Sometimes, we tend to shower an enormous amount of love on objects, both living and non-living, whose purpose in our existence is more amorphous than we would like to admit.
If you don’t trust me, look at the number of sob stories written when a brand shuts down. If each person who wrote a tweet, a short or long piece had decided to buy an Ambassador car, perhaps Hindustan Motors would not have had to stop production.
Similarly, when a star, an artiste, or a celluloid celebrity passes into time, there is a profound sense of loss. Unlike a brand or a product though, this passing on is not because there are no more buyers. This passing on is because time became a greater fan of their art than any of us could be.
When a star… may I use the word “celebrity” in the sense that he/she was “celebrated” in life and death? I think I will. So, when a celebrity, someone you had barely seen once or twice, hidden by the foliage of extended heads, all craning to see him, someone you had never met, but whose work you had always admired, when such a fragment of your life passes away, the sense of loss is felt more painfully, than perhaps the death of a neighbour.
There is no doubt that the neighbour was more approachable, more helpful or useful if you want to give a materialistic spin to the relationship, but then did he form a part of your life in a way that the celebrity did? Did our childhood consist of standing in a queue for rice with your neighbour’s ration card, because the neighbour was nice to you, or did it consist of standing in a longer queue for first-day-first-show tickets to the celebrity’s latest film? How many times have we defended a neighbour against allegations made by a friend as opposed to the number of times we have stood up for our celebrities?
We all know the answer.
Depending on who we are and what forms of art have peopled our childhood, some of us lost one and some of us lost two such celebrities on Monday.
Girish Karnad, actor, writer and playwright, and Crazy Mohan, also actor, writer and playwright. And yet, their bodies of work could not have been more diverse.
If Karnad took the story of Yayati from the Mahabharata, Mohan took Krishna and Ghatotkacha. In his hands, they became Chocolate Krishna and Google Ghatotkacha. If Karnad had his Tughlaq, Crazy Mohan wrote Alauddin and the Hundred Watts Bulb.
If Karnad was the strict disciplinarian father of Swami, Mohan was the quintessential Swami, although loaded with his bag of puns and wordplay.
Perhaps because cinema is a much stronger medium catering to wider assortment of senses, or perhaps light-headed humour is more appealing than sobering lessons drawn out of mystic mutations of mythology, or perhaps a very parochial reason that Crazy Mohan wrote in my mother tongue and therefore was relatable to my sensibilities, I am a bigger fan of his than that of Karnad. A fan who was introduced to the phenomenal power of his wit through Michael Madana Kama Rajan and went on to be astounded by Nil, Gavani Crazy, and the evergreen play Chocolate Krishna.
Crazy Mohan had an uncanny understanding of what his audience would like, which jokes would draw in the laughs and which punchlines would make the laughter linger. In more than one interview, he has said that he would write his lines keeping the children in the audience as the primary target. If they liked it, so would the rest of the audience. His performances appealed to the inner child in us all. Perhaps, that was why the jokes were never “crass” or “vulgar”.
Some say that it is a privilege to watch an artiste at work. Crazy Mohan democratised even that privilege. You may not have had the opportunity to watch him write the screenplay or discuss cues with his troupe. You did not have to be om the sets to watch the evolution of a scene. No, none of that was required. An interview, even a televised interview of Crazy Mohan would show you how spontaneously the puns and one-liners flowed. As you saw him speak the first sentence, the glint in his eye would tell you that a one-liner had just then been framed and will be landed on you right away. And so it did. In one interview, Crazy Mohan would talk about him having grown up all his life in Mylapore and then call it “My Love a Pore” and immediately move to say that he would feel homesick if he were to be taken to Mambalam (a place less than 6 km away).
Talking of Mylapore, Crazy Mohan knew that the social fabric of most of the humour in his plays was drawn from the idiosyncratic threads of a unique and limited ecosystem. Yet, like the Ananda Vikatan cover page jokes of the 1940s with Raju’s sketches or those of the 1960s with Gopulu’s sketches, he was not embarrassed by it. Instead, he embraced it with gusto and brought out the humour of life in that ecosystem.
Whether it was, the fact that in all the movies he wrote the script for, the female lead was either Mythili or Janaki as a tribute to his schoolteacher who had encouraged him to write, or that his dialogues in plays remained rooted in the dialect unique to the Brahmins, Crazy Mohan knew what his playground was and who his audience were. His plot elements, characters and writing, while drawn from a limited source, were delectable to all who were willing to partake in it. And each joke was a sixer, with the play Chocolate Krishna being his best scoring innings, being staged more than 750 times.
It is difficult to talk of Crazy Mohan without his collaboration with Kamal Hassan. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kamal Hassan’s entire comedy oeuvre draws its inspiration from Nagesh and Crazy Mohan. The movies! Where do I begin?!
From Sathi Leelavathi to the eternal Michael Madana Kama Rajan, from the rustic Pammal K Sambandham to the pilot Ram of Panchathanthiram, these were trips on which he showcased his ability to play with dialects of Tamil that were not his own. Kongu Tamil, Palakkad Tamil, Jaffna Tamil and the language sui generis, Madras Tamil, nothing was beyond his grasp.
His movie collaborations with Kamal were true comedies of errors. All of them were loaded with the iconic comic timing, written by Crazy Mohan and delivered flawlessly onscreen by Kamal Hassan. With one flimsy lie as the basement, the two would build a highrise with each floor of lies built to cover the previous one. While it may seem like the entire edifice could come collapsing down any minute, it wouldn’t. Not until it was the right time to confess to those that mattered. Only to them, mind you. Like Gemini Ganesan mourning the death of Avvai Shanmugi at the end of the movie, the edifice of lies would remain standing to the rest of the characters.
Crazy Mohan’s heroes were not mighty men. They were clumsy goofballs who had a penchant for being content with the simpler joys of life. To steal a line from Tennyson, talking of Tennyson, that riot of a scene from Kaadhala Kaadhala comes to mind. Kamal, as Lingam, visits the house of a Robertson having learnt that he is dead, to sell a painting to the next of kin, which turns out to be Robertson’s son Williamson. The humour reaches a crescendo with Kamal introducing himself as Lingam, then out of a desperate need to draw a Christian connection, prefixing it as “Abraham Linganm, m silent”. Here watch the scene for yourself:
If Crazy Mohan’s heroes were members of the Light Brigade, this is what would have been written about them,
Theirs not to conquer lands, theirs not to march in bands,
Theirs to meet a Mythili, theirs to join a Janaki.
What made Crazy Mohan so appealing to the Tamil audiences is also perhaps what has made him largely inaccessible to those who are not fluent with the language. His puns and one-liners depended on wordplay that involved both English and Tamil. I mean, how would you explain “Yechakaleynna Naai thaana? Yechakaley Singam, Yechakaley Puli…” to someone who doesn’t speak Tamil? To someone who does not know about the dialect called Madras Tamil, how do you explain the line “Nee pesarthu Kailasam Sivan maathiri illa, Rayapuram Sivan maathiri irukku”?
Time truly is, as the short Appu would say, a Kapata Naataka Veshadaari. It takes people away in the middle of their creative prowess. Will Kamal Hassan’s comedies ever be the same without Crazy Mohan? I wonder what his Crazy Creations would do. The void left by an artiste is felt by his audience, yes, but is more immediately felt by those who basked in the light of his glory.
What would Crazy Mohan be doing now?
“Great things happen effortlessly,” he said in an interview, and finished that sentence by adding, “until that happens, you have to make efforts”. Perhaps he is out there somewhere, chewing on his beloved vethala seeval, building a new troupe for staging Chocolate Krishna for the 800th time, effortlessly re-writing the jokes to suit the new locale and audience.
Jeysundhar D is a career diplomat of the Indian Foreign Service and works at the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. He tweets at @jeysundhar_d. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.
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