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—which I’ll admit I had never thought of as a time-loop idea previously. Truth be told, the film’s explanation for why Maanaadu’s protagonist, Abdul Khaaliq (TR Silambarasan), experiences time-loop doesn’t add much; “Because he does!” is enough explanation, I think. 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.
Director: Venkat Prabhu
Cast: Silambarasan, SJ Suryah, Kalyani Priyadarshan
And boy, does it have fun with this time-loop idea. Every time a Tamil film adopts a seemingly Western idea, I fear that we might fail to capitalise on the inherent advantages of the idea, potentially diluting the entertainment in search of ‘commercial compromises’. And yet, Maanaadu has two stars—TR Silambarasan and SJ Suryah—and 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. Every time Khaaliq dies and gets reborn, the story explores a new idea. And yet, Venkat Prabhu 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, each time. 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. I might have been interested to learn how he deals with the repetitive pain of killing himself, or perhaps just the sheer difficulty of doing it to himself—but I suppose that might have resulted in a different type of film.
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. It prioritises fun over fatality, entertainment over execution, and I do not mean this as criticism at all. Maanaadu’s 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 and thrives in rebirth, Dhanushkodi doesn’t, and this drives him crazy (SJ Suryah portrays this frustration in his enjoyably exaggerated ways). Look closely at these individuals and you’ll see that while Dhanushkodi’s villainy stems from his uncommon lack of empathy and conscience, Khaaliq, in comparison, is a commoner. His heroism is not a product of super-human ability or acute intelligence or enviable physicality; he’s a hero simply because he won’t quit trying to do good. I enjoyed the simplicity of this character description. Sometimes, good is that simple.
You can identify these character differences even in Yuvan’s themes, dominated by flute influences. Dhanushkodi’s victories are punctuated by a sinister track, while Khaaliq’s actions are underscored by two tracks (Voice of Unity and Maanaadu Theme), both of which burst with a sense of urgency. And really, this quality of urgency is perhaps at the centre of Khaaliq’s quest. This is why as the film progresses, the urgency becomes more and more accentuated, to the point that by the end, Khaaliq is counting each second. From being a passive passenger who patiently waits to disembark from a flight, he turns into a manic runner who can’t even wait for the plane to stop.
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. He’s racing against time, he’s trying to devise clever plans, but at all times, Silambarasan plays the underdog in this film as he knows—and so do we—that SJ Suryah’s Dhanushkodi is cleverer and craftier. 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, as always; he’s a man of dualities. He’s dark and menacing, and yet, his frustrations result in much humour. He’s constantly threatening Khaaliq, but he’s also begging. 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. Again, I might have made my peace without any.
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 only 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. In this film, however, they (Premgi Amaren, Karunakaran) exist mainly in the periphery and serve mainly as comic props. Also operating fairly 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, we get a brief whiff of it in the ‘Meherezylaa’ track; thankfully, nothing comes of it. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Seetha’s character to have more steel in a film that is centred on Khaaliq and Dhanushkodi, but 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 welcome choice. I enjoyed how this film notes that the villain, Dhanushkodi, struggles to remember Khaaliq’s name, an indication that he is likely not taking this man seriously on account of his identity. Perhaps that’s why Dhanushkodi doesn’t recognise that his life is tied to Khaaliq’s even earlier. Above all, 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. Every writer likes to believe they are writing a ‘smart cat-and-mouse game between the hero and the villain’, but it’s easier said than done. Maanaadu accomplishes this though, and it is evidently a result of much writing work. One uproarious scene that stands for this has Khaaliq, Dhanushkodi and Paranthaaman (YG Mahendran) in a three-way shouting battle. Another scene, representative of the film’s sophisticated treatment, comes in the second half. It’s when Khaaliq is airborne with his neck aimed at a sharp nail on the floor, so he can off himself. This shot is cross-cut with a comparably slow-motion shot of Dhanushkodi watching a bullet. You expect to see the fate of Khaaliq, but instead, there’s a lovely filmmaking choice when you are taken directly to Dhanushkodi’s response. It’s impossible not to laugh out loud.
It’s 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 that stifle experimentation. 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.