Taking a story steeped in sentimentality, Mani Ratnam turned "Thalapathi" around into a wonderfully compelling narrative.

Thalapathi turns 25 How Mani Ratnam gave us our favourite Karna in Rajinikanth
Features Tamil Cinema Tuesday, November 08, 2016 - 12:34

Picture the scene: On one side of the temple pillar stands Surya (Rajinikanth) weighed down by the anger, nursed from childhood, of being abandoned at birth. On the other side stands Kalyani (Srividya) who abandoned her child as an unwed mother at the young age of 14, and has regretted it ever since. Across from them both stands her husband (Jaishankar), who knows that mother and son are side by side, but is unable or unwilling to reveal the truth to them.

A train whistle sounds in the background reminding all of them of the infant abandoned in a goods train. Not a word is spoken among them but a range of emotions play out – regret, pain, longing, helplessness, solitude.

You might think that such an emotionally overloaded scene is best left in the 1990s, that it will not travel well over the years. But 25 years since “Thalapathi” first hit the screens, scenes like this one continue to deliver a powerful blow in the gut.

Ask any fan of Tamil cinema about their favourite Tamil crime drama, and you’ll inevitably arrive at a toss-up between “Nayagan” starring Kamal Haasan and “Thalapathi” starring Rajinikanth. That both were crafted by Mani Ratnam, one of Tamil cinema’s foremost directors, makes the comparison almost inescapable. 

But to read “Thalapathi” with the same criteria as “Nayagan” is to miss out an important difference. Where the tale of Velu Naicker was essentially a story of grit and hard edges, playing out with touches of expected melodrama, “Thalapathi” dives deep into the ground of sentimentality, and manages to pull together a compelling narrative.

A retelling of the Karna myth, “Thalapathi” is centred around Rajini’s Surya, his friend and mob boss Devaraj (Mammooty) and their rival and Surya’s half-brother, District Collector Arjun (Arvind Swamy). It’s a story ripe with ingredients for the maudlin overplay that Tamil cinema is often guilty of, throwing up a clash between the intimate homosociality of powerful men and the reverential love arising out of familial bonds. What works for “Thalapathi” is that Ratnam plays this clash out earnestly and without cynicism or gimmickry, letting the film tug at heartstrings without crossing over into overkill.

At the heart of the film’s success, is the interplay between its two male protagonists. To this day, it’s the camaraderie between Rajini and Mammooty that garners the most conversation around the film. Ratnam achieves a careful balance between the two screen giants, so that the give and take between them is a joy to watch. You only have to observe the sweetly awkward dance the two men perform together in “Kaatukuyilu” to get a sense of the innocent and wholly genuine goodwill with which the two actors perform their relationship. 

Much of the credit for this interplay, of course, belongs with Mammooty, who plays Devaraj with a wonderful restraint that grounds the narrative on Surya but deepens and rounds out our reading of what could otherwise have been a very flat protagonist. 

“Thalapathi” is also possibly one of the last films that gave Rajini the leeway to act rather than merely perform, and for people who’ve only seen the later bombastic superstar, this film can be quite the revelation.  Flitting from wounded vulnerability to righteous and mercurial anger, he brings to the fore the acting skills of his Balachander-era films that first established his reputation. Sure, there are plenty of Rajini-worthy moments – Surya’s first confrontation in pouring rain with Devaraj, his rage with the cops for persistently interrogating him on the identity of his parents, or the anger that overflows at the crucial compromise meeting in Arjun’s office.

But in all of these, it’s the build-up, the transition to the climactic unleashing that make the scenes work. And there are plenty of less talked about scenes, such as Rajini’s first encounters with Padma (Bhanupriya) who he has widowed by killing her husband, in which the superstar hits multiple emotional chords with a few simple touches.

Despite being the debutant, Arvind Swamy nicely completes the central trio of the film. Together with Shobana as Rajini’s lover, Subbulaxmi, he embodies the difference of caste, class and colour in the film. Thus, against the emotionally-driven claims to justice comes Arjun’s calm establishment voice of order. There’s a process, he will argue, in that crucial meeting in his office, never mind that the process can be the very subverting of justice for the poor. And so his performance is all restraint and containment, in stark contrast to Rajini’s effervescent, close-to-the-surface acting. 

Subbu, drawn to Surya despite his violence, but quietly accepting of her father’s choice of the privileged Arjun over the orphan Surya who does not even know his lineage, seems a disappointing comparison to Draupadi and her legendary anger. But in this unambiguously masculine film, she functions effectively to reinforce the alienation of Surya’s life with polite society. We might flirt with it, even be passionately drawn to its violent righteousness, but in the end the status quo of privilege reigns.

At first glance, Ratnam’s adaptation of the Karna story seems very straightforward. Yet, there are little scripting touches that mark the film very differently from its source. For instance, the role that Jaishankar plays is singularly interesting. In a context where virginity until marriage is still a big deal (remember the Khushbu controversy), here is a husband who bears no ill will towards his wife for having been an unwed teenage mother. His only struggle is to keep his wife from continuing to feel pain over that incident. 

And it is he who intervenes to tell Surya the truth about his mother, and to secure a promise that no harm should come to his half-brother Arjun. When Surya finally meets his mother, unlike in the original epic, where Kunti uses the truth to secure her favourite son’s safety, here Kalyani makes no such demands. 

Of course, it’s the technical brilliance in both the visual and aural fields that finally give “Thalapathi” it’s rich texture. Playing on the sun god motif around Karna, cinematographer Santosh Sivan so often casts the film’s stars in silhouette, playing with the light of the morning and evening sun, giving the film a truly unique visual feel. 

Add to that an aural landscape crafted by Ilayaraaja, filled with memorable hits that find critical and popular mention to this day. From the haunting “Chinna Thayaval” to the sprightly “Yamunai Aatrile” to the rambunctious “Rakamma Kaiya Thattu”, Ilayaraaja delivers hit after hit. Listening to this soundtrack, it’s hard to fathom why this was the last film on which Ratnam worked with Ilayaraja.

The list of Mahabharata adaptations in film is practically endless, but most Tamil cinema fans will probably tell you that Rajini is one of the finest Karnas we’ve had. And 25 years since "Thalapathi", their enthusiasm has hardly changed. 

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