Quick Gun Murugan could claim many records. For example, the first film with a vegetarian cowboy. Or the Bollywood film with the most happily
voluptuous heroine in the last three decades (Rambha’s first item number is a bitch slap to size zero appeal).
Or the first Tamil-English crossover hit (though it’s hard to say what language the film is really in since subtitles and spoken words sometimes happily go their own way, and it was also filmed with Hindi and Telugu versions). Or the most eye-poppingly colourful Indian film ever, thanks to the saturated colours and hyper-real detailing carried over from its origins on Channel [V] – a comic book film, as its director Shashank Ghosh describes it happily.
But one record that is may also have is for being the first promotional film to become a feature film. The only vague parallel might be with the UK’s Nick Park whose clay animation short film Creature Comforts became a popular series of ads, and then a TV series, as well as inspiring his Wallace & Gromit films. With Park too there were doubts about whether what worked in the short time spans of promo films could carry over to feature film length, but the Wallace & Gromit feature won an Oscar.
Quick Gun Murugan might not be quite at that level (though it would probably be a better choice than whatever stitched-up critics’ choice is sent as the Indian representative). But when some critics cribbed that it drags in the second half, there was a palpable sense of them groping for things to say about a film of a kind they didn’t know how to pigeonhole.
At around 90 minutes the film is tighter than almost any Bollywood film. In fact – another record – it is probably the only Indian film where the international edit is even longer. “We felt we had to explain things a bit for foreign audiences,” says Ghosh. Since the film features gangsters named the Mullagapodi boys and bombs planted in Mumbai’s dabba service for terrorist-cum-dosa-promotion purposes, he’s probably right about that.
Despite this inventiveness , considerably polished production (the film is a testament to the higher production standards brought into Bollywood by ad film directors ) and a truly amazing title performance by Dr.Rajendra, who has to manage the difficult task of spoofing the stereotypes of the South Indian film world he comes from, while still keeping his character convincing enough to believe in, its still not clear if the film will be a success.
Thanks to the knock-on effects of the film strike, it’s been launched amid a glut of other films, on perhaps fewer screens than it deserves, and it’s possible that audiences too might simply not know how to handle such a genre bending film.
This is one reason why it took so long to make. Rajesh Devraj, the writer who dreamed up the Quick Gun Murugan character at Channel V, wrote the script almost 10 years back. Ghosh has known Devraj from their days in Hindustan Thompson Associates and then Channel V, and has had a relationship with him as close and contentious as any long term married couple. But underlying it is a respect for Devraj’s creative abilities strong enough for him to play executor to Devraj’s ideator, so he shopped the script around to Bollywood producers. And always got the same reaction: “They would laugh and laugh when they read it, but then say, ‘nahi, nahi, it won’t work.”
It was the same problem as the critics; everyone could recognise the comedy, but didn’t know how to classify it, and in a business like Bollywood
where people must gamble crores on hunches, that’s deadly. Perhaps the best advice Ghosh got was from Ram Gopal Varma: “He told me not to make this as my first film.” Varma’s point perhaps was that so much would have to go from Ghosh to make the film it would probably be unviable, and it would be best to cut his chops on something else first. Ghosh took the advice and made Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, another madcap, but less radical film. It wasn’t a great box-office success, but got attention, and gave Ghosh the confidence to make Quick Gun Murugan, and enough credibility for the producers to gamble on him this time.
Despite having to undergo this protracted genesis, Ghosh is no critic of Bollywood’s ways of working. “It’s essentially an insane business model, and yet you have people willing to take risks and work with huge dedication and professionalism towards the creation of a film,” he says. He draws an unfavourable contrast with advertising where he points out that no one will work without immediate and considerable payment, and where the default position is not to take risks.
“When I moved to TV I went from an environment where people didn’t do things, to one where everyone just did, at once and all the time!” At Channel V, Ghosh says, “we were client, creative and producer all at once. It was hugely exciting and hugely scary, because suddenly you were responsible . In advertising you never take responsibility .”
Ghosh does credit his advertising years with one benefit: “You learn to listen. As a creative you are supposed to be talk to the final consumer , but first you have to listen to client, servicing, account planning...” Many creatives simply rebel, but Ghosh, who’s rather more thoughtful than his extrovert demeanour suggests, acknowledges value in those other voices.
When he went to TV he took a classic Account Planning learning of the importance of focusing on a consumer group like SEC A rather than “the sort of guys you hang around with at Toto’s pub.” Except that instead of calling it SEC A he called it “The Legend of Tinku Bansal” and put up a detailed note on who Tinku Bansal was: “the sort of guy who used M-C /B-C in every sentence , except when his mother is around, and who sells toilets in Karol Bagh and has his shirt open to his waist...”
Tinku Bansal was the person for who Ghosh, Devraj and the rest of that inspired Channel V crowd created characters like Udham Singh and Quick Gun Murugan. And if enough Tinku Bansals watch Quick Gun Murugan, then Ghosh and Devraj will have delivered. Even if the film is not a box office hit, it has all the potential to become a cult classic, which will show returns over time and different formats. Ghosh grimaces at talk going around of a sequel called The Good, The Bad and The Idli; what’s more likely in the near future is the gaming version he’s working on, and the comics that Devraj has already started creating.
There’s also a range of merchandising ready, and any marketing manager with sense must surely be racing to be the first to tie the “Mind It” man to their brand. Because for all their mixed feelings about advertising, this is what Devraj and Ghosh have pulled off – far more than any recent Bollywood film, except perhaps the Munnabhai series, in Quick Gun Murugan they have developed a brand character with the look, the line and the legs to carry campaigns in ways which most ad creatives can only dream. Forget the Oscars or Filmfare awards, it’s the ad awards and, more important, the ad budgets, at which this vegetarian cowboy should aim.