On April 11, 1976, Rangachari Mohan’s play Crazy Thieves in Palavakkam was premiered in Chennai through fellow playwright SV Shekar’s drama troupe Nataka Priya. The heist-gone-wrong comedy became an instant hit and gave Rangachari a new name, one he has been known by ever since: Crazy Mohan.
Over four decades later, Crazy Mohan is still going strong, nearing almost 1,000 productions of the immensely popular Chocolate Krishna apart from headlining Return of Crazy Thieves, a sequel to the play where it all began. This apart from writing a new script based on his novella KPT Sirippu Rajan.
“I would call writing an accident,” Mohan said, sitting beside a figurine of Krishna, a character he frequently plays in his skits, at his home in Chennai. “Usually you lose your life in an accident, but I got my life in this accident.”
Mohan’s troupe Crazy Creations, created along with his brother R Balaji in 1979, has staged numerous plays as well as tapped into the Crazy Mohan brand of comedy for television through the serials Here is Crazy and Siri Siri Crazy. Movies were the next logical step. Introduced by Kamal Haasan to the big screen, the engineering graduate has written dialogue and screenplays for numerous films, including Apoorva Sagodhargal (1989), Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990), Sathi Leelavathi (1995), Avvai Shanmughi (1996), Kaathala Kaathala (1998) and Vasool Raja MBBS (2004). His dialogue provides wisecracking commentary on daily life. In an interview, he reveals some of his trade secrets.
In February 1972, you wrote your first skit ‘Great Bank Robbery’ for an inter-collegiate contest.
I was not a writer back then. My first nature is not writing. My first nature is painting. Writer Sujatha Ranganathan used to say that every writer has an inclination for painting. Probably it was that. There was no big writer in my family as well.
Your play ‘Crazy Thieves at Palavakkam’ became an overnight sensation. Is that where it all began?
Yes. After Crazy Thieves in Palavakkam, I had written a lot of other scripts. Katchatheevu, Cleopatra Swayamvaram are some of them. Kamal Haasan subsequently performed in my drama Yamane Nee Vazhga in Singapore, with Nagesh.
Once that came out, Kumudam magazine featured my name and my brother Balaji’s name under “Valarndhu Varum Kalaignargal” (Budding artists). At that point of time, I never thought I would become a writer. I wanted to pursue engineering. But it became such a hit that I ultimately became a writer.
What is the story behind your stage name?
I wrote Crazy Thieves in Palavakkam under my name Rangachari Mohan. To my surprise, a short story that I had given to Ananda Vikatan titled Karigala Karigala was printed under the name Crazy Mohan. The name was very unfamiliar, so I asked the editor V Srinivasan as to why he had printed it that way. He told me, from now on, you are going to be Crazy Mohan. My thatha [grandfather] gave me my name and the Vikatan thata gave me my screen name.
Your first film was K Balachander’s ‘Poikkal Kuthirai’, which was based on your drama ‘Marriage Made in Saloon’. How did you become part of that project?
Balachander at that time wanted to make a film based on a drama. He watched Marriage Made in Saloon and really liked it. You can actually consider Balachander as Columbus. He only invented the great America like Rajinikanth and Kamal. And he also invented a small island like Crazy Mohan. He had the touch of Midas.
The young generation enjoys your comedy with the same enthusiasm as they did in the ’80s. How do you manage that?
For every man’s success, there is a saying that there is a woman behind it. For my success, it is my joint family. I used to live with my grandparents, and I still live with my 93-year old dad, maternal and paternal aunts and uncles. If you write for your family, you will know how to write for the audience.
Has your process changed over the years?
Since I have written for a lot of films, I would say that it has become only easier. The screenplay quickly forms in my head. In those days when I used to write scripts, I wouldn’t know the ending. When I wrote Crazy Thieves In Palavakkam, I did not know the ending and I kept writing. I wrote Marriage Made in Saloon for over 1,500 pages. It was subsequently edited.
The scripts I write nowadays are much shorter and my editor’s job is that much simpler. I am able to mentally form screenplays in my mind, so I can write quicker.
But I have to say that I have lost the innocence that I had during Crazy Thieves. People think you become more intelligent as you grow up. But you actually become an idiot as you grow up. I do not have the sharpness and alertness of a young person. Kilaroli ilamai keduvadhan munnam: before the bubbling youth fades, you must acquire knowledge, said Tamil poet Nammalvar.
What is your relationship like with Kamal Haasan?
We used to be friendly relatives and now we are relatively friends. Coming back to the woman behind a man’s success saying, I too have a woman behind my success and it is Avvai Shanmughi (starring Haasan). If I do a drama in Chennai, he will definitely be there. The common umbilical chord between us is humour.
What gets Tamil audiences rolling in the aisles?
We have a snobbish attitude. If Goundamani and Senthil do a comedy bit about smashing a cake on each other’s faces, we disregard it as rustic and tasteless. But if the same bit is done by Laurel and Hardy, we enjoy it. Goundamani and Senthil are a very important part of Tamil comedy.
Which comedians inspire you?
PG Wodehouse. It is there right in his name. He has done a PG in humour. The others are Kalki, Devan and Bhagyam Ramasamy.
You have written comedy for television, cinema and drama. How different is each medium?
A drama is written, whereas cinema is seen. In dramas, you cannot even see your audience after the first two rows. There is no close-up or mid-shot. The acting is only in the dialogue.
The problem with cinema is that it is like wedding food. A lot of people come to a wedding – a BP patient, sugar patient, a Bengali. You have to think about all audiences and write the script. In cinema, you also have to think about the image of the actors while writing dialogue. But in drama, there are no such problems. But that doesn’t mean drama is easy. Drama is like home food.
Nowadays the stand-up comedy is also evolving. When I go to the US, I myself do a bit of stand-up. I usually write about my experiences in the US.
Do you have a favourite between the two mediums?
I prefer drama. Drama is live. No matter how how many channels telecast a cricket match, there is nothing like watching it live from Chepauk stadium. You can also see people react live when you perform on stage.
Nearly all your female leads go by the name Janaki, whether in plays or films.
Everybody thinks Janaki is my former lover’s name or my wife’s name. But actually, Janaki is the name of my drama teacher in school. At the age of six, she taught me the nuances of dramatics. She made me play the role of the leader Veerapandiya Kattabomman in a school play. She was probably one of the reasons I got suddenly interested in dramatics. So naming the female character Janaki was my way of giving her guru dakshinai – a token of respect.
What is the idea behind the characters Maadhu and Cheenu in your plays?
Humour is definitely the most effective in a pair. There is left and right in the brain and there is the yin and yang. The joining of both these things are very effective. Sujatha has written about the pair Ganesh and Vasanth in his novels and in the same way I created Maadhu and Cheenu.
Have you ever gotten into trouble for writing comedy?
Unless you write about politics or vulgarity, your freedom of speech will not be restricted. So I do not write politics or vulgarity. Even if I do so by mistake, Balaji will cut it out. If we have almost completed over 1,000 dramas this year with Chocolate Krishna, that is what I will call the success of Crazy Creations.
What is your upcoming drama ‘KPT Sirippu Rajan’ about?
It is about the past lives of kings and queens. The lives of kings and queens are not just filled with stories about the battlefield. Even they have family members and plenty of feuds. The play revolves around the personal lives of these kings and queens. In the Tamil magazine Junior Vikatan, I wrote a serial by the same name. KPT are the initials of the king.