Often one is faced with a sort of conundrum while talking with friends and arguing with adversaries, this is of course not idle talk; but most discussions on regional films are put down as a pale imitation or a perfect carbon copy of some other film from some corner of the world; this is of course true. Sadly there are many such films which can be down under the ‘lack of originality’ column, but wait should there be a ‘lack of originality’ column in the first place or in other words should originality be a parameter of necessity. In liking a film? I do not think so.
1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire is the spirit around which K.S. Ravikumar’s 1996 Avvai Shanmugi is built, a story about a dad dressing up as a nanny so that he could meet his children(child in the latter) who have been whisked away from him by court proceedings.
The preceding paragraph sums up both films for those who are yet to see it and will make more sense in the following ones where points are made for and against.
Firstly both are big family films, comedic takes on fragility of the family, sexist at times when the till-then underachieving protagonist instructs (at times by use of song and dance) the ex-lady of the house as to how families run on compromises etc and wins back a place into the family; but then which is more funnier?
Pierce Brosnan a good two years away from Goldeneye, plays a dashing man out to fill the place vacated by idealist<?> voice-over artist Robin Williams and the film progresses with Williams’ attempts to thwart these advances, if you will notice that there is no such character present in Avvai.
Heera Rajagopal plays the sex-opposite character of Pierce in Avvai, obviously made out as a second romantic lead to suit the star Kamal Haasan.
This is just the first of the things that Avvai doesn’t get right (in a manner of truthful adaptation), the lead heroine played by Meena is not career driven as Sally Field is, to say even more she does not even have a career; there is no particular reason for her to employ a nanny in the first place unless of course you give in to the reason that she assists her father (Gemini Ganesan) in the leather business and is too tied up to look after her daughter.
While Robin Williams’ feminine histrionics can be justified as his career as a voice over artist, Kamal Haasan plays a guy on the fringe of the entertainment industry (a dance assistant) but Doubtfire is a meticulously plain and not entirely funny account of an emotional man trying to win back his children.
Ok funny is a relative thing, what is funnier to you might not move a muscle on my lips; but what is inspiring about Avvai is that it is absolutely outrageous, a full-out attack to make you laugh so much so that it makes Mrs. Doubtfire looks like a tired old mouse saving up cheese.
This outrageousness alone makes Avvai a far better film, while Doubtfire entirely rests on the talent of Williams to make up the humour: a task he never fails; Avvai is filled with seriously funny actors upping the laughs per minute rate. There is the drunken make-up man Joseph who could make a parrot into a monkey, the dumb cook Pasha or Palavakkam Swaminathan with dreams of acting, the much-in love house owner Mudhaliyar, the ever snooping Sethurama Iyer ( Delhi Ganesh in a role like no other) as said above there are not even sketches of any such characters in Doubtfire, with introductions which are so diverse <Avvai> swirls around in madness finally elevating this film to comedic greatness.
My attempts fall in vain, as I will try to explain a sequence as follows: there are two people in love with Kamal Haasan as Avvai Shanmugi while he tries to pitch one against each other by claiming things one normally shouldn’t, at one point it is really difficult for the protagonist to keep track of what lies were said to whom, Avvai willingly finds itself in such hilarious situations from which there is no visible escape route except a deadly end.
Not only the final moments after the big reveal (in true sense) are but a big drag in Mrs Doubtfire, there is also the thread of the Robin Williams character trying to get better in his career(hmmm), which completely lacks the punch and the fulfilment that Avvai’s madness provides.
I agree that I am being unfair to Doubtfire for wanting it to be something which it is not, it is by its own standing a likeable children’s comedy and that’s about it; but that is the only way I get to show how different Avvai is different from Doubtfire and how it appeals to me more, how the seed of the cross dressing dad is borrowed and made into something bizarre, a lesson in uncontrollable madness, the screw-ball to end all screwballs. Avvai is not funny because it is complex, it is complex and funny and improves with every viewing.
All this of course will not matter to those who have never heard of Avvai Shanmugi (or ever will) and those who will find it difficult to appreciate it even with Tamil subtitles, but for those who few, those very few who have seen both movies are more likely to genuflect to the complete comic madness (again!) of Avvai , so much so that originality arguments are thrown out of the window and down comes the blinds.
So next time, when you state something in the lines of “this film is a frame by frame of that”, make sure you have seen ‘that’ film first and how similar or how different it is, nopes you will have to do more than read the IMDB summary to bring down a movie.
PS: Avvai Shanmugi released to roaring reception on Diwali day 1996, the film’s credits do not acknowledge the writers of Mrs. Doubtfire which it rightly should have, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from liking the film.