An unmarried teenager gives birth to a boy and abandons him soon after birth. The infant is found and raised by another woman. He grows up to be Suriya (Rajinikanth), a small-time criminal. Suriya comes into conflict with Devaraj (Mammootty), a big-time gangster after Suriya kills one of Devaraj’s henchman. However, Devaraj forgives Suriya when he realises that his man was wrong, and makes Suriya his commander. Suriya is so loyal to Devaraj that he spurns an offer by a rival don, Kalivardhan (Amrish Puri), to join him. Meanwhile, Suriya falls in love with Subbulakshmi (Shobhana) and wishes to marry her. The town gets a new collector, Arjun (Arvind Swamy), who is upright, honest, and wows to destroy Devaraj. Arjun happens to be the son of Kalyani (Srividya), who is still torn by the fact that she abandoned her first-born. Arjun ends up marrying Subbulakshmi after her father rejects Suriya on account of his social background. Devaraj makes Suriya marry Padma (Bhanupriya), the widow of the man he had earlier killed. Kalyani eventually finds out that Suriya is her son and goes to meet him and ask his forgiveness. Moved by the encounter, Suriya pledges to surrender himself. Devaraj and Suriya come to Arjun’s house to give themselves up, but Devaraj is killed by Kalivardhan’s men…
Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi is a movie of many firsts and one big last. Ratnam directed southern superstars Rajinikanth and Mammootty for the first time in this film. The film also inaugurates a long and fruitful collaboration between Ratnam and cinematographer Santosh Sivan, which has since produced Roja (1992), Iruvar (1997), Dil Se 91998), and Ravaanan/Raavan (2010). However, Thalapathi also marked the last time Ratnam hired Ilayaraja to compose a movie soundtrack. Thalapathi has some fabulous hit songs, especially the catchy Rakamma Kaiya Thatti, but Ratnam never worked with Ilayaraja again, replacing the veteran music director with the wunderkind AR Rahman for his next film Roja.
Thalapathi is loosely based on the story of the unfortunate warrior Karna from the Mahabharata, a fact that Sivan’s cinematography never lets us forget. Karna is the progeny of Kunti and the Sun God, and Rajinikanth is often bathed in golden light or framed against a rising or setting sun. Kunti abandoned Karna right after his birth and left him to the mercy of the river, where he is found and reared by a low-caste charioteer. Ratnam relocates Suriya in a world of noble gangsters.
Suriya is one of Mani Ratnam’s favourite creations: the ideal gangster. He is a fundamentally decent man who has been pushed into a life of crime by circumstances. He lives among the poor and fights for his own notion of justice.
We’re never quite sure how Devaraj earns his wealth – apart from conducting kangaroo courts, we don’t know whether he runs gambling dens or pilfers kerosene. However, we are constantly reminded of Suriya’s munificence – he helps the poor get free medical treatment; he saves the honour of a man’s wife.
Ratnam has favoured the binary of good criminals and bad cops right from Nayakan continuing through Thalapathi and most recently in Raavanan/Raavan. This populist formula ensures audiences for Ratnam’s films, which reject several conventions of Tamil cinema (such as melodramatic excess and a loud and crude comedy track) in favour of Hollywood-style realism.
Thalapathi’s big gamble is to cast Rajinikanth but dispense with Rajnikanthisms. There’s no flicking of the cigarette into the mouth or throwing back of the hair for the superstar in this movie. Rather, the actor, whose over-the-top acting style has made him a figure of adoration as well as a target of parody, sits it out in Thalapathi. He rediscovers the naturalistic acting rhythms that he displayed in his earlier films with K Balachander. Ratnam compensates for the lack of Rajiniisms by painting the dark-skinned matinee idol in the whitest shade of white. Rajinikanth’s career has spanned a variety of roles, from the sadistic husband of his earlier films to messianic saviour of late. Thalapathi gives him the rare chance to simply play a role rather than appear as a larger-than-life cut-out.
Thalapathi remains a Rajini vehicle, but the rest of the actors have more than just speaking parts. Ratnam’s dexterously written screenplay fleshes out each of his chracters. Apart from the main roles, there are nice parts for Jaishankar as Kalyani’s husband and Shobhana as the upper-caste Subbulakshmi, who has a doomed relationship with Suriya. The two eventually part, but not before they romance each other in the song Sundari Kannal Oru. Ratnam is an avowed fan of Akira Kurosawa. He explicitly pays homage to the Japanese filmmaker in the fantasy song sequence, in which Suriya appears as a warrior kitted in samurai robes who wages a bloody battle while his consort waits for him.
For a film that is about a clash between gangsters and authority, Thalapathi proceeds quietly. A trademark element in Ratnam’s stylebook is the minimal use of dialogues. He creates tension through terseness rather than volubility. One of the film’s noteworthy minimalistic exchanges takes place in a police station. Suriya has been arrested for murdering one of Devaraj’s henchmen, but he is released when Devaraj realises that the henchman was a crooked fellow who deserved what came his way. A fake murderer is produced to take Suriya’s place in prison. Suriya asks the replacement, “Why?” The answer is breathtakingly brief: “Deva”.
Ratnam neatly reverses one of the most cynical moments in the Mahabharata, when Kunti reveals her identity to Karna only so that she can emotionally blackmail him into sparing the life of her other son, Arjun. In Thalapathi, the mother-son reunion is bereft of any maternal manipulation. Both weep copiously and mutually come to the sad realisation that the good son’s campaign to clean the town of rowdies like Devaraj and Suriya will have to be upheld.
Thalapathi underlines Ratnam’s skill in reinventing genre cinema to extract new pleasures out of old stories. The movie is tightly plotted, and doesn’t feel overlong despite its running length (137 minutes), the presence of several songs, a romantic sub-plot as well as a handful of action sequences to keep Rajini fans happy. Ratnam’s surefootnedness has abandoned him in some of his films (Thiruda Thiruda, Dil Se, Raavanan/Raavan), but Thalapathi sees him at the peak of his seductive powers. The movie doesn’t have the epic quality of Nayakan, but it is a bold attempt to address an ancient epic through the gangster genre – a feat that Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti attempted, without half this film’s style and grace.
Tamil. Action, Drama, Color