This is part of a series where Silverscreen recommends films, documentaries, shorts, songs or scenes from seminal films that make for a compelling watch.
Screenwriter-filmmaker Dennis Joseph’s directorial debut, Manu Uncle (1988), is about an eventful summer vacation in a Kerala small town. Four unruly children celebrating the holidays to the fullest, suddenly find themselves caught in the midst of a museum robbery. As the adults go about formally investigating the burglary, the children turn amateur sleuths, trace the criminals, and in a final face-off, a slapstick comic sequence, chase them into the hands of the police with the help of their favorite uncle.
The comedy-drama, which won a National Film Award and a Kerala State Film Award for Best Children’s Film, is one of the five directorial ventures of Joseph, a veteran screenwriter who has to his credit acclaimed films such as Syama, Nirakkoottu and New Delhi. He made it at a time when he was at the pinnacle of his writing career – New Delhi (1987) had just become one of the biggest box-office hits in the film industry, and been remade in Hindi, Telugu and Kannada. Manu Uncle‘s cast features four then south Indian superstars – Mammootty, who plays the titular role of a mechanical engineer who aspires to be a scientist, Mohanlal who appears in a hilarious cameo as himself, Thiyagarajan who plays one of the villains, and Suresh Gopi who dismantles his action-hero image in a comic role as a clumsy police officer named Minnal Prathapan. Nevertheless, the top performers in the film are its bunch of child actors, most of them new faces, who perform with ease and brilliant restraint.
It is through the kids’ perspective the film proceeds. Dany/Luther (Kuriyachan) and his little brother Ikru (Amit) are delighted when their friends, Shanku (Anoop) and Renu (Sonia), the grandchildren of a police officer next door (Soman), come down from the city with their parents. Together, they play games, roam the neighborhood’s beautiful streets and parks on bicycles, and at one point, make friends with a runaway boy whom they hide in their room. Joseph manages to strike the perfect note in depicting the urbane childhood. The dialogues never lose the childlike quality, and the exchanges between the children and the adults are seamlessly natural with neither of them stepping into each other’s territory.
The kids’ uncle, Manu (Mammootty), is a voluntarily unemployed mechanical engineer who nurtures an ambition to be a scientist. The affable and happy-go-lucky Manu is a role diagonally opposite in nature to the weighty characters Mammootty had been playing at that time of his career, in films such as Anantaram (1987), Thaniyavarthanam (1987) and New Delhi (1987). He spends his days looking out for extraterrestrial forces and asteroids through the telescope set up on his balcony, conducting chemical experiments that result in minor explosions, and dealing with the pranks that the kids pull on him.
Post New Delhi, Dennis Joseph and his team started working on a big-budget thriller with Mammootty in the lead role. However, it had to be postponed due to technical reasons, and Joseph and producer, Joy Thomas, decided to collaborate on a smaller film. While Mammootty was part of the initial plan, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi were accidental additions to the cast. Mohanlal, who had been working on Priyadarshan’s Chithram at that time, readily agreed to take a day off from work to play the comical cameo in Manu Uncle, as the superstar actor the children bump into at a restaurant.
Minnal Prathapan was a role written for Jagathy Sreekumar who was then one of the busiest supporting actors in the film industry. When, at the last moment, it looked like Sreekumar might not be available on the scheduled dates, Joseph roped in Suresh Gopi. “He was just visiting us on the set that day. When I came to know that he had no other professional engagements at that moment, I asked him to play the part, and in fifteen minutes, Suresh Gopi started shooting for the film,” said Joseph. For the actor, who had been doing only sombre roles during that time, Minnal Prathapan gave a much required break.
Featured image: Simply South