He gave puns a good name

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 21, 2019 17:52 hrs
Crazy Mohan

You could say "meen" to any Tamilian, and if he or she was born before the Nineties – perhaps even after – this Tamilian would smile and think of these lines:

"What do you mean?"

"I mean what I mean!"

"But they can't be so mean!"

"Enna, ellaarum meen-meen-ngra?" (Why is everyone saying "meen-meen"?)

"Avaa English 'meen'-ai paththi pesindrukka." (They're talking of the English "meen".)

For the uninitiated, the lines are from the blockbuster comedy, Michael Madana Kamarajan. It was early days in a partnership that would define Tamil comedy for the next two decades – Crazy Mohan and Kamal Haasan. A fish (meen) has fallen into the sambar at a wedding, and the cook, played by Delhi Ganesh, and his son, played by Kamal Haasan, are worried someone may have smelt a rat – or, more accurately, a fish.

In the same film, Kameshwaran (Kamal Haasan) meets Tripurasundari (Urvashi) and they bond over her giggling when he says he is from a tiny village – "kukgraamam" in Tamil: "Graamamum cook-aa? Neengalum cook-u." (The village is also a cook, huh? As are you.)

For every decade of Crazy Mohan's involvement in cinema, there are hundreds of lines which stand out, inspired puns which mixed up Tamil and English, jokes which will outlast several generations.

Often, Crazy Mohan would find unique ways to use puns, most notably in Sathi Leelavathi, Magalir Mattum, Avvai Shanmughi, and Panchathanthiram.

As Pazhani (Kovai Sarala) in Sathi Leelavathi is driving off in a car with a faulty brake, suspecting that her husband – played by Kamal Haasan – has been having an affair, he and their son follow her in a bike, and he calls "Brake pidikkalai, di!" – where "pidikkalai" means "won't work", literally "won't catch" – and she replies, "Ennaiye pidikkalai, mama. Brake pidikkaatti enna pochu?", where "pidikkalai" means "don't like".

And then there is the infamous "kannaadi-munnaadi-pinnaadi" scene from Panchathanthiram.

There is little need to speak of the life Crazy Mohan lived before he started working in Tamil theatre, and then segued into cinema. There is little need to speak of the films in which he worked, or the lines he wrote, because all of us will always remember them.

Many of us have grown up hearing those lines, and watching the comedy show "Here's Krazy" on television, starring his brother Madhu Balaji.

I remember them so well I didn't have to look up a single reference to write this piece.

Puns are often considered the lowest form of humour. They usually are. Anyone can make a pun, and one usually sees them coming from miles away.

Crazy Mohan did something extraordinary with them. With his brilliant comic timing, and his ingenuity with sentence structure, he was able to surprise the viewer with what ought to have been obvious.

There is something so good-natured, so easy, so fun about his writing that one cannot help but laugh at the right times.

Before the Crazy Mohan era, Tamil cinema did have comedy, often lowbrow humour which nevertheless stood the test of time. But serious films would have separate "comedy tracks", featuring specialist comedians like Janakaraj and Senthil-Goundamani, exclusively for comic relief.

Crazy Mohan's first film assignment outside of the comedy genre was Apoorva Sagodharargal (dubbed in Hindi as Appu Raja) and it starred Kamal Haasan, at the height of his fame and popularity in 1989.

For the first time, comedy was seamlessly integrated into a storyline which involves deceit, murder, disability, heartbreak, and revenge.

For the first time, an A-list actor was also a comedian. Kamal Haasan had essayed such a role before, in Punnagai Mannan, but he did not have a dialogue-writer with Crazy Mohan's sensibilities, someone who could make wordplay memorable.

This would start a trend, with even Rajinikanth taking on comic roles for parts of his films.

Crazy Mohan not only redefined comedy, but challenged actors to break their moulds, and knit the hero and comedian together.

Of the current crop of India's most exciting playwrights, humour writers and stand-up comedians, many are from Tamil Nadu. It often occurs to me that those of us who were lucky enough to grow up watching the comedy of this era learnt lessons in writing and execution very early on.

Take, for example, one of Crazy Mohan's famous scenes, from the film Kadhaanayagan (1988), featuring two superb comedians, Pandiarajan and S. Ve. Shekhar, who decide to go to Dubai to seek their fortunes. Every line is carefully written, and every actor delivers it as it was meant to be.

His plays ran to full houses, because they would satirise current events in the most offhand manner. You could laugh till you got a stitch in your side, and you would come home thinking of the clever political commentary in the writing.

It is often said of a legendary achiever that there will never be another like him.

But the greatest legends leave a legacy. They don't create protégés by mentoring them directly. They create proteges by changing the way people see art.

Crazy Mohan changed comedy. He brought sophistication to puns.

He taught us to see the comic in the serious, and the serious in the comic.

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com