K. S. Ravikumar's Muthu (1995) is the Tamil movie that, along with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Win the Bride, 1995), provides one of the main sources for Chennai Express (2013). And for the first hour or so, under the influence of its charismatic star Rajnikanth, its enjoyable A.R. Rahman soundtrack, and a screenplay that winks at time-honored movie conventions, I was convinced that I was undergoing a masala conversion experience.
Alas, as with Chennai Express, the good humor of Muthu's first half is increasingly replaced in the second by lengthy and very violent fight scenes. By the end, despite all of the move's early promise, I remained unconverted.
Muthu (Rajnikanth) is the good-hearted servant of the zamindar Ejama (Sarath Babu). But we're given some clues that not all is as it appears. Ominous music plays when the zamindar's uncle Ambarathar (Radha Ravi) drives up in his specially-accessorized Plymouth:
The zamindar's mother (Jayabharathi, who looks about the same age as her onscreen son), is harboring a secret:
There's also a holy sage who bears an uncanny resemblance to Muthu wandering around the neighborhood:
Could these things possibly be connected?
Meanwhile, his mother is pressuring Ejama to marry, and has her eye on her niece Padmini (Subhashri) as a prospective bride. But the zamindar has fallen in love with Ranganayaki (Meena), the lead actress in a threadbare travelling troupe:
Muthu and Raganayaki are at first antagonistic. But after Muthu foils an attempt to abduct her, she starts looking at him with new eyes.
This is where the film took its first wrong turn for me. The chase scene where Muthu and Raganayaki elude the goons of a local head man involves dozens of horse carts. Some of the falls that men and horses take during this scene look absolutely brutal. I'll spare you the screencaps, but I would be amazed if stuntmen weren't injured and horses destroyed as a result. It just seemed cruel, not exciting or fun.
Raganayaki and Muthu return to the zamindar's house, where the stage is set for some romantic confusion. Particularly when a note suggesting a nighttime meeting in the garden goes astray and gets read by half a dozen different people, each of whom imagines that it was intended for them.
Yes, this is the original of the Chennai Express storeroom scene, except that here the comic possibilities are far more fully developed; it's like something out of The Marriage of Figaro. And of course it leads to a Deepavali dance number, "Thilana Thilana" (Sweet as honey):
Unfortunately from this comic high point things go downhill rapidly. Plots by Raganayaki's abusive brother-in-law and the zamindar's evil uncle mean that the goons take over, and the final hour is just an endless series of bloody fights.
Does Muthu emerge victorious, win the girl, and regain his birthright? If you're in any suspense, or if you don't mind fight scenes that go on, and on, and on, then by all means seek out Muthu. It left me with no doubts about why Rajnikanth is a superstar in South Indian cinema, or why Rajnikanth and Meena were paired in several films in the mid-1990s—they make a charming jodi. But I'm still looking for a masala film that won't force me to fast-forward through the final hour.
Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch Muthu for free on YouTube.