'Kamal Haasan is everything to me'
With World Laughter Day being observed on Sunday, Crazy Mohan shares his comic inspirations, and reflects on his long and successful career
Crazy Mohan has done it all in the field of comedy. He’s a screenwriter, playwright, and actor rolled into one. It’s all in keeping with his goal: “To make people laugh.” He’s grateful to have been given the opportunity to regale audiences for decades. “I enjoy meeting people — in particular, those who understand and appreciate humour. It makes me feel good," he says.
He remembers his comedy beginnings, and says the success was quite accidental. "I did mechanical engineering and was dabbling with theatre as a hobby. My first skit, Great Bank Robbery, became a hit. I persisted, and received the best director-writer award from Kamal Haasan. He was an established actor even then, and I was a nobody. I never thought in later years I'd work with him," says Crazy Mohan, whose collaborations with Kamal Haasan have resulted in some enduring comedies like Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Sathi Leelavathi, Avvai Shanmughi, Panchathanthiram, and Pammal K Sammandham.
While the beginnings may have been accidental, Mohan believes that comedy was always his calling. “Adulation gives me a high, and I've always been attached to the idea of being part of stage shows." One of his most famous plays, Chocolate Krishna, is gearing up for its 1,000th show. “Well thought-out humour can turn into philosophy. Chocolate Krishna, in that sense, is way more than just a show,” he says. “Plays are like babies. You don’t analyse them too much. You don’t ask if they are fair or dark. You simply enjoy them.” As someone who’s been in the business of writing comedies for more than 30 years, Mohan points out that the trick is always to stay relevant. “And that can happen only through experimenting,” he says.
Tamil theatre, however, isn’t attracting as many audiences as it once did, and Mohan recognises that. “It’s a cycle. It will flourish once more. When Krishna spoke the Gita, Arjuna was the only audience. But see its audience today.”
For a comedian, there can be no bigger high than the sight of people throwing their heads back in laughter. It’s perhaps why Mohan can never forget his misses. Even in a superhit like Apoorva Sagodharargal, he says there was a moment that didn’t work as much as they thought it would. “Appu (Kamal Haasan) gets down from a taxi, and the driver says, “Meter ku mela pottu kudunga sir.” He replies, “Naane meter ku keezha thaane ya.” During shooting, the whole unit was in splits. But the audiences didn’t respond as well to that dialogue. Later, the film’s editor, B Lenin, suggested that maybe Kamal should have remained closer to the taxi in speaking that line.”
His association with Kamal Haasan is the stuff of pop culture. “It was only after Apoorva Sagodharargal that cinema became my full-time profession. Kamal told me that he would take care of my future,” he remembers. Mohan isn’t as active in Tamil cinema anymore. “I don’t know if my brand of humour suits Tamil cinema anymore. Things are different today.” He was originally part of the upcoming sequel, Charlie Chaplin 2, but backed off. “I have to own the story if I’m given the task of writing dialogues. I didn’t have that kind of time and space. I’m sure director Sakthi Chidambaram will do a good job."
He can’t be grateful enough for what Kamal Haasan has done for him. “Everything I am today is because of the freedom he gave me. I’m not a nasthigan (atheist), or an asthigan (theist). I’m simply a haas-thigan,” he says, evoking the many instances of ingenius wordplay that he has contributed to Tamil cinema. “Kamal and I complement each other really well. Originally, for that famous scene in Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Kamal suggested that a lizard fall into the sambar. I suggested the meen-angle, only so we could make a series of puns based on that word,” he says, and goes on to call Kamal Haasan half-Sivaji and half-Nagesh. “I’d love to see him do a full-length comedy now.”
Mohan himself is a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, and Goundamani and Senthil. “I also like PG Wodehouse, O’ Henry, Cho, Ki Va Jagannathan, Kothamangalam Subbu and Devan. I miss artistes like Nagesh and Vaali, people who make a genuine effort to make people laugh." Of those active today, Sathish and Chaams are his favourites. “It’s not just because they were once part of my troupe,” he says and winks.
While his contributions to comedy are only too well-known, he has — like most comedians — a serious side to him that creates a different kind of art. “I paint and write short stories too. I’ve written dialogues for almost 40 films and scripted many plays for television. As for films, not many know that I was the dialogue-writer for Arunachalam,” he says. “Of course, Kamal Haasan kitta permission kettutu dhaan pannen (I sought permission from Kamal Haasan).”
Why the name Janaki for the lead female character in his plays?
It’s definitely not an ex-girlfriend or wife. It was the name of my teacher.
Ever been envious of other comedians?
Yes, many, many times.
Any plans of returning to films?
I’m presently in talks with Bramma (of Magalir Mattum fame) and Pushpa Kandaswamy (Balachander's daughter).
The most frustrating aspect of being a comedian?
That awkward silence after a joke when you don’t know if the audience will laugh.
A comment on today’s audience?
They are less tolerant, and quickly expressive of their feelings through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.