If you're the kind of person who gets embarrassed when your films feature a guy who can knock the stuffings out of a hundred men, the sort of guy who can reduce hooligans to trembling masses of flesh with one look, in short, the sort of guy who feels what the world sorely lacks is serious ass kicking, then Thambi is not for you. If, on the other hand, like me there's a degenerate kid in you that yearns for release, the sort of release that can only be found in films like Saamy or Dhill or even Run, their anti-social elements well-concealed beneath layers of decency, films which for all the violence somehow manage to remain wholesome, with an absence of the sort of garbage that passes for humor in far too many contemporary comedies, and an utter absence of any pretentiousness but an abundance of good old Indian-ishtyle mythmaking, then my friend, welcome to the world of Thambi Veluthondaiman.
Our hero at first blush might appear to be a standard Tamil film vigilante -- except he isn't. Thambi is actually a pacifist of sorts, one who (amusingly) feels that in order to make the world safe for pacifism, a number of heads need to be banged together. Refreshingly enough, it isn't just corruption in public officials that gets his goat, which puts some distance between him and the protagonists of, for instance, Samurai and Citizen. Rather, it's everything from poverty to greedy multinationals to environmental pollution to the plight of small farmers. Equally refreshingly, Thambi does not partake of the corrosive cynicism about the "system" that far too many other films do; this vigilante kicks butt, but he doesn't kill the bad guys, he just hands them over to the cops. As Thambi calls out to the Goddess in Vidyasagar's plain Jane first song, "the world is upside down", and he is just the man to fix it.
Ok, so while Thambi is not about a run-of-the-mill action hero/vigilante, it isn't exactly pathbreaking cinema. And sure, if Vikram were in this film, this would merely be the latest in a series of films that might well be considered close cousins. So what's the big deal? Um, the title role -- tailor-made for the likes of Vikram, or if a lower budgeted film, perhaps a Vijaykanth -- is essayed by Madhavan. Yup, you read that right: Maddy, Tamil cinema's wide-grinning urbane loverboy from a few years ago (Alai Payuthey and Minnale) turned bourgeois bore (JJ, Priyamani Thozhi and Priyasakhi), with a brief -- albeit sensational -- tough guy interlude (Run), turns up in his unlikeliest avatar yet: as "massy" Narsimha-like icon, larger than life like never before, the man-god with one eye fixed on the bastis (the other firmly trained on the box office). To avoid humiliation on such Rajni-terrain would be no mean achievement; to make the act as authoritative and convincing as Madhavan manages here is testimony to the man's gifts and his sheer range as an actor, the latter simply unmatched in his generation by anyone else in either Tamil or Hindi. Not to mention that it's heartening to see him look a tad slimmer and buffer than in his unfortunate turn in Rang de Basanti (though he needs to do more, and from the sound of things Mani Ratnam has put him to work in preparation for Guru). The long-haired look is very becoming, and combined with eyes that in this film seem as if they might pop out at any moment, cut an iconic picture of a superhuman figure maddened by the injustice around him.
Some traces of the old Madhavan remain: perhaps in deference to his "well brought up" persona the rampant sexism of many action films is (somewhat) toned down here, and the film's first romantic song appears to feature not Thambi but the Maddy of Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein. In retrospect, this directorial lapse (if lapse indeed it is rather than a clever cue to the audience that their hero is very different here) merely serves to heighten the surprise felt by the viewer in the film's memorable opening scene: one is treated to a garbage dump, the image cutting to Thambi resting on fence wires, battered and bruised but very much alive. From the very first dialogs, Madhavan's intonation, his entire demeanor, is different: over the top, in your face and irresistible. I'm not the only one convinced, given the film's success in Tamil Nadu (though the media appears to be divided on how well it has fared), most notably in smaller centers hitherto not fully persuaded by Madhavan's earlier films. The act is above all a clever one, Madhavan using (as satyam helpfully suggested) a somewhat deranged persona to make up for his lack of brawn. And how can one go wrong with dialogs (if my Ayngaran DVD subtitles are to be believed) like: "I am not afraid of death: until I am alive death cannot touch me, and when it finally comes I won't be alive." Wonder if the Bard ever dreamed that a fellow by the name of Veluthondaiman would evoke the famous lines from Julius Caesar?
[UPDATED 8/31/06: Nor is the act merely clever. Implicitly, the creative choice of "playing" this sort of vigilante -- a type seen so often in Tamil films it's a hallowed cliche by now -- as somewhat crazy distances Thambi from the audience, which prevents the sort of disturbing normalization that attends such characters, even in films as hugely enjoyable as Samurai. For make no mistake: this is the most "liberal" leaning overman action film one can imagine: the hectoring and lecturing here is not about women inviting molestation by the way they dress, or about the corrupt deserving death at the drop of a hat. Director Seeman's politics are undoubtedly simplistic, but on this terrain it is a rare pleasure indeed to encounter a vigilante who believes in the sanctity of human life, who is implicitly critical of capital punishment, and who is equal part enraged and anguished by the violence around him (as opposed to all enraged). Unfortunately the distinction wasn't appreciated by the media, which for the most part appeared unwilling to forgive one of Tamil yuppiedom's cinematic icons this descent into Tamil filmi earth. By some accounts Madhavan's core urban audience has been similarly unforgiving, although "in the interiors", not to mention suburbs, Thambi rocks on. I'm glad: it would be a shame if this sort of persona were "wasted" in a commercial sense.
On a different note, credit must also be given to Shankar, whose Anniyan was really the first Tamil film that I can think of to have made an utter psycho of his "punisher" character, all the more so given that Shankar himself has spent years massaging semi-fascist (albeit relatively cartoonish and hence less pernicious) fantasies like Gentleman and Indian into blockbusters. There is more than a trace of Vikram's Anniyan in Maddy's Thambi, from the crazy tilt to the presentation of the eyes as the site par excellence of madness, more by way of homage than derivation. Ultimately of course Thambi is not a patch on Tamil cinema's biggest guilty pleasure last year, but c'mon, you weren't seriously expecting that it would be, were you?]
After all this, you want a story? Yeesh, you're missing the point: such films are not about the plot, but about the presentation of an authentic persona, nothing less than a popular icon. A film like Thambi, to put it differently, simply serves a different cinematic purpose than one like Lagaan or Rang de Basanti, and the development of an Aristotelian narrative or even of a character isn't one of them. But since you insist, the story goes something like this: there are lots of bad guys, and Thambi -- a cross between Jesus and Nana Patekar -- takes them to task; he keeps doing this with the smaller fry until bit by bit he runs afoul of the big fish, who repeatedly try to get rid of him but in the end get the crap beaten out of them. But since Thambi doesn't believe in taking human life ("a hero never kills anyone"), and ultimately saves the main bad guy's mother and daughter, the villain sees the error of his ways. Oh, and in between Thambi finds the time to romance the sweet-looking but insipid Pooja, mostly by way of songs she imagines.
Masala yaar, masala. Ain't nothing like it.