mohan’s writing is in top gear here. Be it the “pul tharai…puliyotharai” comment, the “bar attached, nee detached” remark or the hilarious “thayir vadai” joke, the laughs are fast and frenetic. But the biggest laughs come in…of all scenes, a death scene. The exchange that the Thatha has with Delhi Ganesh has so many laughs that the ink in Mohan’s pen probably had a tough time keeping pace with his flow of thoughts! It is deeply saddening to think that the writer who made us laugh in a death scene is now making us shed tears with his own final journey.
Highlights from the highlight of his film career - "Aaha"
Of all the scenes that featured in his movies, the one scene that I wish were to be replicated in life would be the last scene of “Aaha” where the eldest brother, thought to have passed away, appears in the house much to the shock and joy of his family members. Of course, that’s wishful thinking. But it is certainly something that reminds us of the imperfections of life and the gratifications of art. It also reminds us of how the God Positioning System takes us in paths that we find hard not to question. But with HIS untimely demise, all we can do is to treat him as the one whose values we espouse, to chalk out our own path. And that GPS will never, ever fail to guide us in the right direction.