With Maanaadu, Venkat Prabhu imports a largely Western plot device—time loop—into our mainstream cinema. The director, ever self-aware, makes references in his latest film to Hollywood work like Groundhog Day (the mother of all time-loop films), Happy Death Day… and in his expectedly rooted way, also manages to cite Indian references like Vikramaditya-Vedalam. Truth be told, the film’s explanation for why Maanaadu’s protagonist, Abdul Khaaliq (Silambarasan TR), experiences time-loop doesn’t add much.
And yet, I liked that this film ties in the story of Khaaliq’s birth to his identity and why, even his very purpose. Also, thankfully, the film doesn’t get too carried away with this back story and never loses sight of its very own purpose: To have fun with its premise.
And boy, does it have fun with this time-loop idea. Maanaadu has two stars—Silambarasan TR and SJ Suryah—and yet, no duets, love stories, punch dialogues, or why, even fight sequences that threaten your suspension of disbelief. Venkat Prabhu reposes his faith squarely in the joys emergent from the time-loop idea and brings out an ace each time. He manages to tie all these iterations and their events into a clever mystery that must be solved by Khaaliq, one step at a time.
The characters are the same, and yet, the cause-effect interplay creates new, delicious situations, and associated problems. After a while, the death of Khaaliq himself becomes a dark joke, and it’s fascinating to experience a story in which the protagonist, a bonafide star, gets killed over and over again. Khaaliq, a Muslim by birth, is said to have been born in a Hindu temple, and it’s intriguing that this Muslim should be the victim—or beneficiary, depending on your point of view—of the Hindu idea of reincarnation.
It results in some wonderful subversion of commercial cinema tropes. For instance, where we are used to a villain fuming over the survival of a hero, we get one, Dhanushkodi (SJ Suryah), vexed by the death of the hero. Where a protagonist’s heroism gets accentuated by his survival against the odds, we get one whose heroism is defined by his willingness, and why, even his enthusiasm, to die.
This film though—at whose centre there’s a political assassination—is steadfast in its refusal to sink too deep or dwell too long in existential complexities. The central event may be the political assassination, but its central exploration, in effortless ways, is of the two men, Khaaliq and Dhanushkodi. Both are forced to relive the same day over and over again, but where Khaaliq has agency, Dhanushkodi doesn’t, and this drives him crazy (SJ Suryah portrays this frustration in his enjoyably exaggerated ways).
Look closely and you will see that while Dhanushkodi’s villainy stems from his uncommon lack of empathy and conscience, Khaaliq’s heroism is not a product of superhuman ability or acute intelligence or enviable physicality; he’s a hero simply because he won’t quit trying to do good. Sometimes, good is that simple.
Both actors, STR and Dhanushkodi, sell their characters really well. STR stays away from the punchlines and the finger-wagging (vestiges of which we saw even in his last film, Easwaran), and is content to be the soft-spoken do-gooder, Khaaliq. I liked that even the fistfights that Khaaliq wins are not because he’s a Tamil cinema hero blessed with inexplicable combat ability; it’s simply a normal man learning from hard work and repetition. It’s a quiet statement on how excellence in any space, even in the real world devoid of time-travel ability, can be achieved: Hard work and repetition.
SJ Suryah is a charismatic presence. He’s a murderer who cannot murder; he’s an ambitious man imprisoned within the confines of a single day. It’s a lovely idea to tie him to Khaaliq’s routine, and it results in a terrific interval block. If I had some grouse at all, it’s over the forced explanation on how the destinies of these two men get interwoven.
Perhaps what I most enjoyed about Maanaadu is how despite all the visceral entertainment it offers, there’s plenty of subtext as well, if you cared to look. You see that it notes how the tragedy of loss affects only when you bring in irreversability, and for someone like Khaaliq who can hit the restart button anytime, the loss of close ones, for instance, doesn’t exactly cause profound anguish. Dhanushkodi, observant and clever as always, asks, “Seththu seththu pozhaikka vechiruvom nu unakku thimiru la?” It’s riveting interplay between these characters.
Khaaliq’s one big emotionally indulgent scene comes when he’s confronted with the possibility of being stuck to his present, and again, it’s a great writing decision, but perhaps his emotional breakdown might have been more affecting, had we grown to invest in Khaaliq’s friends. Also operating in the periphery is Seetha Lakshmi (Kalyani Priyadarshan), and while it’s admirable that the film doesn’t get tempted by the possibility of a distracting romance between Seetha and Khaaliq, surely, we can register a tiny protestation at the only notable woman in this film coming across as a bit of a pixie—which results in one character asking, “Iva looso?” and another suggesting, “Pasicha biryani saapudu po.”
This isn’t to say that this film lacks social utility. It’s admirable that this mainstream entertainer looks to normalise Muslim identity and mounts opposition to anti-Muslim rhetoric and prejudice. That a mainstream actor like Silambarasan plays a Muslim protagonist is, in itself, a laudable choice. The film notes that the villain, Dhanushkodi, struggles to remember Khaaliq’s name, an indication that he is likely not taking this man seriously.
Perhaps that’s why Dhanushkodi doesn’t recognise that his life is tied to Khaaliq’s even earlier. With films drumming in the Muslim-man-is-a-killer idea for years now, it’s a beautiful twist that in Maanaadu, Abdul Khaaliq is not just a kind, good commoner, but he’s one who will go to any lengths to fight against said assassination.
I’ll also remember this film for some charming choices in writing and execution. One uproarious example is a scene that has Khaaliq, Dhanushkodi and Paranthaaman (YG Mahendran) in a three-way shouting battle. The film, with such strengths, marks a worthy return to form for TR Silambarasan, who, as I said, is a bonafide star, having had to endure some tough years.
My grouse with the star system has largely to do with its often-detrimental effect on ‘good cinema’ and how it seems to inhibit creative freedom by forcing in self-serving requisites. However, if stars collaborating on a project results in mainstream cinema like Maanaadu—punctuated by clever writing, enjoyable humour, progressive politics—there may just be a star system I could potentially make my peace with.
Director: Venkat Prabhu
Cast: Silambarasan TR, SJ Suryah, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Karunakaran, YG Mahendran