Why Kamal Haasan’s ‘Mumbai Xpress’ failed to make the cut

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Three small-time crooks, let us call them A, B and C, plot to kidnap the son of a wealthy businessman, with meticulous research and rehearsals. Blame the fault in their stars, they face a setback for every step they take. First, C falls sick and turns in his brother-in-law D, or the new-C.

Both A and B brief the new-C about their master plan. But as it turns out, they discover that C is differently-abled with hearing complications. They still go with their original plan with the blessings of Kaali aatha. But here’s the twist; C kidnaps the wrong kid that sets of a bomb of events.

Doesn’t it sound like a subject material that would interest the Marx Brothers? But this is the plotline of the bizarrely entertaining and criminally-underrated, Mumbai Xpress. The movie, which was shot in Tamil and Hindi simultaneously, backfired at the box office like Appu’s circus thuppakki from Apoorva Sagodharargal.

There are several factors one could attribute to its lukewarm reception. “Kamal and Singeetham Srinivasa Rao have done it again. Rajkamal Films International’s Mumbai Xpress is a clean, comic package for the entire family, which showcases Kamal’s versatility in story and dialogue writing too. The last mentioned aspect is the high point of this Xpress — his dialogue shows amazing flair,” reads a review from The Hindu.

It could perhaps be due to the sky high expectations, given that it marked the reunion of one of the great director-actor combos (Kamal Haasan and Singeetam Srinivasa Rao). Perhaps the visuals might have been a little off-putting, given that Mumbai Xpress was the first digital film in Tamil. Perhaps it could be due to its dry humour — so dry that you might have to watch it with the ACs on. It could perhaps be due to the tonal shift in the second half — it starts off as a comedy of errors and ends up as a reconciliation of a family of sorts.

I remember watching Mumbai Xpress on its second day, evening show at Sathyam Cinemas and remember enjoying it. What remains a mystery, for me, is how it turned out to a nearly-forgettable outing, despite it being outrageously funny in parts. “That brand of comedy was something new and never attempted before,” says actor Pasupathy, who played the role of the cunning henchman Chidambaram in the movie. Excerpts from an interview:

The last time we spoke, you told me how frustrated you were post ‘Virumaandi’ when you were typecast as villain and how ‘Mumbai Xpress’ was a breather for you…

I had gone to meet Kamal sir but I don’t recall the occasion. I told him that I fell into the routine and nothing interesting came my way. He said, ‘Yes. That happens. It happened to me as well’ asked me to develop contacts, especially with filmmakers. A week later, I got a call from him for Mumbai Xpress. What he told me was, ‘It’s Singeetam’s movie and not mine.’

Since you mostly played serious characters then, did you have any reservations in playing a completely comical character?

Not at all. In fact, it was Kamal sir who suggested that I try comedy. I’ve staged several comedy plays, so it was something new for the audience and not for me.

‘Mumbai Xpress’ was one of those rare, serious comedies — as in, it draws humour from serious situations, right? Did you read the movie differently?

That’s right. He [Kamal Haasan] gave me a rough idea about the central characters [who are idiots] who have taken up a mammoth task. At every juncture in the movie, they are serious about their mission, though they might comes across comical. But that’s what is comedy, no? You don’t create situations to evoke laughter. It has to happen organically.

If you were to recall one memory of the top of your head, what would it be?

Oh, it was during this movie when Kamal sir met with a major accident while performing a bike sequence. I saw him taking the fall. I also remember developing butterflies in my stomach when I was to hang from a crane, which was over 500ft from ground level. Kamal sir gave us a demo and I somehow did it later. I told him that I almost puked and he said, ‘I also had the same feeling.’

Why do you think the movie could not reciprocate the Kamal-Singeetam magic at the box office?

There was no scope for such humour back then. Today, it’s become a genre called black comedy. I don’t know whether it’s black or white comedy. Couldthe audience understand it? That also I don’t know. By the time the reviews poured in, the movie was removed from theatres. All I know is…Mumbai Xpress is a neat movie and it should’ve done well.

Did the failure affect you personally?

I wouldn’t call it a failure. It may not have gotten numbers for the producer [Raaj Kamal Films International] but the movie is a success, according to me. It’s surprising that we are having this conversation because two days back, a friend of mine called and said he caught Mumbai Xpress and laughed throughout. There another gentleman who told me how Xpress spearheaded this trend of black comedies in Tamil cinema. Had they told this when the movie released, it woud’ve encouraged us. But yeah, I keep getting such calls on and off.

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