Cast: Yogi Babu, Rekha, Janani Iyer, Ramesh Tilak, Rajendran, Bosskey, Azhagam Perumal
I was quite the Dramatis Personae – in that I enthusiastically attempted to put on plays, or perform in them – while in school, as has been established in an earlier review. Watching Muthukumaran’s Dharmaprabhu, I flashed back to that. Not a very good memory, I must admit. Mainly because my school’s teachers insisted on helping us actors with our makeup. And this resulted in heavily carmined lips and pancaked faces. This may be fine for amateur stage in the 90s but for a film in 2019, which Dharmaprabhu is, this is a huge let down.
If that and that alone was the film’s flaw, serious as it is, it may be forgiven. But Dharmaprabhu features more things that undercut the film’s one good factor – its main lead, Yogi Babu.
Dharmaprabhu is written and directed by Muthukumaran, with additional dialogues by Yogi Babu, who is also the film’s lead. Joining him are Ramesh Tilak, Rekha, Janani Iyer, Radha Ravi, Naan Kadavul Rajendran, Bose Venkat, and others. Dharmaprabhu was shot by Mahesh Muthuswamy and edited by San Lokesh, Justin Prabhakar composed the songs and the score. The film was produced by P Ranganathan.
There was Adhisaya Piravi, with Vinu Chakravarthy and Cho Ramaswamy. Then there was Luckyman, with Goundamani and Senthil. And now we have their descendant – in spirit if not in execution – Dharmaprabhu.
The current Yama (Radha Ravi), the lord of death and the final judge of one’s deeds, is getting on a bit in age. He wants to retire. And so there’s a succession battle. In that, one person wants the job for himself – Chitragupta (Ramesh Tilak). But Yama’s wife Ayyo (Rekha) has decided that the role will go to her son. And so duly, the son succeeds the father and the new Yama is Dharmaprabhu Yogi Babu.
And so, jealousy, treachery, backstabbing and machinations. If the film had dealt only with this, had developed this and this alone – we may have had a good one – despite all the bad CGI and art direction. But for whatever reasons, writer Muthukumaran wanted to reference every political and social topic en vogue in Tamil Nadu. And so we have Thoothukudi shootings, illegally held bronze statues, sexual assault and gender based violence, farmer distress, Hindi imposition, murder of children, caste based violence, Lok Sabha elections, Central and State governments, and what not. And so, what needs to be a strong call for change of regime – if not outright revolution – becomes a one-liner in a middling film, and a poorly received one-liner at that. Because, honestly, we have all become jaded. Tamil cinema has been churning out these films that all talk about politics – some better than the others. Over time these become wallpaper.
What makes Dharmaprabhu worse is that the production values, the art direction and set design, the costumes and make up, are inexcusably, irredeemably bad. Amateur perhaps, but amateur has a certain charm. This is just a producer unwilling to spend money on the film and a director happy to let things slip.
The main scene of action – Yama’s court – looks like a relic of 1950s poor stage show. The seams are visible, the carpet looks threadbare, the cheap felt used to dress up the “throne” is garish.
Other scenes are badly knocked-together CGI backdrops. Shiva (Naan Kadavul Rajendran) stands against a flat CGI rendition of Kailasam. Heaven and hell look like those photos we used to get in the 90s – meant to cheer up our houses – of daffodils in front of a cottage, in the background, waterfalls against snowy peaks with a “Home Sweet Home” embossed in neon Brush Script. Kitschy dross.
Two instances of Yama landing on Earth are signified through Google Earth zooming into Tamil Nadu. The zoom in happens somewhere in the middle of the Deccan plateau, somewhere west of Hyderabad. But then we cut to a street in Chennai. Where statues of Gandhi, Subash Chandra Bose have mysteriously popped up next to each other in T Nagar.
These outdoor scenes are shot badly too. The lighting is flat and unidirectional, and feels like a flash-lit photo taken at night. Your subjects are visible but that’s come at the expense of everything else – depth, texture, richness, and field of view.
And the makeup. Those cheap wigs and shabby false beards and moustaches and painted-on faces.
You could make excuses for these, as long as the film worked in one other department. Writing, given this is supposedly a comedy. And yes, there are some jokes. Yogi Babu has clearly tried. Bringing in some of his own one liners, and his dialect. He references Vinu Chakravarthy and Goundamani, past Yamas of Tamil cinema. Bosskey comes and goes as Ko Ranagaswamy – a poor stand in for Cho Ramaswamy. Ramesh Tilak tries to be Senthil to Yogi Babu’s Goundamani.
But none of these are effective ultimately. You laugh briefly, cringe a bit when the lines are particularly sexist or cheap, and then you leave the hall feeling like you need a breath of fresh air.
And send up apologies to your parents and your classmates who were the audience for your theatrics in school.
The Dharmaprabhu review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.