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'Thiruda Thiruda' is among the most underrated of Mani Ratnam's works so far.

Thiruda Thiruda (1993)

Cast: Anand, Prasanth, Heera, Anu Agarwal, Salim Ghouse, SPB, Malaysia Vasudevan

Director: Mani Ratnam

It was only AR Rahman’s second year in creating film music. It’s hard to see it now, but he had just established that he was not a one-hit wonder. There was a certain euphoria surrounding his music and I had bought every album leading up to 1993’s Thiruda Thiruda (Thief! Thief!).

There was a while to go before the film’s release and I was incessantly listening to the album, not quite making out the lyrics or the complex, layered instrumentation. It was as if you had to learn the album before getting down to actually enjoying it. But a couple of weeks into the listening, it was not just me but my entire family that had was hooked. We were all enamoured by what we considered the album’s centrepiece -- Anupama’s rendition of ‘Chandralekha’ with its high-pitched notes, clashing drums and frenzied chorus. I was convinced that Rahman had quite improbably created at least his second masterpiece after 1992’s Roja.

Back then, you could always decide on a movie by what your friends and family told you about it. I swallowed the movie hook, line and sinker and was delirious in praising it, but there were murmurs of dissent among my friends who had quarrels with the movie’s unlikely plotting and ludicrous storyline. I saw it as a tale of fantasy while they pointed out that the movie had almost totally departed from reality. In any case, it was clear to everyone that director Mani Ratnam, at the peak of his powers, had broken fresh ground yet again.

Thiruda Thiruda was the improbable meat in the sandwich, coming as it did between Roja and Bombay (1995), the two movies when taken together form the core of Mani Ratnam’s reputation even today. While these two movies talked about terrorism and communalism, issues that continue to plague India, TT was an excursion into the wilderness, plausibility be damned. There was really no message here, no issue to talk about, just pure fun to be had. It was a heist movie with strong comedic elements and it pushed buttons in you that you never knew existed before.

The plot goes wild - Rs 1,000 crore in fresh currency printed at Nasik is stolen by the henchmen of the villain, Vikram (a bleary-eyed Salim Ghouse), as it is in transit on a train. With Parliament to meet in 10 days, a desperate government turns to its best man in the CBI, Lakshminarayanan (SPB, in one his best roles as a cop), to recover the amount. “There are 10 zeroes in Rs 1,000 crore and I have 10 days to bring the crooks to book. It can be done, sir,” says SPB in the Brahmin dialect. The line is obviously funny, but Mani Ratnam is doing something on the sly -- he is pushing his fantasy agenda into the storyline. After that point, exhilarating as it is for us to see how Vikram is caught, we know that the emphasis will always be on entertainment. It is how well the ride is done, you see.

This is precisely why TT failed to get into the good books of some critics. Many of them, who heaped praises on Mani Ratnam’s more serious movies (especially the terrorism trilogy) failed to appreciate the adventurous spirit of TT. And, the film remains, much to my dismay, among the most underrated of Mani Ratnam’s works.

The investigation into the heist leads Lakshminarayanan to Vikram’s pointman, Ashok, played by Ajay Ratnam in one of his early roles. To avoid capture, Ashok mails a computer access card required to open the container with the money to Chandralekha (Anu Agarwal debuting in Tamil cinema).

On the run, Chandralekha gets involved with two petty thieves, the Thiruda Thiruda in the movie played by Prasanth and Anand, who are also on the lam. Towing along with the two thieves is Rasathi (Heera), who is fleeing a ruthless uncle. The four keep dumping and double-crossing each other until the money brings them together. Treachery takes precedence over trust in the relationship between the protagonists.

The characters of Azhagu and Kathir are the perfect foil for each other, but the woman in their midst spells trouble for both of them, until in the end they decide to become friends.

Prasanth used to be the chocolate boy of Tamil cinema during the 1990s and he plays a variation of that stereotype in portraying Azhagu. Watching over him with the demeanour of an older brother is the sharper Kathir, played by Anand in his most plum role ever. And, thus we get a romantic tangle: Rasathi falls in love with the sensitive Kathir, who realises with a shock that Azhagu is love with her.

The scene in which Rasathi tells Azhagu that she is not his “Thangachi” (younger sister) starts a playful romance between the two. But the director quite clearly wants to steer us into the comedy-caper territory.

Heera appeared only in a handful of successful movies in the 1990s including Kadhal Kottai and Sathileelavathi. In both of those movies, she was the other woman. In TT though, she is cast against type -- her character, Rasathi, is smart, but not amoral. When her uncle wants to marry her, she flees with the thieves trying to steal from her own house.

Anu Agarwal had in 1990 made a stunning debut in the Hindi film, Aashiqui, making her an automatic choice for the role of Chandralekha in TT. Endlessly resourceful, her character is often resigned to watching the machinations between the others in the film with a bemused expression. Though she dresses like a lady, she is really not one. And, because of that, Azhagu has a little crush on her.

Some of the familiar tropes of Mani Ratnam movies are here: The camera that circles the subjects, horses that preposterously are found in a landlord’s stable and several sequences involving trains. The circling camera is prominent in the scene when Rasathi tells Kathir of her love and when Kathir responds by informing her of Azhagu’s love of her.

In another scene, Rasathi questions Kathir, asking if he never had a chance to reform his ways and the answer is a monosyllabic ‘no’. A pure Mani Ratnam moment if there ever was one.

The sequence involving the horses, during which our heroes make a getaway in tow with Rasathi, is underlined with a dramatic score by AR Rahman. This gives us, quite strangely, the impression that Mani Ratnam was limited by available technology in mounting the stunt sequence.

The shots are often framed by cinematographer PC Sreeram against light, which is by no means unusual for a Mani Ratnam film; the director practically invented the usage in Tamil cinema. But what is really unmissable is the use of filters in cameras on a scale not seen before in Tamil cinema.

Towards the climax, there is a brief sequence involving flashing lights on top of a train, which is a depressing and trite cliché considering that this director-cinematographer team did the same in Agni Natchathiram (Coppola uses this trope to great effect in Godfather). Or perhaps Mani Ratnam was making references to his own movies.

The dialogues are crackling with Suhasini, Mani Ratnam’s wife, entrusted with the task of providing the director’s peculiar touch to the conversations in the film. The late writer Sujatha, who also pitched in with his lines, was at his wittiest and his contribution to this movie cannot be underestimated.

Malaysia Vasudevan plays constable Santhosam, who finds himself assisting the CBI in nabbing the thieves. The two predominant male singers of the era -- Malaysia Vasudevan and SPB -- are part of the cast, and what’s more, both of them are cops.

The picturisation of the songs is a quantum leap in Tamil cinema. The choreography was done by Sundaram, Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva. Suresh Urs’ work in the film won him the Best Editor Tamil Nadu State Award.

AR Rahman marks his presence in the background score as well. The computer card, for instance, has its own theme, and so does the villain, Vikram.

The supporting cast also includes SS Chandran (at his hilarious best) and Madan Bob in a blink and miss role.

One of the scenes I really enjoyed comes when Azhagu and Kathir watch a village meeting from a distance. As the village discusses the thorny issue of the recent spate of robberies, the duo is making their minds up on whom to rob.

“I can’t decide whom to rob,” Azhagu confesses. “Look who has the most rings on their fingers. Watch whom the Valliyur Singari is seducing,” says Kathir. “Valliyur Singari is here? Where?” exclaims an excited Azhagu and has to be restrained from giving up their hiding spot.

There is no shortage of chase sequences in the movie. After the thieving duo meets Chandralekha (Anu Aggarwal) and fall hard for her, there is a pretty lengthy chase sequence. At one point, the main cast tries to escape from the CBI (ABC, as called by a horse-and-cart rider) even as the officials chase them in ambassador cars. When Kathir asks if the horse will go any faster, pat comes the reply: “Only if you give ganja”. Kathir raises the puzzling question if the marijuana is for the horse or the rider. It is hard not to get the humour and fun in this sequence, but trust me, such stuff is rarely done is popular Tamil cinema.

Mani Ratnam, who was just 37 when TT was released, showed an admirable sense of adventure in making the movie, infusing it with a remarkable pace and energy. This is quite evident in the picturaisation of the song sequences. If this doesn’t sent your pulse racing, you should probably march yourself to the hospital for there is something wrong with your soul.

The contrast between the titular Kathir-Azhagu duo is very different from Vikram’s agenda to wreck the nation. The small-time thieves are out for fun along with earning a meal, but Vikram is just pure evil.

This is the most adventurous of Mani Ratnam’s movies. He wasn’t playing it safe as his wiser self is doing today. It is a bit like watching Tendulkar before he ever hit a ton and that kind of zing is worth revisiting.

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