When I heard the news about Crazy Mohan’s health, I called my estranged father. “I hear Crazy Mohan is critical. I thought of you,” I said.
“Oh?” he asked me, his voice falling so low I couldn’t hear it.
“In-ma-ra-va-si na?” I replied, quoting from an old Crazy Mohan drama.
“In-ma-ra-va-si…,” he repeated after me, breaking into a loud cackle.
Raised by a serious-minded mother who ran a tight ship, I grew up in a household where humour and levity were a luxury. Growing up, everything was a moral science lesson: When we watched Suryavamsam (1998), we talked about how I could become a Collector. When we watched Kadhalukku Mariyadhai (1997), we underlined “love-ngara per-la panra thappu [mistakes made in the name of love]”.
Punctuating this life were the few breaks with my father, who had a taste for the arts — meaning, he let himself enjoy something once in a while. And he enjoyed it in a way so uniquely his own — he repeated under his breath the very thing he heard, as if reliving the moment. This could be SPB’s rhythmic laughter in a song, or Crazy Mohan’s pun that needs a second to register.
To him, “In-ma-ra-va-si” wasn’t funny until he’d repeated it softly before bursting into joyous cackles.
Literally and metaphorically, Crazy Mohan for me was a break from the everyday drudgery of working hard and making something of myself. There was no moral science lesson attached to watching Crazy Mohan, no notes I needed to take, no visualistion of a grand future I had to construct. He represented what kids these days call “living in the moment”.
I have since come to see Crazy Mohan’s entire oeuvre through this lens — living in the moment and making jokes about it. Categorising it as ‘situational comedy’ (where jokes arises out of the situation) would detract from the genius with which Crazy Mohan interpreted these situations.
Panchathantiram (2002), one of my all-time favourite Tamil films (yes, one I hold above even Michael Madana Kama Rajan), and my most favourite Crazy Mohan film, is exemplary of this.
Ram holds up a bra, which his wife Mythili suspects to be proof of his affair. “Ayye, idhu Sardharji potta body. [This is a bra flung by the Sardarji]” he says (‘body’ is a commonly used Tamil-ism for bra and ‘potta’ could indicate both ‘flung’ as well as ‘worn’).
“Sardarji body poduvaara? [Does a sardarji wear a bra?]” she asks. “Ipdi potta body illa,” he clarifies, imitating the hooking of a bra, before — “Ipdi potta body” — miming the flinging of an imaginary item of lingerie.
His filmography is filled with throwaway lines such as these, each one of them funnier than the previous, each one delightful on its own. “Neengalum cook, gramamum kuk [you’re a cook and your village is also ‘kuk’ or small]” in Michael Madhana Kama Rajan (1990), for instance. Or “Don’t put word in my mouths” in Pammal K. Sammandham (2002). Or even the loaded, “Undra gadhi, endra gadhi” in Thenali (2000).
In much of the cultural milieu today, insult comedy stands tall as the predominant form of humour — “kalaaichufying” in the Tamil nation constitutes everything from ice-breaker to sexual harassment. Looking back, Crazy Mohan largely avoided this tack. Barring the odd disability joke and some benevolent sexism, he stayed away from making fun of the disadvantaged for the most part.
But he chose not to punch upwards either, although his jokes couldn’t possibly have got him into any serious trouble with anyone ever. He steered clear of contemporary politics. And even while making fun of superstition, godmen, geomancy, numerology, etc., which were topics that dominated the public imagination in the ’90s, Crazy Mohan coloured well within the lines. In the play Veettai Maatri Katti Paar, for instance, Maadhu’s wife Mythili brings Aalapuzhai Achappan, a godman, to perform some rituals in the house. Maadhu, visibly upset, tells his wife in true radical form: “Look here, Mythili, faith in god is enough for us. Don’t believe in these con artists, that’s all I’ll say.” In that, Crazy Mohan showed himself to be a rationalist, which is something that endeared him to the upper-middle class Brahmin families of the time.
Not punching up or down, in his own unique ways he chose to punch sideways instead, finding humour in places few people would think to. One of my favourites is the scene from Kadhala Kadhala (1998) where a suspicious Singaaram (Vadivelu) asks Lingam (Kamal) why his house is called ‘Roon Jaham’. Giddy with relief over the flaw in the allegation, Lingam corrects him, “It’s not Roon Jaham; it’s Noor Mahal!” Singaram persists, “Even still, why would you give your house a Muslim name?” A slightly discomfited Kamal Hassan catches on, explaining: “Ennudaya manaivi Janaki per-la, Shah Jahan Taj Mahal katna madhiri, nooru mahal kattanum-nu nenachen. Oru veedu thaan katnen, adhukke nooru mahal-nu peru vechutten,” before prancing off in triumph.
If you don’t understand Tamil, my heartfelt sympathies. But essentially, the elegantly constructed rejoinder involved punning on the name of Noor Jahan and the Tamil word for 100 (nooru). As he delivers that line, Kamal Hassan’s face morphs — from harried, to inspired, to swaggering. “Wow!” exclaim Soundarya and Rambha, who watched this wordplay take shape and give them a miraculous escape. You often saw this glint in the eyes of actors who perform Crazy Mohan’s lines — especially in scenes where the characters talk their way out of bad situations using clinical wit.
“Vaayulla pullai pozhachukkum [a child with the gift of gab will survive]” goes an old Thenali Raman aphorism. No one has shown proof of this more often than Crazy Mohan and his characters.
“Life is crazy, take it easy,” he often says. So, apparently, was the topic of death for the Crazy Mohan I’ve come to love. In more films than one, death and the personification of it — the corpse — have brought out the best in Crazy Mohan. Sathya, Janaki and Paapamma ride the bus, shoulder to shoulder with an old man’s corpse in Magalir Mattum (1994). The conductor walks up to them and talks, obviously, to the man among them. “Ticket, ticket?” he asks. “Avaru eppovo ticket vaangiyaachu” quips Paapamma (in Tamil, buying a ticket is akin to kicking the bucket). Morbid humour is showered all over the scenes that follow, culminating in the inimitable “kattayila poravane” that Paapamma’s husband yells at the corpse riding a wooden cart.
Crazy Mohan taught me to see the lighter side of things, the madness of life and the funny inevitability of death. When my well-lived grandfather passed away a few years ago, I was standing there like a stranger, watching meaningless rituals playing out like a film in front of my eyes. Women of the family, wearing their traditional red saris, walked around the corpse, pouring buckets of water on their heads. An aunt, who chose to wear a new coloured cotton sari that day, had the grand misfortune of the wet fabric bleeding its colour. As she walked around my grandfather’s corpse in prayer, she had streams of red running down her legs, inadvertently marking a trail around him. I burst out laughing, much to the dismay of the ‘serious family’ I was raised by.
When I was done sharing Crazy Mohan jokes with my father on call yesterday, I muttered inanities about it being time for lunch, as an excuse to hang up. “Enna pa?” he asked, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Ungalukku K. Kumar-nu per vekkardhukku badhila k-kaadhu nu vechirukkalaam,” I said, and hung up without waiting for him to savour that joke. Crazy Mohan might be gone, but we all have a lifetime to savour his work.