But there’s certainly place for a quiet, almost-hero – like the refreshingly ordinary protagonist of “Mounaguru”, a film that's anything but ordinary

The recent Tamil film “Mounaguru”, the season's sleeper hit made by first-time filmmaker Shantakumar, is a lot of things — many good (a solid three-quarters of the narrative, after which it sort of falls apart) and some not-so-good (the performances; that title), but it's most striking aspect may be the way it details the protagonist's heroism. (For those not in the know, the traditional Tamil-film hero is a hero not just because he is the movie's male protagonist but also because he is necessarily a heroic figure. He needs to be shown as one, showcased as one.)

The college student Karunakaran is introduced to us — in a montage-driven song that wonders Yaar ivan (who is he?) — as a most ordinary fellow. The most emphatic moment in the song may be the one where he rinses out his stainless-steel tiffin box, round in shape and recognised instantly as a repository for tightly caked rice, under a tap by the roadside. He is, in short, utterly unspecial.

But as the song shows us, he is also quietly heroic (perhaps the fount of the title), a man whose courage is in no need of advertisement. When he finds a cobra in a habitable area, he coaxes it onto a pole and sets it free in the hills. When he inserts a coin to make a call from a public phone and when the call doesn't go through, he demands, from the person manning the phone, his change back. When asked to return after a while, he smashes a furious fist into the machine's belly, and it obligingly vomits out its contents. He picks up his change and walks away. Later, when he is admitted in a hostel, for higher studies, he doesn't shy away from the only available room, one whose previous occupant committed suicide and which has therefore been shunned by other (unheroic) students.

And thus the character of Karunakaran is steadily endowed with heroic stripes. He is not afraid of the snake or of the tainted room (fearlessness is a trait of a hero), yet he won't kill the snake (compassion is a trait of a hero); he will claim what is rightfully his, not a penny more or less (a keenly honed sense of justice is a trait of a hero). Like any self-respecting hero, he will not take things lying down. When slapped for the incident by the public phone, he retaliates with violence that occurs offscreen, and yet, afterwards, after heroically affirming that he is no pushover, he walks up to the nearest police station and surrenders to the cops (that keenly honed sense of justice again). When a lecturer at college is slapped and the students decide to strike in protest, the others scatter when the police fire a warning shot, but Karunakaran continues with his strike. A hero is not easily rattled by empty threats, especially when he knows he is on the side of the right.

But when the forces of evil multiply and when faced with thugs with guns, Karunakaran is smart enough to realise that he is in over his head and that he'd best retreat into a shell. (He is, after all, an educated man, someone who reads even while he eats.) He becomes, once again, the boy from the small town who rinses out his tiffin dabba by the roadside tap.

When he escapes from corrupt cops who have targeted him, he doesn't plot out a single-handed course of vigilante revenge, but seeks shelter with an authority figure, the priest who runs the hostel. He can do this because the actor who plays Karunakaran, Arulnidhi, doesn't arrive with heroic baggage. The success of “Mounaguru”, really, is the success of the small hero, the actor whose name isn't emblazoned on the marquee in dazzling lights and who can therefore afford to scale down the heroics. He can be a hero (and not a superhero).