Mankatha: Ajith plays his cards right, finally
Ajith’s character does not exist in the film. That’s the ending.
He’s a figment of Vaibhav’s imagination. The Keyser Soze. The dangerous diabolic villain Vaibhav ‘Verbal Kint’ makes up as he comes up with a story he makes up in the interrogation room from plot points he remembers in Tamil films.
First Vaibhav creates a Nayakan character. A Dharavi don, we don’t know if he’s Nallavara Kaettavara (good or bad?).
Then he makes the Nayakan Don marry him off to the girl he loves like Mammootty does for Rajnikant in Thalapathy.
They plan a heist involving a geek hacking into the traffic light system of the city, like in the Italian Job. And there’s Ajith sporting his natural greys like Clooney in Oceans.
There’s a hint that he’s making up stories from Tamil films he watches because there’s a Kamal Haasan poster in his room and he’s sporting the same beard as Kamal. In a Trisha-Ajith song, there’s a song from Kireedam playing on the TV behind.
Vaibhav makes up this story about an imaginary character called Vinayakam played by Ajith and walks away into the sunset with “500 crores. Ainooru Kodi. Money. Money. Money. Money.”
Gotcha suckers! Was kidding. I made up that ending, to mess with those who are reading reviews before watching the film. “My f***ing game”.
On a serious note though… The pop culture nods/references are so many that you think you’ve cracked it but Venkat Prabhu keeps messing with your head, the references just used to tease and nothing more. Just as you think it’s going the Ocean’s way, it’s not. You think it’s going the Italian Job way, it’s not. You think it’s going the Usual Suspects way, it’s not. You think it’s going the Reservoir Dogs way, it’s not. It’s a fairly original film, even if long-winded and a tad conveniently slapped with a twist ending.
Personally, I would have liked one of the other boys in the film to emerge as the hero in the end but I guess mainstream Tamil cinema is not ready for that yet.
After Aaranya Kaandam, Mankatha is one of those rare Tamil noir films. Neo-noir, like the Thiagarajan Kumararaja film, with all its pop culture tributes, plot derivatives and spins on film noir narratives.
If at all you hear the film is ripped off from such and such film, it’s because whoever told you that has probably seen only that one film in that genre.
Noir is not just treatment, noir is a genre with a clearly identifiable template and recurring themes – evil dominates, almost every character is grey or black hungry for money and could kill for it, the deadly femme fatale, allies turning against each other, betrays, greed… you get the idea, a complete exploration of all that has to do with the dark side of human nature.
Calling it a noir film does not automatically become a compliment just like calling a chick flick a chick flick does not by default make it a good film.
I won’t get into the plot details (though it is pretty much what is expected from the genre template) but hats off to the director to take the genre that typically explores the dark side of man and turn it into a completely light-hearted mass entertainer. I can think of wickedly delicious and dark crime comedies that employ the noir template but it’s one of the first films (Farhan Akhtar’s Don did this too) that takes something that is primarily dark (and hence restrictive in reach by genre) and turns it into a celebration of the morally bankrupt by a mainstream hero worshipped by millions without failing to glorify its “hero” who is in reality the scum of all scums.
As the opening titles roll out, Venkat Prabhu gives you the first hint – Mankatha – Strictly No Rules. There are no rules for this “hero”. He drinks to the point of total memory loss, he cheats on his girlfriend, manipulates friends for his own gain and wouldn’t think twice about killing anyone. Yet, he’s still the Thala – that stupid sobriquet that blurs the line between the star’s real life persona and the character he plays in films. I hope he uses his head and drops that Thala baggage at the earliest.
Stars play the same role again and again in all movies (MGR, Rajni, Vijay, Ajith) because people pay to watch them do the same things while actors do different roles again and again (Sivaji, Kamal, Vikram, Suriya, Dhanush) because people pay to watch them do different things.
In recent times, we have had some stars preferring to do actor roles (Vijay with Kavalan, for eg. or Rajni with Enthiran) and some actors preferring to do star roles (Suriya in Aadhavan or Singham or Vikram in Kanthasamy) and that’s where our problems begin because here we have this blind idiocy of hero-worshipping the guy who can beat up people on screen.
He maybe bald, he may have a paunch or a triple chin or be as tall as a midget in real life, does not matter. As long he has a sobriquet (Ilaya Thalapathy or Thala or Little Super Star or Captain) and fan clubs, there will be idiots around who will pay to watch them do the shittiest movies in history of Tamil cinema and also have the nerve to defend them.
Which is why I respect Suriya, Dhanush and even Vikram (his Chiyaan is just based on a character he became popular for), unlike this Worship-Me-I-Am-Your-Leader self-styled sobriquets… Thala or Thalapathy, that flaunt their ambitions of being the Thalaivar (leader). There is no doubting that Ajith can act, so can Vijay. Like all actors do, why don’t they just do their jobs instead of being on this narcissistic trip of being worshipped by fans?
So I would be the first to applaud Ajith for taking a step in the right direction and playing an actor who essays a role that’s usually used to describe the villain.
Which brings us to the problem area, that in the context of our cinema for the masses, fans are so blind and loyal that they actually think that by virtue of the hero doing certain things considered inappropriate, it becomes acceptable and legitimate to do that.
Now, I watched this film with hardcore fans of Ajith on the first day. So it was disturbing that they seemed to applaud the fact that he would drink to the extent of memory loss every night. Like he just echoed their thoughts. I heard some of the most obscene, sexually frustrated comments every time Lakshmi Rai or Andrea made an appearance and I am really wondering if the time is still right for us to make a film where the hero can play evil, not grey… completely and absolutely evil, with no redeeming feature. Almost.
Spoiler alert (Highlight to read): If he is that unabashedly evil given the number of people he kills in the film, would he need the friend or ally when he could technically keep all the 500 crores to himself, instead of splitting it? Why not kill the friend as the last ultimate move of villainy? But no, this is commercial movie. There has to be some good to make Thala likeable. With this ending generating feel good, Mankatha becomes a complete celebration of greed just like how fantasy films celebrate the good.
The morals are a little unsettling in the Indian context of drunk fans and blind hero worship, at least given the bunch of people I shared the hall with. The last thing we want is drunk folk going around calling women “thevidiya mundais”.
To Venkat Prabhu’s credit, he uses quite a few alienation techniques to remind us that this is all just a story not to be taken seriously… there’s green blood to make it more children friendly, the jokes are of the nature of your best friend spoofing cult movie moments, the stunts are unbelievably larger than life and the really bad visual effects like glass shattering ensure that you always know that it just campy, cartoonish pulp fiction that you are watching, especially with Premgi’s presence (I found his quips to be the best part of the film) and Mahat. Good to see Action King Arjun and Laxmi Rai given something to play with but not enough but the rest of the cast, including Trisha, Andrea, Anjali, only get extended cameos. It’s quite nice that Venkat Prabhu is creating these small heroes who can support the smaller filmmakers – In addition to Shiva, Jai, Vaibhav, Premgi, Sampath, Arvind Akash, now add Mahat & Ashwin to that list. The biggest bonus is the goof reel at the very end that assures kids that it’s just a bunch of friends having fun making a film, playing a game rather, and that who dies and who does not is immaterial because it was just a story to be forgotten instantly.
Mankatha is just that. It is forgettable but fun while it lasts. But it lasts too long. Ajith is given ample scope to perform and play a badass and this is probably the best role he has done in a while (considering Billa didn’t involve acting, it just needed him to show up to work and walk, Vishnu even keeping dialogues minimal). It’s refreshing really to see this side of Ajith. Make sure you stay till the end credits to see him have a blast on the sets, enjoying himself. As an actor mature enough to play his age or take digs at his own paunch, Ajith is evolving into a down to earth, likeable actor.
Venkat Prabhu does not seem to have the heart to cut anything out of his though quite a bit of it is indulgence as expected from a mass film made for fans on the occasion of the 50th film. He also has no heart to cut out the rest of the ensemble and makes sure he gives them all a song each at least and quite a bit of importance than you would usually not find in a solo hero film. The result is a long film with which songs feels even longer though Yuvan does rock the score, the violin bit with slow motion action choreography being one of the best parts of the film.
Though it’s more thought out than most heist films made, the convenience with which everything is tied together in the end is a little disappointing. It’s as if the masses wouldn’t understand if it were any more complicated.
In the end, we have a film that looks more smarter than what it really is. Venkat Prabhu wins the guessing game (though you may guess the ending from a throwaway scene earlier on in the film) not by outwitting you playing by the rules but by cheating. Sorry, bongu.
But then, the tag line warned us. Strictly No Rules.
P.S: I really hope Ajith and Vijay soon get tired of the hero-worship (and drop Thala / Ilaya Thalapathy from their names) and do their jobs as actors more often. The first step towards becoming a more serious actor is getting rid of the baggage that comes with the stardom. Yes, I am guilty of cheering for Vijay in the past too when Thirupaachi and Sivakasi came out. You know what that got me? One bad film after another. They kept making the same film again and again with him to the point of irritation that even the badly directed Kavalan seemed like a good break. The greatest disservice to an actor with potential is to worship a bad film. Stop defending the Aasals, aas***l*s.