Mehandi Circus opens with an animated folktale about a princess, her prince charming and some knives, perhaps hinting that this film would be a modern day reinterpretation of this tragic story. When we get to present day, it also seems rather tragic. Mehandi, the heroine, is bed-ridden, while Jeeva, the hero, is drunk and wasting away. From this point forward, Mehandi Circus is the story of love and loss, going back and forth between 2010 and 1992.
Written by Raju Murugan of Cuckoo (2014) and Joker (2016) fame, and directed by his former assistant Saravana Rajendran, Mehandi Circus effortlessly brings to life the Poomparai, Kodaikanal, of the early 1990s. Effortless, because much of the effort belongs to Ilaiyaraaja, whose music the film borrows generously to recreate that time. In fact, showing us that it’s deliberate, the film even reminds us that AR Rahman was just gaining fame and Harris Jayraj was not even on the scene.
But beyond the Raaja nostalgia and some interesting period set pieces, there is little to keep us interested in the love story of the lead pair. Jeeva, played stoically by Madhampatty Rangaraj, falls in love at first sight with Mehandi, played by Shweta Tripathi, who emotes more with her eyes than everyone else in the film put together. There is the meet-cute, they fall in love, sing duets — things we’ve seen a million times before.
By way of obstacles to the relationship are two fathers: Mehandi’s father (the head of a travelling circus troupe that she also performs in) challenges Jeeva to perform a highly dangerous circus stunt before he can marry her. Jeeva’s father, a casteist man, wouldn’t have any of it. What could have been gut-wrenching obstacles end up appearing like feeble inconveniences that could have overcome with little effort. When they are overcome a few years later, the final blow to their love comes in the form of a manipulating third-wheel. By now, we’re just exhausted by the inaction of the pair.
Of the two leads, Mehandi is easily the better written. Even though much of the story is told from the perspective of Jeeva and he has more screen time, Mehandi is shown to be a thinking, believing, complex woman. While Jeeva is dreamy and carefree, Mehandi is rooted in her legacy and cognizant of the all-pervading oppression around her. She has instincts, though Jeeva disregards them and even calls her “loosu”. Vela Ramamoorthy as the love-struck priest is endearing. RJ Vigneshkanth as the comical friend is anything but.
Much of Mehandi Circus is rather fatalistic and does little to make us believe that the pair have it in them to fight the odds. Jeeva has stopped living since 1992 and Mehandi has given up hope. “What can women do?” asks the voiceover at one point.
In that vein, the film doesn’t make the audience long for a happily-ever-after. We are half-expecting Jeeva to watch Mehandi die.
“In a rather peculiar climax, the film doesn’t end on matters of love, but on that of honour and pride.”
In fact, in one scene, the camera pans from Jeeva and Mehandi being beaten by casteist forces, to their hosts cowering in fear in their own home, to a letter that says “save the children”, to the photographs of Periyar and Ambedkar. It is like Saravana Rajendran is saying that even another thousand Periyars and Ambedkars can’t save this country.
On the other hand, the film takes a non-confrontational, nearly passive approach to the ideas it presents as objectionable. The casteist father merely gets ‘shoved’ aside, quite literally. The manipulating third-wheel simply disappears mid-way. And in a rather peculiar climax, the film doesn’t end on matters of love, but on that of honour and pride.
In short, Mehandi Circus is like that sweet old grandpa who likes to tell his story at every family gathering. It is an ordinary story, the audience has already heard the story, they know the ending, they are bored, they grow restless and want it to be over. But they’d never ask him to stop, because, well, he’s a sweet old grandpa after all.