As Laxmii releases, revisiting Raghava Lawrence's Kanchana franchise and how well it represents the marginalised
Raghava Lawrence's franchise is successful because he normalises vulnerability. While we can debate if the representation is truly positive or a crude caricature, one would find it difficult to argue that he has any malice or is misguided.
When Shankar made Enthiran (2010), I remember that there was talk about how Rajnikanth had become so big that no villain suitably stands up to his stature. Shankar ingeniously solved that problem by making Rajnikanth his own villain.
Raghava Lawrence, who models himself after the superstar, seems to have taken a lesson or two from this idea for his Muni/Kanchana franchise. The more successful his films became, the bigger did his own stature, but we will come to that.
The Muni/Kanchana franchise is one of Tamil cinema’s most successful products of the horror-comedy genre, also scoring box office success in Telugu and Kannada as remakes. It is unbelievably simple in its storyline — so much so that I do not even need to prefix the following sentence with SPOILER ALERT: A coward is possessed by the ghost of someone who has been murdered. After much tragicomedy, the coward lends his body willingly for the ghost to avenge their death.
Since Muni (2007), Raghava Lawrence has been making the same film repeatedly, only changing the heroines, environments, ghosts, and production quality each time. While for the uppity film critic, this might sound lazy, this is exactly why the franchise works: It promises the bare minimum and delivers what is familiar.
It is so pedestrian in its writing and direction that we feel close to it — you would say, LOL, I made that joke once myself! Like the time in one of the films, when the protagonist mistakes a corpse for a bra because they are both colloquially called ‘body,' and a good five minutes is lost in that. This fruit is hanging so low that you must bend down to pluck it.
If fruits hang at ground level, the stakes are even lower. For a horror film, there is practically nothing that causes any fear to anyone. We know from the beginning that the protagonist or his family are in no real danger, the ghosts are typically benevolent souls.
Raghava Lawrence knows this too, which is why there is more elements of disgust in his depiction of the supernatural than there is fear. Blood-sucking, bad teeth, unkempt hair, dark under eyes, humungous kunguma pottu etc characterise the ghosts. When you see the ghost, I would forgive you for thinking they need a toothbrush before they need vengeance.
In that sense, the ghosts of Lawrence’s Muni/Kanchana franchise are like grounded children. They wail, throw tantrums, break things, and even pull your hair, but in the end, you wish nothing but happiness for them.
In these films, the coward, played by Lawrence himself, is not the hero. The ghost is — it is the one with the journey, purpose, and redemption.
This is why Lawrence could not have the likes of Raj Kiran or Sarath Kumar, who played ghosts in the first two editions of the franchise, continue. By the time he got to the third film in the series, called Muni 3 or Kanchana 2 or Ganga — enough jokes have been made about this nomenclature, so I am going to pass — he introduced the classic trope of a lookalike from the times past. And created what is now a bit of a Raghava Lawrence cinematic universe.
The ghost of Kanchana 2, Shiva, is not just a lookalike of Lawrence, the coward from present day, but is also the starting point for an unrelated spin-off called Motta Shiva Ketta Shiva (2017). In another place, he introduces his real-life brother, complete with shot-freeze and text on screen for explanation and everything, as part of a song. But the brother plays no other role in the film whatsoever. Lawrence regularly slides past the fourth wall, in an almost ghost-like gait.
In Kanchana 3, the ghost is called Kali, with a song in praise of him that goes, “ketta paya saar indha Kaaaali," which is a dialogue from one of Rajnikanth’s famous films from his yesteryears. As a self-proclaimed Rajnikanth fan, Lawrence also regularly breaks into the superstar fandom.
Just like in Rajnikanth films, there is also rampant sexism and misogyny in the Muni/Kanchana franchise. Stalking and emotional manipulation are normalised. Women are objectified — in fact, these female characters come on screen and gladly objectify themselves. There is a creep of a sidekick, who is hanging around passing lewd comments and hoping to get laid. In some cases, there is also graphic sexual violence.
It is almost as if Lawrence is recreating the Rajnikanth universe of the '90s and adding a ghost story for a change. While on the side, he is building a loyal community of followers through his work of charity and social engagement.
To argue that the reason for the success of the Muni/Kanchana franchise is its lowest-common-denominator entertainment is to miss the point. Lawrence is successful because he normalises vulnerability. While we can debate if the representation is truly positive or a crude caricature, one would find it difficult to argue that he has any malice or is misguided.
Since his first film, he has taken it upon himself to bring people from marginalised backgrounds to the centre of his stories. While the coward hero and his families are presented as frivolous, the real story is of the struggles of those at the fringes of society. In Muni, it was the eponymous leader of the local slum, who did not have money to educate his daughter. In Kanchana, it was the eponymous transwoman, rejected by her family. In Kanchana 2, it was Ganga, a disabled woman. In Kanchana 3, it is Kali, the leader of a poor community.
In the film Kanchana, that has now been remade as Laxmii, there is a rightness with which the transwomen’s life is handled, even as it is filled with contradictions and exaggerations. For instance, a few moments after the scene where Kanchana implores a large audience to treat the third gender with empathy, she asks, “Ambalaiyada nee?” (are you a man?) of someone who attacks her from behind. Yet, throughout the film, no one misgenders or dead-names Kanchana. She is always called Akka, even by the bad guys. Any mockery of their gender identity is quashed in time. In that, Lawrence is not going for the feminist ideal. He simply wants to normalise being different.
This applies for all kinds of marginalisation in his films. There is a portion of a song montage in Kanchana 3, where Ganga, is stopped by a pothole that Shiva easily jumps over. A commercial Tamil film would have made the 'hero' carry the heroine past the pothole, to the lyrical humming of some idea of their lives being intertwined. Lawrence casually shuns that. He stands where he is, smiling. He encourages Ganga to take a step back for momentum, and jump over on her own. She does, and he holds her when she reaches the other side.
If you can look past the superficiality of the horror-comedy genre, Lawrence’s Muni/Kanchana franchise is the story of the privileged standing up for the marginalised; giving up their comforts and a little bit of their physical selves — something that he treats as no more than a minor inconvenience — to restore justice in society.
Only Lawrence’s writing, staging, and direction makes it extremely difficult to look past the facade.
Laxmii will stream on Disney+ Hotstar from 9 November.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Thavasi, who was reportedly being treated at a Madurai hospital, was battling oesophageal cancer.
On Naga Chaitanya's birthday, wife Samantha Akkineni, Sai Pallavi, director Surender Reddy wish actor
The makers of Naga Chaitanya's Love Story, co-starring Sai Pallavi, shared a new poster of the film on the occasion of his birthday.
Indian films that sparked the critic in me: P Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat’s Neelakuyil married caste, sexual politics and George Eliot
Neelakuyil was the first film on a caste-based theme that I remember seeing as a child. It stood out since I watched it in the 1980s, a decade in which I associated serious cinema often with dreariness.