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Thalapathy- an actor conglomeration beyond compare

"Niruthanum...ellathayum niruthanum," are words that have been enshrined in Tamil film history, with movie spoofs, TV channel soaps and even other Tamil movies that were released later, having been influenced by the scene, the setting and the response that it elicits. For Tamil film aficionados worth their salt, the movie with which the dialogue is synonymous needs no introduction, however, for the uninitiated; it is the Rajnikanth, Mammooty, Arvind Swamy starrer, Thalapathy (the general/commander), a movie that stands out on more than one count. With Mani Ratnam as its director, this is something that has to be expected.

If Thalapathy has remained in public memory, despite around twenty years after its release, it cannot be denied that its music has played a vital role in doing so, amply justified by the fact that a tweaked version of the hoot of a steam engine bringing to mind, S Janaki’s rendition of the song ‘Chinna thaayaval’. Probably, no other Kollywood release can be identified or associated with a piece of music whose duration is roughly equal to half of a cell-phone alert. (The clinker of bells/triangle in Nayakan being a lone exception).

Thalapathy has many firsts to its credit. This was the first collaboration between Superstar Rajnikanth and Mani Ratnam. This was also the first movie that had Rajni sharing screen space with the Malayalam screen idol, Mammooty. Also, this movie marked the debut for an unheralded Arvind (who would go on to become popular as Arvind Swamy and also as Mani's mascot in his upcoming ventures) and Amrish Puri's debut as an antagonist in the Tamil film industry. Unfortunately, this was the last movie that had Mani and 'Maestro' Ilayaraja working together. In hindsight, it seems that the decision was a well-thought one. For a music composer by name Alla Rakha Rahman might never have been unearthed and Tamil music might never have got an additional reason for mp3 downloads and torrents!

The plot of Thalapathy is a careful cinematic adaptation of the Karna-Duryodhana plot in the Indian epic, the Mahabharatha, where Karna's loyalty towards Duryodhana, despite knowing that the Pandavas, Duryodana's arch rivals, were his own brothers, forms the crux of the movie. The characters, settings and the plot have been etched out keeping in mind, the interests of Rajnikanth's die-hard fan base, a director's nemesis or in most cases, his manna from the heavens. The director circumvents the obstacle posed by the demise of Karna and Duryodhana in the epic, whose exact adaptation in the movie would tantamount to suicide. This forms the necessity for an additional character, Kalivardhan (Amrish Puri). Additional sub-plots such as Draupadi's rejection of Karna and Karna coming face to face with his mother, Kunti, have been adapted to form a movie that would please not only the die-hard Rajni buff, but also the discerning movie critic.

The introduction scenes of the three leading characters in the movie- Surya, Devaraj and Arjun, makes for an interesting study. It could be argued that the triumvirate characterisation in Thalapathy could possibly have formed the basis for a movie that he would make much later, Aayitha Ezhuthu (Yuva in Hindi and Telugu). This scene in any Rajnikanth movie is a film in itself and is usually accompanied by a burst of euphoria that may include a song/a punch dialogue (unique to every movie of his), a fight sequence, or a combination of one or more of these. This being a Mani Ratnam movie, where even the agitated of the emotions are conveyed in the subtlest manner possible, we have Surya (Rajnikanth), an orphan, cast away by his mother in a train, making an introduction in the form of a fight sequence set in rain, minus the verbal bravado. Surya's opponent in the fight sequence (whose name is Ramana, to be told later) is almost an equal but gets overpowered ultimately.

In contrast, the scene where Devarajan (Mammooty), a la Robin Hood, who dispenses justice, makes his introduction, can be described as muted or understated. He makes an almost submissive entry into the hospital where his henchman Ramana has been admitted, however, his facial expressions are reminiscent of a Don Corleone of Coppola’s Godfather or a Velu Nayakan of Mani’s own Nayakan. The intense emotions that run deep whenever he utters a word or simply looks up at the doctor who tries to bar his entry into the clinic, make up for the passive construction of his visage.

The other lead character in the story, Arjun (Arvind Swamy), the deputy commissioner of the town, gets introduced to the viewer when he arrives at a crime scene at night, where Surya and Devaraj's henchmen have hacked a policeman to death in broad daylight at the city centre. The parallel unfolding of scenes where Arjun gets appointed as commissioner in a ceremony and Surya committing an act of murder, should send a portentous signal to the viewer of an imminent conflict between the two. (I suspect that Mani had earlier employed this technique in Agni Natchathiram, where Prabhu gets appointed as ACP at an investiture ceremony and his half-brother, Karthik, is busy playing basketball.)

The movie has many stand-out scenes to its credit, (which is an obvious understatement!). If all such scenes need to be listed out and analysed, Google should perhaps consider doubling its server storage! However I choose to elaborate on three stand-out scenes from the movie.

Scene 1: Deliberations at the collector's office
Devarajan and Surya have been called in for a tete-a-tete with Arjun, the district commissioner. The discussion begins with accusations thrown and slowly morphs into an verbal encounter, when Arjun asks the duo to stop their activities (Remember Niruthanum...?), finally eliciting a curt response from Devarajan who bluntly refuses to do so and walks out with his entourage in protest, leaving pale-faced Arjun seething with rage. It is not about the confrontary nature of the dialogue that makes this a memorable one. What stood out was the manner in which Devaraj replies back to his adversary across the table, almost like a dormant volcano that has just erupted. The split-second silence that follows makes way for Ilayaraja's score, with the trumpet ensemble melting its way like hot chocolate sauce over a cup of vanilla ice-cream...the scene is simply meant to be savoured (as its analogy is also meant to!)

Scene 2: A dawn for Surya (not to be confused with its Pakistani-daily namesake!):
Kalyani's (Srividya) husband, Jaishankar (surprisingly, whose character does not have a name), meets Surya and reveals to him the truth about his mother. Surya, who at once, refutes the fact, realises that it could be the truth and loses his emotion (yes, he does cry, although, in his inimitable style of covering his eyes or looking away from the camera). It must be said that this could be the rarest of the scenes where Rajni has emoted to the fullest, which makes it even more special. The parting shot of the conversation takes place in the backdrop of the rising sun, metaphorically symbolising the dawn of realisation upon Surya.

Scene 3: The showdown with the mentor
Devarajan gets wind of Surya's rendezvous with Arjun's father, and prods him to kill Arjun for having suffered ignominy at his hands. Surya hesitates and tries to side-step the issue. This infuriates Devarajan, who taunts Surya by asking him whether he is concerned about Subbulakshmi (Shobana) becoming widowed in the process. Surya squirms around and is uneasiness personified when he cannot take it any further and reveals the truth about Kalyani being his mother and Arjun, his brother. A shell-shocked Devarajan asks his protege as to why did he not join his family, when Surya replies back, "Yena naan un nanban." (because I am your friend). It is the expression of shock on Mammooty's face that steals the show, reducing him to tears, with his heart swelling with pride over the unconditional loyalty shown to him by his deputy.

The flamenco-styled guitar twangs, leading to a burst of violins in consonance in ‘Rakamma kaiya thattu’ should alone have led to its nomination as the most popular Asian soundtrack in a BBC survey, a few years ago, ahead of AR Rahman’s ‘Chaiyya chaiyya’. For the statistician, this song also marked the debut of Prabhu deva as a choreographer. ‘Sundari kannal oru seidhi’, my personal favourite, is bound to haunt listeners day after day, year after year after the song stops playing. Set in the Carnatic raga Kalyani and sung by SPB and S Janaki, the picturisation of ‘Sundari…’ alternates between Surya waging a battle in traditional Japanese war attire and romancing his lady-love, Subbulakshmi (Shobana). 'Kaattukuyilu manasukkulla' not only manages to get the leading stars of yore on screen, but also the voices behind them- SPB for Rajnikanth and KJ Yesudas for Mammootty, which in itself, is a conglomeration of sorts.

Casting coups are the norm in all cinematic ventures of Gopal Ratnam Subramaniam (that is his real name by the way!). Be it the Mohan-Revathi-Karthik triangle in Mouna Raagam, (that has many parallels with his only movie in Kannada, Pallavi Anupallavi) or the star studded cast in movies such as Agni Natchathiram or Iruvar, Mani revels in utilising unwieldy casts to his advantage. Veteran actors Jaishankar, Srividhya, Bhanupriya and Geetha excel in supporting roles, not to mention Subbulakshmi, who is torn between the love for her would-be suitor and affection to her father. Her pairing with Rajni is a far cry from that in K Balachander's Rajni-Raghuvaran starrer, Siva. Arguably, Subbulakshmi, a student of the Classical Arts, should have been the easiest of the characters to be enacted by Shobana, the real-life dansuese. Should Mani ever be in possession of a regiment, or at least, a bunch of scouts, he would have successfully overthrown and deposed, dictators of many a banana republic around the world with this attribute of his!

It is of little wonder that Thalapathy continues to remain in public memory almost two decades after its release!

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