The comedy that wasn't
Kamal Haasan (referred to in the title cards as Ulaga Nayakan which, loosely, translates into 'World Hero') plays Thenali.
The World Hero plays a Sri Lankan Tamil who has a problem -- he is afraid. Of anything and everything.
He has a phobia about hunger, so he eats. And while eating, he has phobias about the effects of over-eating and indigestion and all that kind of thing. When he sleeps, he has phobias about all the bad things that could happen while he is sleeping. And when he fights sleep, he has a phobia about the ill effects of insomnia.
And so it goes on.
This is set against the backdrop of rivalry between two psychiatrists -- Dr
Panchabutam (Delhi Ganesh) and Dr Kailash (Jayaram). The former, figuring that Dr Kailash's growing popularity is a threat, refers Thenali to him, hoping that failure to cure this walking encyclopaedia of phobias will take Dr Kailash down a peg or two.
Through a crazy -- and somewhat contrived -- chain of circumstances, Thenali latches on to Dr Kailash just as he leaves for a much-needed holiday in Kodaikanal, with wife (Devyani), sister Janaki (Jyotika) and children in tow.
From then on, the story revolves around Thenali and Janaki falling in love, Dr Kailash's violent objections to the relationship, his attempts to pack Thenali off, the repeated failures of such attempts, and the eventual cure.
This is Thenali in a nutshell: an unabashed comedy.
If I weren't reviewing the film, I would have tried getting away with a noncommittal "Mmmmmmmmm..." But since I can't, what now follows is an attempt to analyse why the film doesn't light any fires.
Firstly, the verbal comedy: 'Crazy' Mohan has a reputation for being a funny man. The trouble here is that Kamal, whose perfectionism is almost a fetish, overdoes it this time. The way Sri Lankans speak Tamil is radically different from how the native Tamil speaks the language. Kamal gets that Lankan Tamil accent down pat -- but when he couples that with a rapid-fire dialogue delivery, the funny lines end up going entirely over your head.
What is surprising is that the Sri Lankan origin is not relevant to the story -- if it is about a man with an entire cornucopia of phobias, he could have been just about anyone and spoken in a more intelligible dialect. Why a Sri Lankan? This desire to experiment proves to be one of the major handicaps of the film.
The second drawback is this: While Kamal, in an involved opening scene, spells out his problem of being afraid of anything and everything, the film, subsequently does not elaborate on that. Kamal tells us he is afraid. The film is supposed to be about his search for a cure. To make the audience empathise with Kamal, he needs to be shown as a man of multiple phobias.
However, there is only the most lukewarm attempt to expound on this theme. In fact, the only time he is shown as really scared is when a mouse crawls into his clothes -- and even that scene, the way it is outlined, shows Kamal as unwittingly heroic, not scared witless. As he tries to shake off that mouse, he flails his arms and legs -- and demolishes half a dozen villains who were attempting to rape Jyotika!
If the fact of Kamal being phobia-struck is not brought out, why should the audience root for him?
The third and, to my mind, biggest handicap is that the comedy is uni-dimensional. Almost from the beginning, the events and incidents revolve around the doctor's attempts to get rid of Thenali, and how he survives each of these attempts. One such scene is very funny. Two: funny. Three: tolerable. But a dozen? It's a bit like sitting down to a five-course meal -- and finding that every single course is pudding -- after a point, it begins to cloy.
To really understand this, it might be worth looking at the last time the director and lead actor got together -- in Avvai Shanmughi (remade in Hindi as Chachi 420). Flash back quickly to that film -- the comedy is diverse. There is Kamal, as a woman, struggling to cope with the romantic overtures of Gemini Ganeshan, interacting with his wife, fighting off Manivannan's romantic advances and attempting to cope with his employer's secretary's attempts to uncover his secret.
Each pairing produces its own brand of humour, its own whiff of situational and verbal comedy. Thus, though the film is unadulterated comedy, it is multi-dimensional.
The comedy is on a single track in Thenali, focussing on the doctor versus patient angle right through. This is why it is more tiresome than humorous.
Technically, there is not much that is wrong with the film -- good cinematography, neat editing, and so on. However, the music is lacklustre despite coming from A R Rehman --there is no song you recall or recount.
One recalls how Rehman had cut down on his assignments before leaving for London to work with Shekhar Kapur and Andrew Lloyd Webber and of how Kamal insisted that Rehman do the music for this one. Rehman needed much persuasion to take on the assignment. Given how lukewarm the music is, you wonder if the composer's heart was in it, or whether he was already thinking of his upcoming project with Kapur and Webber.
Cast: Kamal Haasan, Jayaram, Jyotika, Devyani, Delhi Ganesh, Madan Bob, Ramesh Kanna
Direction: K S Ravikumar
Producer: Karpagam Ravikumar
Music: A R Rehman
Lyrics: Piraisudan, Arivumathi, Kalaikumar
Art direction: Maniraj
Stunts: Vikram Dharma
Dialogues: 'Crazy' Mohan
Screenplay: K S Ravikumar