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25 years of Sathi Leelavathy: Crazy Mohan, Kovai Sarala and Kamal Haasan's ridiculous hilarity stands the test of time

On the 25th anniversary of the release of Balu Mahendra's comedy, we look back at the film that remains one of the funniest works in the career of Kovai Sarala, Kamal Haasan and the late Crazy Mohan.

Shriram Iyengar

Comedy is timing, said the great Jonathan Winters, you either have it or you don’t. For cinematic comedy, this adage applies to writers of comedy as well. With retakes becoming common, timing and punch are often heavily reliant on the style and power of the writing. It is a rare occasion when the writing, performances, language and humour hit the right balance to create perfect harmony. In Sathi Leelavathy (1995), this harmony hit pitch perfection.

Balu Mahendra’s rib-tickling comedy had the performative powers of Kamal Haasan and Kovai Sarala driving it, with the writing of the effervescent ‘Crazy’ Mohan throwing in the jokes. The film was later adapted by David Dhawan into the 1999 Hindi hit Biwi No 1 as well as by Ramesh Aravind as Rama Shama Bhama (2005) in Kannada.

When Mohan died last year, Haasan wrote a moving ode to his friend. ‘Your comedy will live on through fans,’ he wrote. Haasan may well have been thinking of the 1995 classic that had enough gags to make a sit-com get greenlit for five seasons.

A simple tale of adultery, Sathi Leelavathy revolves around Leelavathy (Kalpana), an ordinary housewife who discovers that her husband is cheating on her with a glamorous old flame. With the help of her husband’s friend Dr Sakthivel (Kamal Haasan) and his wife Palani (Kovai Sarala), she hatches a plan (sathi in Tamil) to win him back.

The film has all of Balu Mahendra’s realism and long conversational sequences, armed with Crazy Mohan’s wit and sharpness. Through it all is the duo of Kamal Haasan and Kovai Sarala.

Though Kamal Haasan was a popular leading man at the time, he chose to play a supporting role and did so with elan. A highly trained actor, Kamal Haasan picked a dialect of Tamil spoken in the Coimbatore region, Kongu Tamil, for the character. It was not the first time he had chosen a regional dialect for his character. In fact, he has done this so many times that fans often put up videos capturing the many linguistic experiments of the actor. 

In 2017, Sarala revealed that director Balu Mahendra was not keen to cast her in the role of Palani. It was Kamal Haasan who insisted on her, even forcing the team to wait six months for the comedienne.

In an interview to The Hindu newspaper, she said, “It was a class film, featuring people who made only classy films. And then there was me! Balu sir’s sets were quiet, and I was very loud. But I am so grateful that Kamal sir waited for me for six months. It was gratifying when Balu sir told me after the movie’s release that he was delighted I was part of the movie and he felt bad for doubting my ability.”

The actress won a state film award for Best Comedian for her performance. 

For someone who was still a second-rung comedian at the time, behind the ruling pair of Goundamani and Senthil, Sarala managed to give Kamal Haasan a run for his money. In addition, she helped him get the dialect right.

Mohan’s dialogues stand out for their puns. While there are hardly any subtitled versions of the film available online, they would not be able to capture the puns that the late writer could throw in his lines.

Mohan shared a close friendship with Kamal Haasan. They collaborated on some iconic films which included outrageous rib-ticklers like Apoorva Saghodharargal (1989), Michael Madana Kamaraj (1990), and Avvai Shanmughi (1996).

Speaking of his friendship with the star, Mohan had once said in an interview, "We used to be friendly relatives and now we are relatively friends. Coming back to the woman-behind-a-man’s-success saying, I too have a woman behind my success and it is Avvai Shanmughi [starring Kamal Haasan, remade as Chachi 420 (1997) in Hindi]. If I do a drama in Chennai, he will definitely be there. The common umbilical chord between us is humour."

For someone who is often bracketed as a serious actor, Kamal Haasan has certainly enjoyed his spate of comedies. Some of his best works have had a touch of the clown in them. From the absurd in Michael Madana Kamaraj to the subtle nuances of Anbe Sivam (2003), the actor used humour as a tool to showcase his expressions. In Sathi Leelavathy, he went all physical with no nuances at all.

In one scene, as the final plan to guilt-trip the husband is on, Kamal Haasan's Gounder throws in the line, 'For doing such a drama you need a good actor, I am just a doctor.' If ever there was an actor to laugh at himself, it was this one.

While David Dhawan’s remake had all the focus on Karisma Kapoor’s vengeful wife, Balu Mahendra’s film was a comedy of errors. From the wife to the hapless friend, and Sakthivel's own wife who ends up mistaking it as the making of an affair, the film’s climax is a lung-bursting mess of hilarity, all of it brought together by a physical and linguistic battle between Kamal Haasan and Kovai Sarala. 

A quarter century on, the film is a little jarring in terms of its social context. The theme of a woman having to bear the brunt of adultery, of the man coming back and being accepted, and the other woman having to be left out feels odd. Yet, one thing remains unchanged: the absolute buffoonery and ridiculousness of the jokes played by Kamal Haasan and Kovai Sarala, written by Crazy Mohan.