Manmatha Leelai Movie Review: An intriguing dark comedy that falls short
Remove the unnecessary garb of adult comedy, Manmatha Leelai is a fascinating study of how a simple film can be elevated thanks to certain choices in the narrative style
Venkat Prabhu, fresh off the blockbuster success of Maanaadu, was clear about calling Manmatha Leelai a "small, fun film made during the pandemic." It was almost like he wanted the audience to know that he might have not attempted this 'experiment' if not for the COVID situation. After watching Manmatha Leelai, it is also clear why he wanted to condition the audience so because the Ashok Selvan-starrer is not what was promised with the promotional material. For those looking for a laugh-a-minute romp or the ones who imagined this to be on the lines of some not-so-illustrious predecessors in this genre, Manmatha Leelai turns out to be a surprise detour.
Cast: Ashok Selvan, Samyuktha Hegde, Riya Suman, Smruthi Venkat
Director: Venkat Prabhu
While we saw Venkat and co bend the time-space construct in Maanaadu, he toys with this in Manmatha Leelai, in telling the story of Sathya (Ashok Selvan) in 2010 and 2020. He is in two similar predicaments, and how each of them pans out is told parallelly, with the crisscrossing of timelines smartly represented by the wonderful editing work of Venkat Rajen and cinematography by Thamizh A Azhagan. In 2010, we follow the story of Sathya and Poorni (Samyuktha Hegde), and in 2020, we follow Sathya's life with Anu (Smruthi) and Leela (Riya). While it is easy to slot this alternating timeline method as a gimmick that extends its welcome, some smart writing ensures this isn't the case. The expertise VP gained in Maanaadu definitely comes in handy here. Unlike many other adult comedies that have made their presence felt in Tamil cinema, Manmatha Leelai is not just about the pursuit and attainment. The gaze here is not too different, but it is thankfully used minimally. More importantly, it is not something we haven't seen before in Venkat Prabhu films like a Saroja or a Biriyani. So, it doesn't really make sense why he decided to mount this film as an adult comedy. Also, it is high time our filmmakers don't restrict themselves in making adult comedies that only titillate one section of the audience. How is it okay that Poorni doesn't react to a drenched Sathya the way he reacts to a drenched Leela? There is an allusion to female sexual desire, but this doesn't get explored enough. This dichotomy and pulling back a few punches is something that restricts Manmatha Leelai from reaching its full potential.
In Tamil cinema, infidelity doesn't really come under the 'adult' theme and the writing in Manmatha Leelai treats it with kid gloves. Once again, it isn't something we haven't seen in films like Chinna Veedu or Sathi Leelavathi or Uthama Purushan, or a Charlie Chaplin, but where Manmatha Leelai shows signs of fraying is in the emotional attachment in one of the timelines. If an adult comedy that develops a conscience in the last act is a bummer, imagine an adult comedy with a constant undercurrent of sentimentality because one of the storylines has a devoted wife at the centre. But remove the unnecessary garb of adult comedy and Manmatha Leelai becomes a fascinating study of how a simple film can be elevated thanks to certain choices in the narrative style.
If the writing is one of the pillars, although shaky at places, Premgi Amaren's background score is a revelatory addition. Easily among his best works, it is almost like he is in cahoots with editor Venkat Rajen to maintain the necessary suspense in the film. In fact, Manmatha Leelai is more of a dark comedy thriller along the lines of an Andhadhun rather than an adult comedy like a Hunterr. And in many ways, the easy presence of Ashok Selvan anchors the film whenever it meanders away from the self-imposed circle of experimentation. He is an absolute charm and uses this Venkat Prabhu 'quickie' to establish other facets of his acting abilities. While Samyuktha and Riya Suman are given meaty roles that allow them to tap into their acting talent, albeit with inconsistent results, Smruthi Venkat is handed a raw deal, as she is just made to be the Miss Goody Two Shoes in Sathya's life.
Like almost every VP film, there is the final act that changes the entire landscape of the film. While it might not always be the smartest way to wrap up a film, Manmatha Leelai hinges on the surprise factor of the last act, and it does deliver. The way a couple of twists are neatly wrapped up, and some of the dialogues, especially in the final act, put the comedy in this adult comedy. Also, I did enjoy how the title had a smart connection with the last act. However, I do wish proven filmmakers like Venkat Prabhu don't go for the easy pickings and use, for instance, 'podradhu' as a euphemism for sex. It is not that such lines shouldn't be written, but it is just that we have come to expect better from Venkat Prabhu. And because it is Venkat Prabhu, it was fair to assume Manmatha Leelai was to be THE adult comedy in Tamil cinema. While we are left with a bumpy ride of a film that is far from making that throne its own, Manmatha Leelai does saunter to a rousing ending that obliviates some of the earlier misgivings.