So I saw Manthiri Kumari.
In this Mu Karunanidhi takes an old Tamil Buddhist tale (Kundalakesi) and reinvents it by adding early DMK propaganda and theatrical elements. And Ellis R Dungan keeps a steady hand on the directing and editing so that for a near three hours you go along for the ride. Lovely Amudhavalli (the eponymous Minister’s Daughter), how did you fare? Let’s tarry no further!
A convoy of Mullai Nadu merchants is on its way, laden with goods, when it is set upon by bandits who best them fairly quickly and make off with the spoils. Included in this is a pretty lass set upon immediately by the lascivious bandit chief (what flashing eyes you have, you WOLF!). But she has a little sword on her and is all Thus I Die Cruel Man which leaves the bandit chief very cross indeed for he must have his daily FEMALE FLESH!
As it appears must the king and his coterie. For back in the palace, a bevy of girls is giving new meaning to the lotus position. And the King, his Rajaguru (Nambiar) and his Minister are quite enjoying this pre TV entertainment of the Rich and Powerful. Just as the lotus closes, the remnants of the convoy hobble in and inform the King that the bandits have killed, raped and looted their group. The Rajaguru is huffy and dismissive, the King is a cretin and is hey you folks are way too careless but before they all disperse the Minister intervenes and the Good General Veeramohan (MG Ramachandran) has been entrusted with the task of catching the bandits.
Veeramohan addresses his troops who appear to be at ballet with swords practice. They are now completely motivated to give a performance. Or catch bandits. Whatever.
The King’s daughter Jeevarekha (G Sakunthala) meanwhile has little else to do but sing (and I spy Kumari Kamala dancing). And watching on is the bandit chief who is in town and smacking his lips and thinking I am a Big Bad WOLF and I shall fix my eyes on this thidippu morsel, hypnotise it and ravish it. NOW! But even bandit chiefs have to resort to more civilised means so he sits down to write Jeevarekha a LOVE LETTER. No use! For Jeevarekha is right now catching up with Veeramohan for the young folk are having a TOP SECRET LOVE AFFAIR. Why is the fish instrument so much more fascinating than Mohan the Makku? Boy, lift your game!
Enter Amudhavalli (Madhuri Devi) the Manthiri Kumari aka Minister’s Daughter. She and the princess are besties and spend time lolling around in their bedchambers. And this one time the bandit chief’s flunkey delivers the love letter by throwing it into the Princess’ bedchamber. It is picked up by Amudhavalli who is all MUST MEET MAN who writes love letters.
The bandit chief goes to meet Dad aka EVIL BRAHMIN PRECEPTOR aka the Rajaguru. Turns out he is Parthiban (S.A. Natarajan) who chucked a massive tantrum that has lasted several years because he was not made the General instead of Veeramohan. The banditry is to make Veeramohan seem inept though truth be told banditry runs in Parthiban’s blood. It’s what happens if the Dad is a priest, folks! Dad is all my darling darling son the General has been asked to catch you, I fear for you, leave these bad ways but Parthiban is all sardonic, cynical and cruel rapier wit. Sigh, Bad Boys!
Comic Interlude. The first one involves a bandit, a girl, a boy and a stern mother. And a bed. I am totally joining the lowly sorts up front and booing. And whistle podu for girl!
Amudhavalli rushes off to meet Parthiban who is initially annoyed at Jeeva’s non arrival but also thinking FUCK, I have good luck with the ladies and this Amudhavalli here is one Extra Juicy Jangiri! Oh Parthiban your voice is like a raucous, shrill bird its notes shattering in a million pieces, each winging its way to Amudhavalli so that she is tingling all over and thinking lady parts BEHAVE for I have no knickers! And Parthiban is thinking this is one lovely lady with a pretty turn of phrase and boom they are in love and boating in a very fancy floater. But no love can make Parthiban abandon banditry and FEMALE FLESH.
Veeramohan now takes matters into his hands and is doing GOOD DEEDS. His army has set out to capture the bandits. Ballet discarded for fancy dress. Everyone is now dressed as a MERCHANT! In his lair Parthiban is informed of the approaching convoy and he and his gang falls down on them you know like WOLVES on the fold only to be bested by the Army in disguise. Yippee, Parthiban and Mohan Sword Fight where everything moves FAST FAST FAST. Move aside Rajnikanth you clod, you are getting in the way! Veeramohan, good soul, wins and de-masks Parthiban and is all Fuck Mate hiding in a cave, albeit luxurious, is perhaps not the best form of revenge!
Parthiban is brought before the king – Oi I want his one-shouldered mini! He totally wants to say things like Veeramohan I want to dip your balls in nalla yennai and fry them and grind them in the fancy Sumeet mixer from my last haul into chutney which I shall smear on my idli and that way they will never come near Jeeva but this being a DECENT FAMILY MOVIE, he SNARLS and makes a speech and calls Mohan a PALACE DOG. The Rajaguru is all upset and trying to browbeat the king into releasing Parthiban. The King is a cretin and vacillator and is fuck I can’t decide. The Minister believes Veeramohan however and soon Parthiban is sent off to prison. His Dad rushes along and tries to coax Parthiban to leave banditry but he is all Bwahahaha you Old Fool, It is not a JOB it is an ART and I it’s SUPREME PRACTITIONER! Hey there Parthiban don’t make so many clever speeches, don’t flash your eyes you WOLF, we so do not want to join the Bad Boy Seduction that Amudhavalli is engaged in! And now Amudhavalli is here and all I can’t believe you are a bandit and Parthiban is suck it up lady. And Amudhavalli is all if I release you will you promise to give up banditry? And Parthiban is all first you are a Very Boring Savithri and second Bwahahaha Stupid Woman Banditry is an Art and I it’s SUPREME PRACTITIONER. And I am happy to SWING for it!
Now that Parthiban will swing, the Rajaguru is raining curses and abuses on all and screaming that the kingdom will be DESTROYED!
Comic Interlude. This one involves a girl dressed as a boy, a boy and a stern mother being fooled. And a bed. I am totally joining the lowly sorts up front and booing.
Amudhavalli believes in the power of her love. That and she likes a WOLF in her bed. Since everyone is totally like Parashakti has the answer to EVERYTHING she hides behind a statue of the goddess and is soon informing her Dad in her Special Goddess Voice that Parthiban is innocent and Veeramohan is guilty. Uh huh lady way to betray your bestie! The General is all Fuck Statues DON’T TALK but the king and the minister are all of course they do, the GODDESS HAS SPOKEN! So Parthiban doesn’t swing and becomes the General and Veeramohan is banished from Mullai Nadu. Hey good thing the other states have no illegals policy! At this Jeevarekha also runs away and joins Mohan.
Now Amudhavalli and Parthiban are married. And there is a song about the deep deep love of Amudhavalli and Parthibhan. And Parthiban is thinking ow ow a trio of tasty tasty mitaai and I can’t touch them! Lovely as Amudha is, this is AGONY!
His son saved, the Rajaguru is now plotting to kill the King and make Parthiban the King. Like Iznogoud.
Comic Interlude. In Parthiban’s cave. Where a layabout anoints himself chief and everyone else is a minister. A STATEMENT ON DEMOCRACY! Lots of Whistle Podu!
Parthiban inspite of his promises is soon tiring of his insatiable bride and takes to nocturnal disappearances for banditry with the old gang. And Parthiban is still thinking of ravishing Jeeva so he plans to abduct Jeeva. Parthiban you are a charming wolf and you have a charming turn of phrase:
Bandit Flunkey: Princess Jeevarekha is the embodiment of TRUE LOVE.
We feel for poor deluded Amudhavalli! Girl, no matter how charming the wolf, we are with you!
Comic Interlude. Stern Mother is a Pain. Boy and Girl have now run away. Meh. Yawn. Cigarette Break.
Amudhavalli is deluded but also SMART. She follows Parthiban one night in disguise, just the day Parthiban has thidippu morsel Jeeva delivered to his lair. But here is Amudhavalli to the rescue, here is her rousing sword fight with Parthiban till he de-masks her and goes Tchah, Nee Ya! And is all the sun may forget to set but this woman is incapable of leaving me ALONE for my NEFARIOUS DEEDS-MARRIAGE SUCKS! And all Fuck I am over you now Amudha please go and inform everyone I am a bandit!
Amudhavalli takes Jeeva back to her house to hide and is all repentant at betraying the bestie for Rapey Parthiban. It’s OK, Amudhavalli, you are simply the first of the BadBoyPhiles, in fact you are their FUCKING PATRON SAINT!
Meanwhile Boy, Girl and Veeramohan meet up and set a trap for the bandit flunkey who discloses the whereabouts of Jeeva. So they all are sneak back into Mullai Nadu in disguise.
Parthiban and the Rajaguru are all impatient now and worried about being caught. So Parthiban decides to kill Amudhavalli and the Rajaguru the King. Parthiban returns to the marital bedchamber and is all cooing and sweet and all Perhaps the scorching blaze of my anger has given way to Cool Moony LOVE and Amudhavalli is thinking Damn, Damn man your words make me hot and wet and I have quite forgotten that you are Rapey Parthiban. So they reconcile and plan a PICNIC!
Comic Interlude. Stern Mother. Boy. Girl. Veeramohan in disguise. Boy and Girl Marry. WHISTLE PODU!
Shock Horror! Amudhavalli has set off for the picnic! And the rascal badawa (but still quite the charming WOLF, eh!) Parthiban is going to frolic with her on a cliff top – all the better to fling Amudhavalli to her death. Parthiban singing a song - Amudhavalli that is NOT a love song, he is sending you off to your ETERNAL REST! On the cliff top Parthiban reveals his plan as well as the plot to kill the King and Amudhavalli is all Goddamn I have been so very very foolish and ladies here are my last words NEVER NEVER trust your lady parts! Then Amudhavalli is all can I have a last wish and Parthiban is all yeah whatever and Amudhavalli is can I circle you thrice and Parthiban is Yawn OK I know I am GOD. And right at the third turn she pushes Parthiban to his DEATH! Oi Amudhavalli you are one kickass lady, WE DIE WE DIE!
Elsewhere Veeramohan is his usual idiot makku self and manages to insert himself into the attempted assassination of the King by the Rajaguru with the result that he is soon in chains for attempted murder.
But here is Amudhavalli to the rescue! She returns to the palace to announce the plot to kill the King and pronounces Veeramohan to be innocent . Veeramohan is reunited with Jeeva, Jeeva with her cretin father. But just when all is going swimmingly the Rajaguru maddened by Parthiban’s death throws a knife and poor Amudhavalli is all Thus I Die Cruel Man but the nation is SAFE! But oh no a far worse fate awaits your heroine! For here she is as a BUST a la Mayawati and here is Jeeva singing a song and there is Mohan Makku and inexplicably the cretinous king is still KING and it’s THE END! WHISTLE PODU!
Manthiri Kumari is way too much fun for me to be objective. I know of the film through my mother who introduced me to a lot of the early DMK films that mixed cinema and politics. Manthiri Kumari was one of the first to do so and it is witty, inventive and rarely didactic. Though there is an element of showboating and sophistry in the way Karunanidhi uses language it all remains highly enjoyable and would have been more so for an audience attuned to the nuances of the language and familiar with the politics of the day. Perhaps the man should have kept his day job. And perhaps he and the party took that “Banditry is Art” a little too literally :-)
There are a lot of other interesting elements to Manthiri Kumari and none more so than its American director Ellis R Dungan who has a comprehensive biography at wiki, astonishingly the man directed films like Meera and Sakunthalai. Dungan keeps things moving at a brisk pace even though the interludes and songs are far too many. But there is also something of the theatre about these interludes, the tradition of fillers while the next scene is being set up. And the movie so obviously draws from the theatre that there is a charm in these set pieces addressed directly to the audience. Mixed in with this are a lot of outdoor shots which save the film from being static.
The movie is at its best when Parthiban and Amudhavalli are on the screen (as also the Rajaguru). SA Natarajan is in fact very good, all exaggerated evil as called for in a historical but reining it in just so and somehow also being entirely credible as a romantic lead.
PostScript: Vaarai Nee Vaarai is indeed an excellent song, at once a song of love and a coded song of death. It would not be surprising if it had sat at the top of the 1950s charts:-)