Santha Kumar’s 2011 debut film Mouna Guru focuses on a young student and how his life falls apart when he inadvertently becomes involved with a group of corrupt cops. The basic story is simple, but Santha Kumar layers detail upon detail to make an intricate plot with plenty of twists and unexpected diversions. Perhaps the most unexpected is that one of the major characters is a pregnant police officer brilliantly played by Uma Riaz Khan, but the whole film is full of quirky characters that fit perfectly into the screenplay. With an engaging screenplay, great performances and realistic settings, Mouna Guru is definitely one of the better crime dramas I’ve watched recently and one definitely well worth tracking down.
The film starts in Madurai where college student Karunakaran (Arulnidhi) lives with his mother (Sujatha Sivakumar). Karunakaran is generally quiet and studious but socially inept, which means that he is often in trouble when someone challenges his rather literal and single-minded view of the world. After a few clashes his University asks him to leave, but luckily for Karunakaran his brother Amal arranges for him to complete his degree in Chennai. At the same time his mother also moves to Chennai to look after Amal’s new baby which solves the problem of leaving Karunakaran to fend for himself. However, with his mother and his wife’s sister Aarthi (Iniya) also staying in their flat, Amal needs to make other arrangements for Karunakaran. There is a free room in the College hostel but while this solves the problem for Amal and his wife it further isolates Karunakaran from his family. This turns out to be an issue later on when Karunakaran disappears and his family accept everything they are told, even though most of it is blatantly untrue.
Initially things seem to go well, but Karunakaran’s quiet and solitary nature soon sets him up to be bullied by the more popular class members, while his family pushes him further away. His sister-in-law is unwelcoming, his brother too busy and his mother only has time for the new baby. His only consolation is Aarthi who seems to be able to appreciate his (rather deeply hidden) good points. And these are hard to spot – Karunakaran is gruff and uncommunicative; he often appears angry and definitely has none of the usual social graces. However, there is a good side to Karunakaran. The opening song shows him feeding monkeys and rescuing snakes, while he appears to have keen sense of right and wrong that drives him to seek social justice. He advises Aarthi to follow her dreams and work among the poor if that is what she really wants to do, while his own goal is to enjoy his job rather than make pots of money. With all his idiosyncrasies, Karunakaran is a dreamer at heart and Arulnidhi does an excellent job of bringing such a complex character to life.
Aarthi is Karunakaran’s complete opposite. She’s friendly, approachable and seems to be doing well in her medical studies. However she’s drawn to Karunakaran and the idealist she sees behind the prickly façade, and slowly the two fall in love – much to Karunakaran’s mother’s displeasure.
Meanwhile corrupt police officers ACP Marimuthu (John Vijay), Inspector Rajendran (Madhu), Sub-Inspector Selvam (Balakrishnan) and Head Constable Perumalsamy (Krishnamurthy) are witnesses to a car crash, but rather than help the victim they steal a large quantity of money and finish the driver off into the bargain. Later ACP Marimuthu receives a blackmail call and eventually the four fix on Karunakaran as the student responsible. Even after they discover that Karunakaran was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, his prospects are bleak as ACP Marimuthu and co-conspirators are determined to silence him and any other potential witnesses.
Luckily for Karunakaran, Inspector Palaniammal (Uma Riaz Khan) is investigating the murder of a prostitute and ends up entangled in Karunakaran’s case. Palaniammal suspects that there is more going on than first impressions would suggest and she works tirelessly to get to the bottom of the case despite her pregnancy and the negative attitude from ACP Marimuthu and other members of the team. Palaniammal is a strong character with a very definite sense of right and wrong – basically the sort of police officer you’d want investigating your case if you were incorrectly accused of a crime. Uma Riaz Khan is excellent as she bulldozes her way through all opposition, compelling respect without ever raising her voice and just generally being a majorly awesome police officer.
There are only three songs in the film and they fit well into the narrative. This is perhaps the most traditional of the three as it develops the romance between Karunakaran and Aarthi. It’s a lovely song by Thaman and suits the mood of this part of the film perfectly.
Every character and each interaction are important in developing the story and while it’s not immediately apparent exactly how everything fits together, it all becomes clear as events unfold. Although there are a number of coincidences, none seems completely unlikely, (except perhaps Aarthi’s discovering Karunakaran after he has gone missing) and mostly the film feels realistic. None of the characters here are anything out of the ordinary and their reactions are natural and seem perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. There are no big fight scenes either – Karunakaran only fights back when someone else attacks him, and his methods are rough and ready rather than filmi stylish. The glimpses of college life and the realities of a mental asylum also appear authentic and I love the conversation between the warden and a student about his choice of hairstyle. Another favourite character is Babu, one of the inmates of the mental asylum who is perfectly played by Murugadoss to evoke pity one moment and then laughter the next. It’s an accomplished performance even though he only appears towards the end of the film but I appreciated every moment.
Mouna Guru keeps the twists coming right up to the very end. Karunakaran switches between quietly passive and accepting to explosively fighting back and it’s almost impossible to determine which way he will go at any given point, which ensures that every scene ends up surprising in one way or another. Although the police officers are all fairly standardly corrupt, their individual reactions to the developing situation are all quite different and each emerges as an individual persona as a result. I also love the way all the pieces of the story interlock, finally all coming together like a giant jigsaw puzzle while the final climax keeps changing just as you think it’s all over. Well worth watching for the excellent performances and multi-layered story that feels scarily possible. 4 stars.