Mandela, And Yogi Babu’s Quest For An Identity In Tamil Cinema

The Comedian Has Been Tied Down By Stereotypical Roles Till Now. That May Be Changing

Yogi Babu. (Photo courtesy: mwallpapers.com)

Rare is the movie that offers roles akin to a breath of fresh air to actors repressed by stereotype. Rarer still is the movie that helps such actors win over audiences by displaying a repertoire of skills they’ve never been witness to. To the Tamil actor Yogi Babu, both happened with Mandela.

All I could think of as I watched the wickedly humorous and brilliant political satire, which released on Netflix recently, was why didn’t we unearth this facet of his much earlier? Reviews were full of unequivocal praise for Babu’s moving performance, something that the rigmarole of Tamil cinema prevented him from exploring till now — and I couldn’t disagree.

Here was a movie that set expectations soaring, with its release timed to perfection ahead of the recent assembly elections to Tamil Nadu, not to mention its slickly cut trailer. As a barber from a lower caste who finds himself in the middle of a tug of war between two upper castes in a village, Babu’s character, who doesn’t even have a proper name, goes on to carve an identity for himself in a deeply-unequal society that’s also heavily prejudiced. Not once does the movie milk his appearance for lazy gags or reduce him to a caricature; his is the character on which the entire movie is propped upon, as it deals with multiple issues at ease.

The reason all of this sounds unique is because it seems like the makers of Mandela took the effort to observe every role of his and consciously came up with one bearing no resemblance to any of them.

Now, we’re talking about someone who’s made a career out of getting abuses hurled at him onscreen — the minor, major and the outright shocking — such that he should instead be called the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Not an organism exists in the compendium with which Babu hasn’t been likened to in the 100-odd movies that he’s starred till now.

That’s a consequence of directors resorting to the oldest and laziest technique in Indian cinema to generate comedy — body shaming. As he bagged roles first in Star Vijay’s Lollu Sabha — perhaps the most successful show on Tamil TV to spoof Kollywood — and then in tinsel town as a sidekick, an extra in the Bollywood flick Chennai Express (thank you, Wikipedia), to the hero’s friend, the manner in which gags were generated remained largely unchanged. His appearance: a short and stout frame and matted hair provided necessary fodder. Directors chose not to tinker much with the template even after him acting in a mind-boggling 56 movies in the four years leading up to the pandemic.

A still from Mandela. (Screengrab from trailer)

Sample this: In Remo, a problematic movie no matter which way you look at it, the hero Sivakarthikeyan and his friends abuse Babu as a crow, a monkey only fit to perform tricks and a “face without grammar that seeks glamour” — all in a six-minute sequence. Kolamavu Kokila, the off-beat dark comedy that won praise for its portrayal of women and for putting Nayanthara in the lead, is punctuated constantly with jokes on his appearance. The premise of him falling for the leading lady, and the hit number Kalyana Vayasu, serves only to milk laughs — underlining the fact that someone as dark as him can’t aspire for love from a beautiful-looking woman. Maan Karate has him being called an adacha (blocked) carburettor and a dinosaur, among other abuses. In Jackpot, a youngster who gets cursed attains the form of… Yogi Babu. His character in the Prabhu Deva-starrer Gulebaghavali is named Panni (pig).

Babu’s roles could be broadly summarised into one of the following:

  • Gets into an argument with the hero, gets ridiculed/beaten up.
  • Proposes to the leading lady, gets rejected.
  • Poke fun at his appearance or other behaviour.

In fact, I can recall only one movie — ONE — that has depended entirely on his comic smarts, the criminally underrated and brilliant Andavan Kattalai, which has him in a hoot of a role alongside Vijay Sethupathi as country bumpkins seeking a visa to fly out to London.

One out of more than 100 flicks.

**Spoilers ahead**

In Mandela, Babu gets to portray a variety of emotions that aren’t exaggerated. Angst and helplessness, when an upper-caste villager makes off with his savings but he’s unable to do anything about it or when his assistant gets brutally assaulted. Gratitude, when a postwoman helps him open a savings account and even gets him a new name. Revenge, when he exacts his pound of flesh from two politicians seeking his vote in an election destined to go down to the wire, faces retribution and bounces back. Redemption, when the entire village rallies around him. Emotions that you’d normally associate with a top hero — or even a “masala” flick.

** Spoilers end **

He seemed to be everywhere, yet didn’t seem relevant. His sequences are a regular on Adithya TV and Sirippoli — Tamil channels that broadcast comedy shows 24*7. Perceptions matter, which Babu had to win over. But that was easier said than done. Even movies with the likes of Rajinikanth, Vijay, Ajith, Surya, Karthi and Vishal made no change.

The history of Tamil cinema, too, has put actors like Babu at a disadvantage, forcing them to accept whatever gets offered to them. I would squarely lay the blame for this, ironically, on two of the most talented comics Tamil cinema has ever seen — Goundamani and Senthil. These two actors, who have often appeared together onscreen in the ’80s and ’90s, came to define the movies that they were part of. Nothing wrong with that, except if ever the treatise to generate laughs in problematic manners existed, this duo would be its foremost exponents.

Think of any movie that this duo acted together — Karagattakaran, Vaidehi Kaathirundhal, Chinna Gounder, Indian or Naataamai to name a microscopic few — and chances are, you’d remember them better for their comedy tracks than plotlines, which would invariably have Senthil getting abused or beaten up. That apart, this duo also ended up checking many other dubious boxes: Blackface, check. Sexism, check. Homophobia, check. Humour was woven inextricably through such problematic themes that audiences fell for it hook, line and sinker. And everything they did seemed par for the course. So powerful was this template that it even found ready acceptance among new-generation comedians like Vivek and Vadivelu, albeit to a lesser extent, and Santhanam, who has all but adapted Goundamani’s mannerisms onscreen as comedian and hero.

One could say movies like Mandela wouldn’t have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the proliferation of over-the-top platforms in India. I believe that if it had had an extended theatrical run, which was cut short by the pandemic, it may have even eked out a profit.

For now, all hail Yogi Babu 2.0. Tamil cinema desperately needs more of you.

Deputy editor at BloombergQuint. Writer by passion, turned to journalism after disenchantment with IT. Bylines in The Times of India, New Indian Express.

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