Tuesday, September 06, 2005


When Surya, a low-life yet honest man gets released from the jail (convicted for murder), because a sidekick of a big law-breaker in the city claims that he committed the murder, Surya asks him "Why?". He replies, "Deva". An attempt at pithy stylized dialogues. But, it is really funny in its awkwardness nevertheless. Wait, there is more to come. As Surya comes out of the jail doors, he sees Deva standing there, all alone, waiting for Surya's arrival. He expresses his gratitude for Deva and says "En kitta irukkurathu onnu thaan. En Uyir. Adha naa unakku kodukka thayaar'aa irukkaen" [paraphrased]. Deva, in turn, asks him to be his friend, his Thalapathi (Commander-in-chief). And they hug each other heartily, only in a few seconds after their second meeting (and the first doesn't go too well)! This sequence definitely reminds me of what Jabberwock wrote here (in a 'subtle' sense, of course).
Quite obvious that the scene I have sampled is from Thalapathi, Mani Rathnam's attempt in retelling the mythological story of Karna from the epic Mahabharatha. It is worth mentioning that it also has Mani Rathnam writing the dialogues for his movie (An unusual thing; Anybody shed lights on Idhaya Kovil & Pagal Nilavu, please).
The movie could have well been one of MR's fine efforts with its interesting premise (with strong echoes of Benegal's tour-de-force Kalyug). The references to the mythological original are quite straightforward unlike, say a "Hey! Ram", but yet adapted to the contemporary scenario very effectively.
1. Surya, as a child, coming in a small piece of floating pad stuffed with chaff or something.
2. Surya doesn't say "No" to anybody coming to him for help.
3. Placing Arjun on the law's side {and he does come from a place called Pandavapuram (?)} thus placing him in a "war" against the "Kauravas", Deva and Surya.
4. The Shobhana love-angle also suggesting Karna's failed attempt at marrying Draupadi since he was not a Kshatriya. Interestingly, Benegal also suggests that "Draupadi" was once in love with "Karna" in his Kalyug (though, I don't remember any such suggestion in Sage Vyasa's masterpiece. May be, I missed it out thanks largely to the kitsch, good-wins-over-the-evil version of Mahabharatha in Doordarshan).
More higher points are IR's fantastic score and Santosh Sivan's impressive cinematography give a solid support the very bleak atmosphere maintained throughout the movie. MR's affinity to picturise songs with all the aesthetics is all too evident in this movie (and he pays his tribute to Kurosawa in the song Sundari Kannaal Oru Sethi). Inspite of these high points, the misé-en-scene throughout the movie (who are these people who rever Deva and Co. as their Saviours and which city are we in? both of these unanswered deliberately) and an impulsive leaning to go over-the-top in melodrama really pulls the movie down.
The melodrama quotient reaches strange levels when one starts wondering if it was deliberate from the Mani Rathnam's part to equate the story to Mahabharata which had come in T.V. with over-the-top melodramatic setup. So, we have Surya (the name indicating the connection with God Surya, apart from quite a number of shots of Surya standing right in between the twilight sun and the camera giving him a halo effect) crying on his mother's lap the moment he meets her; Arjun, his half-brother (played by a young Aravind Swamy, a MR constant-to-be), calling him "Anna!" and hugging him after Deva's funeral.
Rajini, in his last attempt at shedding off the heroic persona, still gets quite a share of it to appease his fans and we have MR on the other side trying to make Thalapathi as a great film. That conflict shows up in the movie too (and in the film's denouement too, with Surya joining hands with his mother safely, as "there is no evidence against him").
I always maintained (then, perhaps mainly because I was/am an ardent fan of KH) that Guna was a much better effor than Thalapathi (the comparison being for the sole reason that they were released on the same day). I still think so.


  1. Well, Thalapathi did not pretend to be a "movie that shattered heaven and hell". It was a Rajini flick with an MR touch.

    Guna no doubt had much greater artistic merit. But I always thought the reason for the movie's failure was the lack of conviction in the relationship between Guna and Abhirami - maybe a natural act of physical intercourse would have brought that.

    People(read prudes) talk about unwanted sex on screen. But here was a movie that did not have "must have sex".

  2. Hmmm.. a look from a different angle i guess. I will read this once again.

  3. hi,

    I almost agree with you. But yet i like Thalapathi a lot even better than Nayagan (which i saw only recently). With such weak scenes (as you mentioned) to show how Deva and surya become thick friends, i don't know what magic MR did in the to make it convincing and believable. I would say Thalapathi as one of the best wholesome entertainers. But when it comes to comparison to Guna, i feel artistically Guna is way beyond any of its contempararies. Guna is my favourite too.

  4. hey,

    also can you tell me where to buy "Hey Ram Screenplay book" in chennai. i remember sometime back you said somewhere that you have bought that book from some bookshop in chennai

  5. Suresh,
    It's available in New Book Lands,, Near Panagal Park, Chennai.

  6. Interesting view, to say the least. me better read it completely before I open my mouth :D.. and thanks for stopping by. Don't be surprised if you find your blog on my blogroll ;)

  7. I have never seen Guna. I can't believe that myself!

  8. The ambivalence surrounding the Draupadi-Karna relationship isn't mentioned in any of the conventional translations, but it's there in the various additions made to the original text (assuming there was an "original" text in the first place) over the centuries, and in various parts of the country. That bit about Draupadi possibly being in love with Karna probably had its roots in a statement made by Krishna (which IS there in conventional translations) that Karna "combined in himself the best qualities of all five brothers". Logically speaking, it might follow that if he had been a legitimate Pandava, she need only have married him! :)

  9. Was that the legendary Jabberwock?
    Welcome!! :)
    and thanks for the info. When Benegal had that angle in Kalyug, I was pretty sure that the "original" Mahabharata (on which I have a very high opinion and think its vastly misunderstood!) should have alluded to it. TV series obviously didn't want to touch that part!

  10. According to a (English) translation of Mahabaratham that I read, there is no mention of the Karnan-Draupathi affair, except for Draupadi insulting Karna, when he steps forward to take her hand in the ‘Swayamvaram’. Again Draupathi’s mocking laughter at Duryodhanan, when he slips in the courtyard/trips in the magical room, just before her 'Swayamvaram', infuriates Duryodhanan. This incident supposedly led to Duryodhanan's animosity towards Draupadi (and the whole post-gambling event). Unless there is a different version, am sure it was just Benegal’s interpretation.

    Mani Ratnam had done a very neat job adopting it for Rajni’s underdog image and balancing it for his fans and MR’s own. I feel the reason why some of us did not feel comfortable with Thalapathi is (like you mentioned), it does not have a recognisable locale. None of what you saw on the canvas was ‘real’ stuff; the slum, the walkways, the river banks, Deva’s house, the roundabouts... In a certain way, you’re not even sure if it’s a contemporary setting. I believe MR did this on purpose, so that the Movie gets a mythical feeling, much like the theme he was adapting.

    Guna and Thalapathi were good movies, in their own league. Given an option, I would choose Guna, purely ‘cause I was very impressed with Kamal’s work at that time. The other common thing b/w these two films was that they were both very bold attempt.

  11. Hemanth,
    In a certain way, you’re not even sure if it’s a contemporary setting. I believe MR did this on purpose, so that the Movie gets a mythical feeling, much like the theme he was adapting.
    Exactly! Thats what I felt too (that it was deliberately done), as I had pointed out in my post. Only that, the melodramatic take on the various relationships (much akin to all the contemporary retellings of Mahabharata) was less appealing to me. Still, I would like to remember "Thalapathi" just for the overall bleak atmosphere it maintains throughout just like Mahabharata itself.

  12. If looked at pure entertainment value, Thalapathi stands way ahead of Guna, reflected in box-office collections too.. Even IR's music was better for the former than the latter.
    Guna doesn't light up your mind or it stays dark throughout due the backdrop (throughout) and the hero's characterisation. The heroine (roshni) looked out of place for the movie.
    Both being good attempts, I would anyday like to revisit Thalapathi than Guna!

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  14. hey guys do you know where is Roshni, the Guna fame nowadays.