Animal with an iPad. Stuck carburettor. Baby of premature birth. Buffalo. Last child of a bear. These are just a few of the insults hurled at comedian Yogi Babu’s character in Maan Karate, his breakout film which released in 2014. In many ways, the film came to shape his brand of humour, giving him the persona that he struggled to shake off, a good seven years later. Until earlier this year, Yogi Babu had a one-tone portfolio of tens of films, in all of which he plays a man who overestimates his intelligence, English skills and attractiveness; is the butt of body-shaming jokes; which he shrugs off as jealousy or counters with his own jibes of insult humour.
Yogi Babu began his career as a nondescript character in a film called Yogi — hence the moniker — in 2009. For several years after, he acted in various minor roles, a henchman here or a beggar there, many of them uncredited. He was in Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express (2013) too, but you may not have noticed. It was Maan Karate that brought him to the limelight, becoming somewhat of a turning point in his career.
Since then, Yogi Babu has built for himself a prolific filmography — he acted in 20 films in 2016 and a whopping 30 films in 2019 — most of which relied disproportionately on jokes about his appearance. Take this scene in Remo (2016), for instance. Yogi Babu is a henchman for a local rowdy who threatens Siva, the hero. In the confrontation, Siva knocks down the villain, all his other henchmen flee, leaving Yogi Babu’s character behind. Siva and his friend begin beating him. They call him andangaakka (crow), ottada thalaiya (cobweb head), fit only for korangu vitthai (monkey tricks), and so on. At one point, Yogi Babu protests. He says, “Hit me wherever you want, but not my face.” “Why?” they ask. “Glamour poyidaadhu! (Won’t I lose my glamour),” he replies earnestly. “Grammar-e illaadha oru face-u. Idhukku glamour oru keda? (Your face doesn’t even have grammar; do you deserve glamour),” one of them asks.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is the joke. Simply rhyming the words glamour and grammar to insult someone is the boundary of the writer’s imagination. But a variant of this runs through a surprisingly large number of his films irrespective of who he’s collaborating with. From Rajinikanth, Vijay, Ajith, Suriya, Vijay Sethupathy, Simbu etc. to Nayantara, Trisha and Jyothika, he’s acted with the who’s who of Tamil cinema, even while playing the same, one-note character.
Simply rhyming the words glamour and grammar to insult someone is the boundary of the writer’s imagination.
In Jyothika’s Jackpot (2019), he plays Ragul, a handsome young man who is cursed to look like Yogi Babu — there is so much self-loathing in the film, you’d want to pat him on his shoulder and say there there.
It’s worse in Nayantara’s Kolamavu Kokila (2018), where he plays a man romantically interested in Nayantara’s character. He even has a song singing his love for her — “Anushka Sharma-ku Kolhi-ya pol, unakku thaan naanum kedachirukken (Like Anushka found Kohli, you’ve found me)” — which was widely popular and garnered him much praise. He went on to play a similar role with Nayantara in Airaa (2019).
Of course, the running joke in all of this is how far beyond his reach she is. No character of Yogi Babu’s actually has a chance at any real romance with Nayantara’s characters. The contrast is the comedy.
This isn’t uncommon in Tamil cinema, though. Insult humour about one’s appearance and counter-humour, where two people jibe at each other, is a genre that’s existed since the ages. Comedian Goundamani has called Senthil worse; Vivek has used the term “andangaakka” (crow) that is now used on Yogi Babu nearly 20 years ago; Santhanam built his entire career on rhyming/alliterative insults.
The difference with Yogi Babu is that we see a lot more of him — dozens of films each year — all of which can’t see past unfunny jokes about his weight, the colour of his skin or his messy hair. With Yogi Babu, it truly stands out as a point of weakness for Tamil cinema in general, the lack of imagination to write something meaningful for an earnest actor like him.
This is why 2021 is an important year for him. In short succession, he appeared in two films that treated him as anything other than the face of all jokes. Mandela, which released on Netflix last week, is a full-length feature film, which he leads. He plays the eponymous hero, an indifferent barber, who ends up being at the centre of local electoral politics. In this film, he’s called elichavaayan, which literally translates to one with a smiling face, but metaphorically means jackass. But the film turns the expression on its head, abstaining from insulting his appearance for cheap laughs. When they make a joke around his appearance, it’s always on the other person.
For instance, there is a scene in which a postal officer asks if Elichavaayan has proof that he’s an Indian citizen. His friend sharply retorts, “Ivana paatha American citizen madhiriya irukku? Ivan Indian thaan-ga. Nambunga (Does he look like an American citizen? He’s, of course, Indian, believe it.)” The film doesn’t seek to pick out his appearance as an anomaly but places him firmly amid the norm.
Yogi Babu shows that he can cry, be angry, scared, and most certainly, do a lot more than make funny jibes.
The other, perhaps more significant film is Dhanush’s Karnan, where he plays one of the village leaders. Here, he isn’t comic relief at all. He is what we like to call a “character artist”. There is none of the antics we’ve come to know and like him for: he doesn’t think too highly of himself; he doesn’t speak in pidgin English to evoke laughter; he doesn’t follow around the heroine who will never love him back. He’s a character who fits in the poignant universe that director Mari Selvaraj creates.
In the past too, there was proof of his capability in writer-backed roles in Aandavan Kattalai (2016) and Mari Selvaraj’s own Pariyerum Perumal (2018). Yet, even in these two films too, there was a little bit of the Yogi Babu persona.
In Mandela and Karnan, we see Yogi Babu shed that entirely and explore roles he’s never done before. He seals his place as an actor who can make magic when a good role is written for him. He shows real vulnerability, something that didn’t have a place in his put-on persona. He makes an affecting journey across the character arc: From indifference to faith in Madela, from conservative compliance to diffident comradeship in Karnan. He shows that he can cry, be angry, scared, and most certainly, do a lot more than make funny jibes.
The time is here for Yogi Babu, the actor to stand up. And for cinema lovers, to look beyond his looks. If you still can’t do that, the joke’s on you.