The Manjapai Review
Barely five minutes into Manjapai, we are already misty-eyed – a little boy is being taught to utter the words amma and appa, neatly drawn on a thick black writing slate by his thatha (Rajkiran). Thatha says a-mm-a and he replies- thaa-tha, he tries again- a-ppa and the little one again says thaa-aatha. A beautifully poignant melody (who else but SPB can infuse such multi-layered emotions into a song) follows, that strings a posy of love and affection between the thatha and his grandson – it’s warm and frothy and you just watch everything with a slow, indulgent smile. Manjapai reminds you of the inadequacies of our generation, of a childhood lost in the premise of nuclear families, the naivete and charm of a village life, of sumptuous kezhvaragu kuzh, kanjis and dark brown nutty ellu mittais and unconditional love. You have a lovable thatha who canes the class teacher for punishing his peran, sings lullabies, tells him bed time stories and shoves homemade ellu mittais in his trouser pocket to school.
But the scene changes, rather too quickly, to Chennai city and chronicles the life of the peran. Tamizh (Vimal) is all grown up, and quite ambitious with a one-minded mission to get a job in the US. Soon, he acquires a girl-friend, Karthika (Lakshmi Menon) and nothing stands between him and his mission – till his thatha decides to pay him a visit. Then, the conflict streams in – it’s a tussle between traditional geniality and new world practicality. On the first day, he punches a greedy auto driver, knocks at the unfriendly neighbour’s door with a pot of kuzhambu, fusses over a neighbour who is going to have a baby and bonds with a little girl over ellu mittais. He gets conned, laughed at, and yet thatha flashes his benign smile, ready to help anyone in trouble. He thrashes an eve-teaser, drops the girl at her place and slaps her dad for being careless. He plays messiah to a foreign couple and saves a child with his native concoction.
The thatha–peran bond is what knocks the film up several notches – his eyes turn as earnest as a puppy’s when they look at his grandson and you feel a lump in your throat. Tamizh, to his credit, tolerantly bears the brunt of his grandfather’s artlessness – even when he burns his Apple laptop, taking it for a toaster. But his love-story suffers as he struggles to keep pace with his hot-headed girlfriend, who resents the presence of his thatha.
Every time the tracks veers towards Tamizh and Karthika or his grumpy boss, it falters, gets predictable and dreary. Their love story is poorly choreographed and so are the bland songs (N R Raghunanthan’s music) and dances that precede it. In Engeyum Eppodhum, there was some novelty in that impromptu jig that Jai broke into on the streets, with jaywalkers joining in, but it gets tedious when repeated film after film, especially with a sloppy dancer like Vimal on board. Lakshmi Menon plays the typical impatient, blunt, jealous girlfriend to the hilt. But they do lack a searing chemistry and Vimal doesn’t have the makings of a romantic hero. Sample the scene where he nods his head (apparently in delight) when he bumps into Karthika- and you realise why she is taking time to make up her mind. But then, he more than makes up for it when he plays the adoring peran.
Manjapai rests solely on the goodness of Thatha; his innocence and native charm. Rajkiran breathes life into a role that requires him to be endearing, raw and foreboding at the same time. It’s beautifully nuanced – be his gait, body language, dialogue delivery and a smile that touches your heart. The frames that briefly linger over a Madurai village are enchanting (Camerawork: Masani). And for the rest of the frames, a 78-year-old man enchants you.
Director: N Raghavan
Cast: Rajkiran, Vimal, Lakshmi Menon