The Tamil masala film we miss: Why Ghilli is still a hit with the audience

Not everything in Ghilli looks just as convincing as it did 20 years ago, especially the action scenes. But if the audience still loves it, it’s because they’re drawn into the story and the storytelling.
The Tamil masala film we miss: Why Ghilli is still a hit with the audience
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We’re into the fifth month of the year, and the Tamil film industry is desperately looking for a blockbuster even as Malayalam films like Manjummel Boys and Aavesham have set the box office on fire in the state. Given this, Dharani’s Ghilli (2004), which was re-released on April 20 to mark its 20th anniversary, has grossed over Rs 25 crore, a tidy sum even by today’s standards. Over and above its significant nostalgia value for ‘90s kids, Ghilli belongs to a category of films that have become rare in Tamil cinema – a satisfying masala film. 

I re-watched Ghilli in Pune with a houseful crowd, expecting parts of the film to have aged badly. But surprisingly, apart from a few aspects (like a character named ‘Adivasi’), the film was a blast. Many in the audience had clearly watched the film several times. They were cheering and mouthing dialogues in anticipation, and the atmosphere during “Appadi Podu” was nothing short of electrifying. Vijay, of course, was welcomed with mad cheers, but so were Trisha and Prakash Raj. Everyone knew all the jokes but laughed anyway. Everyone belted out the lyrics of “Arjunaru Villu” as a steely-eyed Vijay drove the car with a frightened Trisha next to him. Everyone knew what was going to happen but nobody was bored.

The ‘masala’ film is one that blends several genres to offer a variety of flavours to viewers. Typically, these films appeal to a wide section of the audience because they have a little bit of everything that appeals to people’s tastes – action, comedy, romance, and drama. The ‘masala’ film is the antithesis of arthouse cinema, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make or should be looked down upon. Ghilli owes its popularity to a well-written screenplay that never gets boring. 

Setting up the hero

Velu (Vijay) is a kabbadi player but his father, a senior cop (Ashish Vidyarthi) doesn’t approve of his interest in the sport. He doesn’t approve of his friends either, and is constantly after him to study and make something of his life. His mother (Janaki Sabesh) is gullible and dotes on him, while his sister Bhuvana (Jennifer) is always trying to rat him out. While the central conflict in the film is between Velu and Muthupandi (Prakash Raj), it is this minor conflict at home that drives the plot forward and also completes Velu’s character arc – he finds acceptance from his father, and even Bhuvana bats for him at the end. 

The ‘family sentiment’ is there, but isn’t milked to a point where the audience tires of it. Dharani mixes it with enough comedy and sarcasm to ensure that the scenes are always entertaining. For example, during an action sequence at the end, Velu’s father is chasing after him and at one point, the former’s life is in danger. Velu saves him but there are no maudlin dialogues. The screenplay continues with the chase, and it’s amusing to see how Velu hoodwinks his father. 

There’s also another minor conflict in the film – between Velu’s kabbadi team and their opponents who play dirty. Many mainstream films today have become star vehicles where the hero is invincible from the first scene to the last, and there are no real conflicts in his way. The tendency is to fill the screenplay with violent action sequences where the stakes remain external and there is very little progression in the characters. In Ghilli, these two minor conflicts lead to the big one. So, the screenplay doesn’t rest solely on a face-off between the hero and the villain. In the climax, the three conflicts come together, with the plot threads converging and offering an interesting resolution. 

A unique villain

Muthupandi, played by Prakash Raj, is undoubtedly one of Tamil cinema’s most memorable villains. He is a brutal man, the son of a politician who has no respect for the law. The first time we see him, he’s committing a murder in broad daylight at a busy railway station (in keeping with the Madurai ‘sickle’ formula). Nobody stops him, and nothing happens to him. 

Muthupandi is obsessed with Dhanalakshmi (Trisha), and wants to marry her though she hates the sight of him. This is a terrifying premise, given Muthupandi’s introduction to the audience. But, Muthupandi’s ‘love’ is so exaggerated and absurd that these scenes are comic. His “Ayy chellam!” or “I love you chellam!” draw spontaneous laughter from the audience even now. Though he desires Dhanalakshmi, he has decided he won’t rape her because his love is “true”. As a result, there aren’t any scenes of graphic sexual violence or a leery camera gaze each time Muthupandi looks at Dhanalakshmi. This makes it possible for the audience to enjoy what’s happening.

Moreover, the cat and mouse game between Muthupandi and Velu isn’t one-sided, and Velu has to come up with new strategies to get past Muthupandi. So, the payoff in the climax doesn’t feel exhausting. In many recent films, the hero consistently defeats the villain in every encounter in exactly the same way – guns and more guns, or muscles and more muscles. By the time the climax arrives, the films become so predictable that the victory is rendered meaningless. 

Prakash Raj plays Muthupandi brilliantly, making effective use of his prominent eyes. Take the scene in which Muthupandi goes to the police station to file a complaint against Velu. He tries to describe the man to the cops and his frustration mounts as they’re unable to come up with an accurate sketch (the final result on the computer is Gemini Ganesan). He is violent and desperate and ultimately, pathetic. He presents an idea of danger that is at once immediate and non-threatening. 

Romance in the right quantity

Velu and Dhanalakshmi meet in front of the Meenakshi Amman temple, but not in the usual meet-cute way. Velu is jogging in Madurai, hood up, the same way he was jogging in Chennai in his introductory shot. The echo moment immediately heightens the tension in the scene because we know something big is about to unfold. Muthupandi is forcing Dhanalakshmi to get into his car and Velu reacts instinctively. He beats up Muthupandi and drives away with her, even though he has no idea who she is or what sort of trouble he has invited upon himself. 

They’re two strangers thrown into a dangerous situation, and there is no time for deep conversations and hand holding because Muthupandi is on the hunt. We see Dhanalakshmi’s growing feelings for Velu in the way she looks at him and her reluctance in leaving him for a better life in the US, but Velu remains oblivious. It’s only after dropping Dhanalakshmi at the airport that Velu realises that she had become such an important part of his life. He kicks his bike and automatically asks her to get on, forgetting that she’d left. It’s a small moment but says enough about the equation between them. 

A lot of contemporary action films chuck in a heroine for no good reason and the romance proves to be a drag because the film doesn’t really need it. It’s distracting at best and ‘cringe’ at worst. By keeping the romance in the sidelines and bringing it to the fore only at the end, the screenplay stays focused on the chase. 

Dhanalakshmi hardly speaks in the film. She’s vulnerable and easily scared, but Dharani adds an unexpected twist in the end – Dhanalakshmi stands up to Muthupandi, the man who had terrorised her for so long. What’s more, it happens in an entirely hilarious way. She suddenly demands a cup of coffee even as she’s being dragged away by Muthupandi. Dhanalakshmi has had enough of this man’s BS and finally speaks her mind. It’s funny and punctures Muthupandi yet again. It’s a classic damsel-in-distress story (with a slap by the hero for good measure), for sure, but this wee bit of agency that Dhanalakshmi displays is quite precious. 

Not everything in Ghilli looks just as convincing as it did 20 years ago, especially the action scenes. But if the audience still loves it, it’s because they’re drawn into the story and the storytelling. Can we have more of this masala brand and less of the beheadings and kalashnikovs please? 

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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