Realistic fantasy. That was the title of my review of Shankar's Mudhalvan when I wrote it 20 years ago. His realistic fantasy trifecta of that decade – Gentleman, Indian and Mudhalvan – all sprouted from wishful thinking of some sort. Free education for all, corruption free society, a squeaky-clean government. But apart from the grandeur, what truly made the films work was Shankar’s eye for detailing. As his stories took fantastic flight, his screenplays grounded his characters. In Indian, what you remember is not Indian Thatha flying out of an exploding airplane and looking dapper in a suit in the next scene! What still makes the film work are elements like the superbly written investigation scenes, the inventiveness of and research behind the varma kalai and so on. This balance was achieved in superlative fashion in Mudhalvan. A story of a ‘one-day CM’ – a brilliant conceit in itself – was brought to life with some sizzling dialogue, a fast-paced but intricately detailed screenplay and memorable performances, especially by the antagonist.
I did enjoy parts of Anniyan, Sivaji and the first installment of Endhiran. But none of those film stack up to the painstaking believability that Shankar infused into this film. In comparison, these other films come across as lazily written. In Mudhalvan, Shankar sucked you into the story so powerfully that he didn’t, for a moment, seem like he was requiring us to suspend disbelief. Three extended sequences stand testimony to this – the riots, the interview scene and the one day for which Arjun assumes the post of Chief Minister.
The riots are sparked off by a seemingly innocuous but testy exchange between a bus driver and a student. The way it snowballs into a humongous law and order issue is shot with immense sure-footedness, utilizing a documentary-style, hand-held cinematography by KV Anand. The way the Chief Minister exercises his authority (“No arrest, no tear gas!”) is as believable as it is scary. Even the use of graphics to evoke the traffic jam is purposefully done as opposed to some of the laughable gimmickry that Shankar has indulged in his recent films. The ‘effects’, in essence, are in service of the story, not the other way.
The interview sequence, which runs for more than 10 minutes, was, is and will always be a showcase for the virtuoso villain Raghuvaran. This was during a phase of his career where he looked very healthy (and not the weak, gaunt self he was in his final film Yaaradi Nee Mohini). It added gloss to his persona, which was unmistakably majestic, something that served this movie very well indeed. The casual arrogance, the authority, the bit of fear when is caught red-handed, the subsequent throwing of the gauntlet, Raghuvaran nails them all. As much as the dialogue aids him, this entire sequence is a lesson in body language. The way he gets out of the car and nods to the policeman who opens the door, the dismissive way he asks, “Thambi paeru?”, the explanation of a Chief Minister's responsibilities, are all delivered with his trademark panache. Note the condescending, almost teacher-like gesticulation while he renders the thirukuraL couplet (“Agalaadhu anugaadhu…”). Compare this with the spineless characterizations and the inept performances of the antagonists in Shankar’s recent films and you will see the stark difference. They just don’t make them like Raghuvaran anymore.
The interview sequence:
And finally, the events of the one day that Arjun gets to be Chief Minister. As far fetched as some of his ideas are, script writer Sujatha’s considerable effort to include crisp, minute detail lends credibility to the grandiose ideas. The sales tax payments, the “Hello CM” TV show – after all, Arjun works for a TV Channel - and the “omnibus order” that Arjun suggests for the en masse job suspensions. All of this ensure that we watch the events unfold with a kind of edge-of-the-seat thrill that we would experience in a positive dream. In the present day of horrendous governance in the state, Mudhalvan seems fresh and relevant, which is sad in a way!
One-day CM in action:
The rocket-like pace of the first half of Mudhalvan meant that the second half had an impossible height to stack up to. And structurally too, the end of the first half was a climax in itself with the arrest of Raghuvaran. As a result, the second half suffers from having to almost restart a story where the one day’s dream becomes a reality. And it doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as the first half. There are very few moments when the intelligence of the director comes to the fore, the short and sweet conclusion of the movie being one. And the listless romance, one of Shankar’s enduring weaknesses, drags the film down further. But the momentum of the first 80 minutes leaves us with such a high that the significantly weaker latter portions don’t derail the movie totally. But the slower second half does seem akin to the gingerly movements of a lander as it nears a lunar surface.
Writer Sujatha, Raghuvaran and Manivannan have all passed on, relatively young too. All of them contributed handsomely to the success of this film like they did to advance Tamil cinema in their own way. The film fanatic’s heart aches for these trailblazers. But such is the magic of the medium that they live on in the silver screen, their stamps very much indelible. That Shankar worked with such a monstrously talented team and shepherded them in the direction of his goals, betray a thinking leader at work. As a fan of Shankar’s early works, I hope that he recovers the ground that he has lost in the past decade, his big budget extravaganzas not withstanding. Shankar’s canvas has grown manifold but the clarity of the sketch seen in Mudhalvan has rarely been replicated.