Santhanam’s long transition into creating his brand as a hero continues, and with it, it seems, our woes. This is the actor undergoing on-the-job training for the better part of the last decade, while his largely underwhelming films have been training us not to expect his presence to result in only laughs. In his latest film, Sabhaapathy, the actor executes a tried-and-tested idea from the hero-transition playbook, one that’s designed to win the empathy and love of viewers. He plays a posterboy of innocence, a man capable of no violence, and as I unfortunately discovered over the course of two interminable hours, no humour either.
Naturally, he doesn’t drink or smoke, though he’s part of several scenes centred on alcohol; and he often smiles that beatific smile, especially when he considers his next-door neighbour, Saavi (Savithri, played by Preeti Verma). He’s a simpleton who can’t get a job, a man-child whose father (MS Bhaskar) constantly threatens to commit suicide. The title and the film’s central idea of a simpleton learning to adult, suggests that this film is influenced by the Tamil classic, Sabapathy (1941), which too was about a dullard, who finds his place in the world. But where that film delivered on harmless laughs, this film is neither funny nor harmless.
Sabhaapathy is a stutterer—perhaps a manipulative tool to amplify his innocence—and that prevents Santhanam from indulging in his brand of insult comedy. In this film, he relies on slapstick antics (which, save for an amusing stretch in the second half, is largely ineffective, even if it’s still an interesting choice for the actor). The film finds an enthusiastic replacement for the insult-comedy routines in actor Pugazh, who plays an alcoholic friend, and makes references to ‘aunties’.
The film pretends to be—or perhaps really believes it is—sensitive about Sabhaapathy’s speech disability, but we only need to examine its treatment of other types of vulnerabilities to understand whether it truly cares. Take, for instance, the male pattern baldness of MS Bhaskar, who plays Sabhaapathy’s father, Ganapathy. The film has Sabhaapathy offering to buy him a wig in the name of humour. Later, Sabhaapathy—believe it or not—throws up on Ganapathy’s head, with the film revelling in its focus on the incident. Ganapathy, meanwhile, is no angel either, given how he orders about and slaps his wife; and in any case, his character’s design only serves to establish the idea that retirees—another vulnerable group—make for really unpleasant individuals.
Moving on, later in the film, there’s a shot of an overweight man, laughing so loudly that his stomach bulges and causes the shirt button to break loose and fly away. And yet, we are supposed to believe that this film cares for the stutterer—because of an end scene designed to manipulate you into feeling all warm and fuzzy? We would if we were as naïve as Sabhaapathy.
In this wholly forgettable, largely exhausting film, perhaps the only takeaway is Santhanam’s rather courageous choice to play a character that doesn’t capitalise on his well-established dialogue strengths. It’s a bit like Sivakarthikeyan doing Doctor (even if that was a far superior film). Perhaps the actor is still figuring out his sweet spot as a hero, perhaps he’s still slowly devising his transformation. I’d just be grateful if these public experiments were more rewarding.
This latest one, Sabhaapathy, begins with the deep voice of a narrator who identifies himself as ‘vidhi’, claiming to ‘play’ with ‘innocent’ people like Sabhaapathy. I imagine that on the day I watched Sabhaapathy, Mr Vidhi had chosen me for his game.
Director: R Srinivasa Rao
Cast: Santhanam, MS Bhaskar, Preeti Verma