Ms Representation: All the world’s a circus

This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about Mehendi Circus
Ms Representation: All the world’s a circus

Mehandi Circus, written by filmmaker Raju Murugan and directed by his brother Saravana Rajendran, is an interesting romance set in the early 90s. For a large part of the film, I was reminded of the 1991 Tamil film Idhayam, and the hero Madhampatty Rangaraj had late actor Murali’s genteel vibe. 

Shweta Tripathi’s Mehandi (whose role in Masaan, Mari Selavaraj has said inspired him to write Jo in Pariyerum Perumal) stars in this caste-conscious love story, and brings a sense of sincerity to her role. Mehandi is part of a circus that comes into town. Jeeva, who owns a recording shop, Rajageetham, is held responsible for the elopement of several young lovers, because he picks the right Ilaiyaraaja song for the man to woo the woman. (He is A2, says a policeman. A1 is Ilaiyaraaja). In keeping with some recent films that have relied on Ilaiyaraaja to give their scripts a fillip, Mehandi Circus too uses songs to further the story, especially in the first half.

In the beginning of the film, when Jeeva is drunk and unable to kick-start his bike, an irate Mehandi walking on the road, asks him to step aside and starts it in one kick before going her way. Jeeva is smitten and his friend calls her ‘lady Bruce Lee’. 

When the circus opens, Jeeva realizes what Mehandi does. As part of the knife throwing act, she stands smiling, with her hands splayed, as if being crucified (at the altar of tradition?) 

Jeeva and Mehandi fall in love eventually. Here Shweta’s affected Tamil and her vulnerability, despite making a living out of daredevilry, make Mehandi utterly believable. When she says, “My grandfather did not ask my grandmother, 'Do you like what you do?' My father did not ask my mother. But you are asking me if I like what I am doing for a living,” you can hear the confusion and love for his concern in her voice. Mehandi Circus is essentially a romance drama, a movie set in a different era. 

At times, the film feels a bit over-thought, over-produced, and its politics too in-your-face. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It is the director’s call. But it reduces everyone to black or white. There is no room for grey (unlike, say, a Pairyerum Perumal). 

Jeeva’s father is an irredeemable casteist (and there are lots of those in real life too), but even when he falls terribly ill, we feel nothing for him. Not even schadenfreude. Same with his mother, who loves embroidering ducks -- we don’t know much else about her. The two people we feel a lot for in this film are Mehandi and the priest who loves his wine. Vela Ramamoorthy as the wine-sipping Father who unites lovers secretly, as if he is the St Valentine of the village, is very effective. When he kisses a ladies watch, it is a truly unusual and moving moment. 

Mehandi Circus is a curious film in which two different worlds collide. A world in which Jeeva and Mehandi are able to transcend all boundaries with great, gentle, natural ease, and a world in which their fathers are unable to even try to confront boundaries. There are times when the film works very well, times when it underwhelms. But with its unpredictable screenplay, and a very original heroine, the film held my attention for the most part.

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