Rajini Murugan ***
Dir: Ponram. With: Sivakarthikeyan, Rajkiran, Keerthi Suresh, Soori. 149 mins. Cert: 12A
The past weekend’s Pongal festival – marking the point at which the sun begins its six-month ascent through the firmament – has yielded a full crop of Tamil releases. For some while, it looked like the comedy Rajini Murugan might never appear from behind the clouds. The second collaboration between writer-director Ponram and stand-up Sivakarthikeyan fell subject to (not uncommon) production delays and then worse luck besides: its initial release date coincided with the Chennai floods, a moment when those cinemas not underwater were serving as makeshift shelters. Yet the film that emerges proves so spirited one concludes no deity could hold it back: certainly, the packed matinee crowd I saw it with appeared delighted it had arrived.
The choice of Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, as a location opens up fresh locations for a filmmaker to explore, and new conventions to mock: as the opening voiceover establishes, this temple city nevertheless retains a reputation for harbouring all manner of rogues and thieves. While our narrator takes pains to debunk this notoriety, the film immediately undercuts him upon introducing Siva’s title character, a born loafer who spends his days pinching pennies from the administrators of the city’s endless festivals so as to avoid doing any real work. Very quickly, we sense we’re watching both a love letter to Madurai, and a spot of site-specific mischief-making.
Recounting our hero’s misadventures involves a measure of sketchiness: Western viewers may be reminded of any number of showcases for Saturday Night Live comics, a similarity underlined by the script’s copious in-jokes and leftfield references. This style can try the patience over two hours; at two-and-a-half, you might think Rajini doomed, but Ponram has a secret comic weapon: a hyper-frenetic approach that extends from the leading man’s machine-gun delivery to his agitated back-and-forths with best bud Thotathree (Soori) and beyond. A funeral ceremony unravels when the deceased rises from the dais; an aged bureaucrat gabbles so intently at a public meeting that his false teeth fly out.
No, it’s not subtle, but for an apparently simple slacker comedy, it’s working hard to entertain us, sustained by the kind of clever structuring idea the Tamil cinema now specialises in. In order to gaze upon his beloved Karthika (Keerthy Suresh), our Raj cobbles together a phoney teashop opposite her home – and, against all expectation, makes a success of this utterly impromptu, half-arsed venture. Though it follows a skittish route, some transformation is thus visited upon the protagonist: in the course of the only form of work he’s willing to commit to – getting into a young woman’s underwear – the planet’s least ambitious individual is reinvented as a wholly self-made man.
The consequences can be predictable – yes, our accidentally mobile hero rubs up against local gangsters – and the denouement, in which Raj has to close a deal on his grandpa’s property, feels less fun than the set-up: despite the film’s irreverent flourishes, it remains at heart conservative, a movie about the making of an estate agent. Yet Sivakarthikeyan breezes very likably through every transaction, gaining amusing support from Gnanasanbandam as his weary headmaster pa, and Achuthanand as the pompous prospective father-in-law. Like its dark-horse hero, it’s dragged its feet getting here, but Rajini Murugan finally comes through as a crowdpleaser that needed to reach its audience, come hell or perilously high water.
Rajini Murugan is now playing in selected cinemas.