Kamal Haasan is versatile – literally so. The Tamil thespian has played twins, father and son, quadruplets and 10 roles in various films, and each time, he sets the characters apart through voice modulation, make-up, body language, and personality tics. Dasavthaaram might have been excessive even for Haasan fans, but in Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s 1990 comedy Michael Madana Kama Rajan, the balance is just right.
Michael is a toughie, Madan is a suave businessman, Raju is a Chennai street type. The best character is Kameshwar, a Palakkad Brahmin caterer whose riotous Malayalam-inflected Tamil and love for Tirupurasundari (Urvashi) produces the best tune in Illaiyaraaja’s soundtrack. Haasan sang Sundari Neeyum (You are beautiful) along with legendary playback singer S Janaki, with lyrics by Malayali writer Poovachal Khader to suit the character’s background. (The terrible subtitles, though, barely capture the theme of celebration.)
Filmed entirely in slow motion, down to the lip movements of the actors, Sundari Neeyum is a fantasy sequence that explores Kameshwar’s amorous side. It occurs after two encounters that seal his fate. In the first, Kameshwar meets Tirupurasundari and her thieving grandmother at a wedding, where he ends up clasping the young woman’s hand while trying to solve the mystery of the missing items. Next, Kameshwar visits Tirupurasundari’s house to pick a quarrel with her. This time, they embrace, and move into a gorgeously filmed sequence that was shot at twice the normal speed and then slowed down to create a romantic reverie.
Cinematographer BC Gowrishankar floods the song with soft focus light and gently glides around the lovers as they dream of courtship, marriage, consummation, and the child that follows. The lilting tune is perfectly matched by the gracefully choreographed movements of the actors and the background dancers. The fantasy is especially hilarious since Kameshwar is a bumbling sort who can barely keep his wits about him. In his head, he is in control and a tiger in the bedroom¸ but the rest of the events in the movie prove otherwise.
Michael Madana Kama Rajan is constantly weaving between the quadruplets, whose paths eventually cross in a climax stolen from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Sundari Neeyum, however, is among the movie’s many wholly original and inspired moments.