A couple of weeks back while feeling particularly bogged down by the demands of everyday life, I instinctively knew the cure. I opened YouTube and played Pammal K Sambandam (PKS). As soon as the movie began, I was laughing out loud and had already forgotten whatever had me down.
Not only was Crazy Mohan, who passed away recently, fantastic with comic timing, he was also a reliable writer of women. The existence of women in his scripts has always been integral and never incidental. If a ‘Crazy’ play would be unthinkable without a Seenu or ‘Madhu’ Balaji or Mohan himself, it would be equally meaningless without its Janaki and Mythili. (Mohan has said that Janaki was his school teacher who pushed him towards dramatics and he insisted that the leading lady in all his movie scripts be named Janaki).
Mohan excelled in writing multi-starrers mainly because he treated every character as an important part of the story. Be it the women or anyone who isn’t ‘hero’. He championed the story and never the ‘mass actor’ at the heart of the script.
In PKS it is Janaki (Simran) and Malathi (Sneha). As in every successful rom-com PKS has a fantastic meet-cute that isn’t. Dr Janaki and Hanuman-devotee-and-avowed-bachelor Sambandam meet in a police station and ‘curse’ each other. The other attractive thing about PKS is that instead of a ‘taming of the shrew’, we have a Pride and Prejudice-sque canvas, in which the protagonists understand their own flaws and come to terms with love. In one scene, Malathi tells Anand (Abbas) that she is his equal in every way, and goes on to chug alcohol right from a bottle. In any other movie, there would be a lot of fuss around this scene, but in the PKS universe, it feels perfectly natural. It’s not meant to be radical. It’s logical progression. The story moves along. When Janaki tells a TV show host that she’s married to her profession and that the stethoscope is her ‘thaali’, even her sworn enemy, PKS must begrudgingly respect her.
In the classic Michael Mathana Kama Rajan, the women are all layered… Their personalities unfold slowly and it is they who initiate relationships with all four leading men (played by Kamal Hassan). Rupini as Chakku Bai lets Madan know she likes him with the brilliant Sivarathiri song, Shalini likes Raju and threatens to shoot everyone when she thinks he’s cheating on her, and when Thirupurasundari tells Kameshwaran that they are going to get married, it’s news to him. Manorama as Ganga Bai is a laugh riot even as she and her daughter cheat Madan initially. And whoever can forget the iconic, thieving, spirited paati (grandmother), SN Lakshmi in the role of a lifetime?
In Panchathanthiram, yet another film filled with performers and scene stealers, there is much nuance and shades of grey offered to all of the characters, especially the women. Be it Maggie (Ramya Krishnan) or Mythili (Simran), or the four women friends played by Urvashi, Sanghavi, Aishwarya, and Vidya Venkatesh.
Then there’s his Sathi Leelavathi, even if some parts of it today feels dated, large parts of it resonated with audiences when it came out first. After all, who could deny the presence of a robust ‘chinna veedu’ culture across social classes in our society? And even if the plot points feel old, the jokes are all still fresh now. Especially the ones written for Kovai Sarala, who plays Palani. She is a star and she shines every time she’s in a frame.
An underrated film for which Crazy Mohan has written the dialogue, and is a personal favourite of mine is Poovellaam Kettuppar. It too is a laugh riot; gave us Jyotika in her first full-fledged heroine role; and is a shining example of the fact that we need more romcoms (which in turn need fun, strong female leads) in Tamil.
I feel the best tribute writers can pay to Mohan is to write women who are fun, with individuality, and careers or interests that go beyond the men in their lives. If they need study material, there’s a wealth of films out there. My recommendation? Magalir Mattum (1994).
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema