The Tamil comedy Mookuthi Amman feasts on low-hanging fruit – the shenanigans of a campy and fraudulent godman. Directed by RJ Balaji and NJ Saravanan and written by them and a host of other writers, the brightly coloured, warmly lit and often funny but also unwieldy satire frequently commits blasphemy, but with respect.
Bhagavati Baba (Ajay Ghosh) is an ambitious and powerful cult leader who plans to swallow up 11,000 acres in Nagercoil to set up a mini-city for his followers. Bedecked in silken robes and gold and given to flamboyant gestures, Bhagavati has been in the crosshairs of local muckraker Engels for years. A part-time investigative reporter and a full-time worrywart, Engels agonises over Bhagavati’s progress. But he has bigger problems to tackle.
His father abandoned the family years ago, leaving Engels to support his mother (Urvashi) and his three younger sisters. The matriarch’s religious fervour has survived her travails, and Engels too is converted after he meets the human personification of the goddess Mookuthi Amman. Played by screen goddess Nayanthara, Amman helps Engels expose the fake guru as well as test his own religious beliefs.
Bhagavati proves to be an easy target, as anybody who has followed the godman-busting comedies OMG – Oh My God! (2012) and PK (2014) will know. When gods or their avatars descend from the heavens to set right the wrongs being perpetuated by humans, the challenger’s job becomes that much easier. In Umesh Shukla’s OMG – Oh My God!, Krishna lends a helping hand. In Rajkumar Hirani’s more subversive PK, an alien can see the truth about a charlatan swami that is invisible to earthlings.
The web series Aashram uses no such divine shortcuts. The task of exposing the cult leader Nirala Baba is carried out by mortals, rather than a miracle-bestowing goddess – making it that much more difficult but also more credible.
For all its provocations, Mookuthi Amman doesn’t attack excessive religiosity, and is confused about its position in the debate between rationality and unreason. The 134-minute comedy, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar, delivers broadsides against self-appointed interpreters of religious texts, but spares the willing supplicants from assuming any responsibility for their blind faith.
There are jokes about the intersection of religion and politics, with a veiled warning about real-life events. Tamil Nadu is the only state in India in which religion does not influence elections, Engels claims – but for how much longer?
There are also references to holy merch and babas who sell shampoos, but the feints are delivered carefully. Bhagavati is so outrageously flamboyant that it is impossible to take him seriously – a mistake never made by the makers of the web series Aashram.
The humour, mostly rumbustious and occasionally sly, is superbly performed by the cast. While Balaji makes a convincing truth-seeker, Urvashi hogs the show as his garrulous and addle-brained mother. Nayanthara is perfect as the glamorous goddess with an enviable wardrobe and jewellery collection and her own special back-light, which bathes her in an irresistible glow.