However much I may desire that my own tribute to Crazy Mohan might be bracketed with those who have had the good fortune of working with him, there is no denying the fact that I fit right in the middle of the dreamy demographic that he often weaves his world around.
If briskly done, the attractive myriad of historic temples, culture, art and food that form the heart and soul of his world is a five minute walk from home. Conveniently, I experience a very Joan Didion Slouching Towards Mylapore moment when traveling the Crazy Mohan-World circles through the nostalgia of the 80s that I never saw (I was born in 1986 and didn’t live in Mylapore until 1999).
There is an understandable appetite for escapism these days. I often recapitulate the neighborhood nuances for myself as I listen to his dramas, in loops, and stumble up on secret corners of his imagination. I recall his talks and love for the locality as I walk through the narrow lanes around Kapaleeshwarar Temple, never forgetting to raise a toast to him over a glass of the Kalathi Rose Milk he cherished, while transforming the visuals around me to a sepia photograph with him as a subject.
In an era where movies are made or binned by their opening weekends, books lasting about as long as their first review, his scripts have passed the test of time impacting generations alike because they breed a sense of familiarity and stem personal satisfaction from the laughter mutually created.
Travel is my preferred form of self-indulgence. His dialogues and scripts are a close second. I have always felt closer to home when on travels with my headphones plugged to one of his dramas or movies, for the umpteenth time. He was my companion in Siberia and Mongolia, in Iceland and Greenland, in Colombia and Mexico, in Egypt and Sudan. He was a widely travelled man himself, and I cherished secretly taking him with me to corners of the world I loved exploring. Everything seemed familiar because he was with me.
Crazy Mohan derived humor from the absurdities of everyday life. I was told his journeys back home from work during his days as an Engineer with Sundaram Clayton, well past dusk, were famously miserable for the dog chases he had to endure through RK Salai and TTK Road . He has claimed, on more than one occasion, that this was a catalyst in him switching fields to the entertainment industry.
If you are immune to the child-like innocence his humor breeds, you’ll acknowledge nothing evaporates as swiftly as humor the moment it is over-examined or analyzed. You appreciate that there is an indefinable sense of aphorism in every word. He had the rare sense of knowing just how often to summon his audience and when to leave them wanting more.
What lurks behind the meticulousness of his jokes and their timing is a tactical maneuver combining the element of surprise and the speed of his humor. I often indulge the odd peripheral glance when attending a live performance to see who is always laughing at the wrong moment. Engaging in his poetic verbal felicities (the Munnadi Pinnadi sequence from the famed Panchatantiram for instance) is a hobby that I pursue perennially without running the risk of boredom.
He credits PG Wodehouse and Devan as his idols growing up. While subservient imitation has long been a part of literary tradition, it is hard to imagine how one would legitimately appropriate Crazy Mohan’s characters. By rarely elevating the lead character Maadhu as his script’s stalwart defender, he burnishes the gleam that sets his plays apart from his contemporaries and never fails to remind us that he too is just one of us.
It is as if his characters know who we are: they know where we live, how we live and that makes a difference when we are pulled into their world. Appa Ramesh, often the strict disciplinarian (and occasionally the hopeless musician), is subtle, vivid and direct. His humor is matter-of-fact, his dialogue delivery adding muster and amplifying the voices of those around him: as he does, the bigger pictures of the entire household rise to focus that we are quickly able to relate to. The ‘versatile’ Subbu dons roles of a lawyer, barber, inspector, marriage broker or a (wishful) neanimorphic grandfather with equal conviction.
My passion for Astronomy has compelled me to look at Maadhu and Cheenu as a kind of binary star system, endlessly spinning around one and other. In such star systems, the brighter star is often defined as the primary while the dimmer as secondary – metaphorically, one could argue that Crazy Mohan nailed the duo to perfection, inadvertently or otherwise.
In most dramas, Maadhu finds himself and Cheenu, much to the latter’s displeasure, entangled in predicaments worthy of his own convoluted plots with the troop’s first play, Allauddin and 100 Watts bulb, being the only exception where he is subject to a condign punishment in an intriguing twist. But devoted drama listeners will also recognize that it is often another character in a play who gets the inimitable epithet – from the effervescent Saloon Muthu in the all-time classic Marriage Made in Saloon to the deaf, but vivacious father-daughter duo of K Sethuraman and Mythili in Maadhu Plus Two.
Even cameos get their due share: for instance, the tale of an inter-faith romance intertwined with a bank robbery in Return of Crazy Thieves sees Krishamoorthy and Sundararajan donning roles as Father R Sandosham and the hapless Apanna Sastrigal, possessing a CV embellished with last rites, hoping to conduct a wedding. It is as if he is telling two stories at once.
I feel closer ties with his characters than I do with many supposedly real people. These characters make up the invisible story of my life – people capable of probing the fabric of your self-conscience and characters refined through magical brushstrokes sculpting what are, ordinarily daily routines, into art. A world in which time is suspended and there is hardly a need to even glance beyond the cocooned neighborhoods of Mylapore, Triplicane or Palavakkam.
I have tried on occasions to understand the premises of his spontaneity and what lighted his ferment beliefs. His deep sense of connection to his forebears – he credits his grandparents for igniting his passion in humor and extracurriculars – left Crazy Mohan with an innate respect for tradition and culture, the steadfast roots that have allowed him to bring Rama and Krishna into his family-centric scripts of longing. It brought clairvoyance to the lenses of his third eye. Everyone needs to believe there is some place we can repose our hopes: for Crazy Mohan, it was the theatre.
Divine intervention and familial bonds are undercurrents rather than features in his scripts. His characters, in the face of challenges, find wisdom and understanding within themselves through family and God. A lawyer, in the drama Crazy Kishkinta, unemployed 15 years since earning his legal qualifications, who receives a thrust in good fortune through reciting the Valmiki Ramayana on the advice of his father-in-law is set in the backdrop of the idea of impermanence. An archetypal Crazy Mohan character in Chocolate Krishna, a salesman who struggles to climb the corporate ladder while being ridiculed for his unwavering faith in Lord Krishna sees his fortunes (and those around him, none more so than his father, an aspiring flautist) revived through an encounter with Lord Krishna. A happy-go-lucky bachelor who abhors the idea of responsibility invariably finds himself caught in the webs of marital life in Ayya Amma Ammamma while relying on his close confidant to turn his life around.
There is a fine line between culture shock and cultural pride that I have every intention of straddling. But I often got a feeling that there was something he loathed about the misplaced idea of western modernism, a stoicism that I could relate to. With family and cultural values having used up their credit rating some time ago, maybe he recognized some causes are too lost to care. He weaved his supposedly perceived antiquated beliefs with contemporary irony, as if to hit home the point.
Even though he has gone his own way, he was never a rebel. He gained his greatest successes through collaboration with an anti-thesis in Kamal Hassan. He perhaps never felt at home amidst the crass looseness of the cine industry which has a reputation for champagne socialism, but never gave up a single principle of his. He remained an Indian and a literary democrat. His scripts, at their richest, were irresistible: rooted in values and sustained by sincerity. His humor remained unadulterated and pure, his female leads remained named Janaki and Mythili.
Surviving the atmospheric entropy of Kollywood takes more than just utopian chutzpah. Fraternity is a very subtle thing. When assessing a celebrity, we look for flaws, eccentricity and – if I could borrow the phrase off his character, Ramabadhran, from the play Marriages Made in Saloon – ‘kisu kisu’ (the Tamil slang for gossip). Many current comedians make a substantial living by imitation alone. Notable music directors have implemented their craft by replicating music conceived by others.
He remained bereft of controversy. Not privy to what transpired behind the scenes, his parting of ways with S Ve Sekhar remains a storm in a teacup. By Maadhu & Director SB Khantan’s own admissions, he was notoriously, and often infuriatingly, tardy with his script delivery. But men of genius have their reasons for it: whether it is creativity under the gun or not I’ll never know but I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
The only grief he gave us was when he moved on to the higher world.
V.S. Naipaul once wrote of RK Narayan that “he appeared to be writing from within his culture while truly possessing his own world”. The same can be said of Crazy Mohan. The power of his compelling story-telling often leave you little choice but submit entirely to the charm he has cast on you.
A father of a close friend of mine who knew him from his younger days tells me that during passing conversations, he rarely looked like he was trying to joke. But he just joked. In fact, he often only joked. He once referred to himself as an anesthesiologist (dare I say Dr Margabandhu): humor lightens the burden of existence. A large portion of his magnetism comes from his ability to have the world laugh with him. He was happy to self-inflict jokes because he knew that a large fragment of his fan base came from similar, working class backgrounds.
Many of us in this privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. There is something excessive to his modesty that taught me that is okay to not have the array of talents he possessed: as an engineer, a historian, a writer, a poet, an artist as long as you were kind-hearted and magnanimous. He taught me that no good deed goes unrewarded, and no sin goes unnoticed. And most importantly, he taught me that there is room for humor even in the direst of circumstances.
And it is perhaps those lessons that continue to live with me in the form of Crazy Mohan, the moral truths of a perpetually frenzied and delightful literary world he created through five decades of unrelenting authorial humor.
Cover Image Credit: Crazy Mohan | YouTube | Kalakendra