Even watching this classic Mani Ratnam film on a terrible DVD with a degraded image and Hindi dubbing couldn’t diminish its power. Thalapathi represents the ultimate in Tamil Cinema during the early 1990s. Director Mani Ratnam, composer Illayaraja and cinematographer Santosh Sivan combine to present the superstars of Tamil and Malayalam Cinema, Rajnikanth and Mammootty in an epic gangster melodrama.
The outline narrative is based on the Indian epic narrative the Mahābhārata. I can’t pretend to be able to explain how the connection is made, but it is mentioned by several commentators. The film’s plot sees a teenage mother abandon her newborn baby during the Holi festival. The baby is later found by children and eventually brought up by a woman in a poor community. Twenty-five years later, the abandoned baby is now a man, a child of the community and fast becoming its protector and moral conscience. This is Suraj/Surya (Rajnikanth). In defending a woman, Surya beats up man who eventually dies from his injuries. The dead man worked for the local crime lord Devaraj (Mammootty), who recognising his qualities recruits Surya. The two soon become very close, saving each other’s lives at various points and gaining control in a community who fear the (corrupt) police and the threat of rival gangs. Devaraj and Surya are criminal and violent in retribution but they support the members of the local community. Surya becomes the man to go to for help – the ‘Thalapathi’ of the community.
The new power regime is then threatened by the arrival of a new District Collector, a young man (played by Arvind Swamy, later to star in Roja and Bombay) who is determined to ‘clean up’ the city. It is at this point that all the coincidences of melodrama come into play. Everyone turns out to be related to one of the other characters in some way and cross-loyalties are inevitable. At the centre of everything is Surya’s hurt at still being an ‘abandoned son’. (He rationalises the action of the mother he has never known by saying that he was a ‘black baby’ that she didn’t want.) ‘Mothers’ become important characters in the narrative, both in a functional and symbolic way. The audience knows that the narrative can only be resolved by violence and death. (The connection to the epic is partly in relation to the cross-loyalties to friends and families.)
The high melodrama is played out in terms of music, compositions, colours and highly choreographed dance and fight sequences. I confess that in the first half of the film, I found Surya’s excessive violence to be deeply disturbing. It occurred to me that the character was rather like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – a fascist cop who was morally right but prepared to break every law and to punish the bad guys. I still thought this in part two but as the melodrama intensified, it did become more understandable if not more acceptable.
The real value of the film for me was simply to see Rajnikanth in action. This is his only Mani Ratnam film which seems a surprise. I can see why he is a superstar. He exudes charisma despite lacking the pale features, aristocratic face and toned body of so many Bollywood male leads and in this film sporting a mane of seemingly back-combed hair. Like the beefy moustachioed Mammootty, he could only be a superstar in the South. There is something warm and vulnerable about him. He cries and comforts small children quite naturally – and a moment later beats opponents to a pulp without blinking.
I’m wondering now whether I can bring myself to watch Mani Ratnam’s earlier Nayakan, another gangster epic starring the other Tamil superstar, Kamal Hassan. Like Thalapathi, this sees a working-class boy take on rival gangsters and the police in another massively successful film. But the DVD that I rented looks unwatchable, so perhaps I’ll look for a better copy.