It begins in black and white, at Bogi, the festival where folks throw out their old and unwanted trash; and this Bogi, after being shunned by the community and giving birth in the forest, a thirteen or fourteen-year old girl is going to abandon her newborn son like so much kuppa (trash), placing him on a cargo train bound for the city. The baby is ultimately found by an old woman on the riverbank, the setting framed by the wreckage of industrialization, modernity's eerie intrusion into this self-consciously mythic landscape. We don't need to see this baby grown up to know who he will be: Rajnikanth.
Thalapathi is an often overlooked Ratnam film, following Nayakan by a few years and still some time away from Ratnam's undoubted magnum opus, Iruvar. Certainly it is not as thoughtful or provocative as Iruvar, nor as forceful as Nayakan, nor even as visually poetic as some of the later Ratnam. It is, to my mind, nothing other than an out-and-out masala film, a mode Ratnam has become increasingly reluctant to indulge with the years, an unfortunate casualty of the "serious filmmaker" tag that is inescapably part of his image today (that he has not forgotten how to make such a film is evidenced by Alai Payuthey, flashes of which may be gleaned even from the hopelessly overmatched Hindi remake Saathiya).
And what a masala film Thalapathi is! In the space of two-and-a-half hours Ratnam touches upon all the principal themes that have traditionally formed the grist for the Indian commercial cinema mill: family, identity, love, belonging, friendship, crime, justice, villainy -- and oh yes, songs. And dances. And a grand spectacle of a video as well (but more on that at the end of this review). All of which adds up to a movie on a grand scale, befitting a cast that boasts of Rajnikanth and Mammoothy as the two pillars holding the film up.
Surya (Rajnikanth) is the Thalapathi ("General") of the title, the foundling having grown up to become a general do-gooder and beat 'em up kinda guy; a run in with a well-connected lackey brings him into conflict with said lackey's boss, the underworld don Devaraj (Mammoothy), who recognizes the justice of Surya's actions and bails him out of jail (where he has been languishing on a murder charge). The friendless Surya develops an intense affection for the man who has helped him (even if he was the one who had Surya jailed in the first place), and Devaraj in turn sees in Surya a combination of right-hand man and brother. The combination of Surya's wild fearlessness and Devaraj's stolid strength is irresistible, and in short order Devaraj and his General rule the roost in their town, meting out justice as they see fit. And if this state of affairs ruffles the feathers of Devaraj's arch-enemy Kalivardhan (Amrish Puri, speaking in an impostor's dubbed voice), that's just too bad.
Which brings us to Arjun (Arvind Swamy, as inert as ever), the IAS officer posted to Devaraj's town and determined to clean it up. No prizes for guessing that Arjun's mother, Kalyani (Srividya), is perennially weepy because her long lost son is none other than the Surya whom Ratnam and his sensational cinematographer regularly frame against the rising sun. But there's also an unexpected twist when Surya's lover Subbulaxmi (Shobana) is married off by her orthodox Brahmin father to Arjun (can't really blame her dad; in the eligibility stakes, IAS officer wins over basti rowdy everytime). By film's end, the truth about Surya is revealed, even if at the cost of Devaraj's death. Kalivardhan is responsible for the latter, which makes Surya very unhappy -- and Kalivardhan very dead.
Thalapathi is visually so superb so often, so unsurpassed by anything in Ratnam's oeuvre not named Iruvar or perhaps Kannathil Muthamittal, that Ratnam really should have had a better script; in particular, Ratnam's intense focus on the familial angle means that Amrish Puri is rather wasted here, and this anti-social viewer would certainly have liked to have seen more ass-whupping by the combined forces of Mammoothy and Rajni.
But all that pales into insignificance when one re-visits the film's opening, one of my favorite in all Indian cinema: in sparse yet paradoxically luxuriant black and white sequences, a woman pours water over her husband, interrupting his bath long enough to callously turn away the young girl racked with labor pains at her doorstep (she isn't married, you see). The scene then shifts to a forest, and the serene camera movement, placid bullock, and remarkable interplay of sunlight and foliage (still in black and white), construct a setting that I can only call magical. Yet this is no fairyland: Ratnam does not allow the viewer the luxury of tranquility as the girl's cries of agony serve as the soundtrack to this scene, ultimately replaced by the newborn baby's bawling. It is at once the oldest trick in the Indian film book of melodrama, yet transmuted by virtue of Ratnam's and cinematographer Santosh Sivan's alchemy into cinematic gold.
One could go on: I mentioned the scene where the baby Surya is found at the outset of this review; and no discussion of the visuals of Thalapathi could be complete without mention of the first meeting between Surya and Devaraj: as in the former's (adult) entry-scene, rain pours down, so thick and straight it appears as the stuff of myth, seeking not to wet our heroes but to batter them. That Devaraj's clothes remain pristine white in the midst of all this is a wonder, starched lungi and kurta as will to power, and symptomatic of a man who is nothing if not in command.
Devaraj is kept dry by an umbrella, the traditional symbol of Hindu kingship (especially prominent during Tamil Nadu's Nayaka period, though hardly exclusive to the latter). That is, the chatrapati, the holder of the umbrella, is the earthly king; and the chatri is held for the "real" monarch, Lord Vishnu himself. The question of Ratnam's umbrella motif is a complicated one, and in some of its later manifestations -- such as in Iruvar or on the Guru poster -- the "overman" figure faces a crowd of umbrella-wielders, perhaps fitting given that in a democracy it is the people who are supposed to wield earthly power, but equally reminding us that the "real" signified is the "overman" figure for whom the umbrellas are held. In Kannathil Muthamittal "The Umbrella" is the title of a story written by an "Indra", and although the latter is the name of the king of the Vedic deities it is clear that in this story within the film, the umbrella is a symbol not of power but of the powerlessness of the refugees from Sri Lanka, who have no shelter (or none but that which Indra -- who takes the orphan refugee baby into his, or even "her" given Indra is both the author's pen name and his wife's real one, home -- can provide).
In Thalapathi, however, the usage is more conventional, and on my reading enables Ratnam to pay cinematic homage to two of India's greatest cinematic icons: the "real" signified is Mammoothy, who as Devaraj is the actual monarch in the film; and the one who may be said to hold his umbrella is the earthly Thalaivar ("Leader", a term used for Rajni, and possibly contemporary Tamil cinema's most famous honorific). Yet there is also an inversion of significance: the Thalaivar, Devaraj's second-in-command, is also Surya (the sun), a deity in himself, perhaps even reminiscent of the divine Krishna, Arjuna's charioteer in The Mahabharata (in the film Surya tells his wife's daughter that his mother abandoned him because he wasn't fair, evocative of the figure of Krishna -- whose name is Sanskrit for "black" -- also brought up by a woman not his mother), thus making of Surya a "real" signified of sorts too. No surprises: this is, of course, Rajni's Tamil Nadu.
Ratnam's much-noted penchant for duos finds extreme expression in this film: Surya is at the center of two overlapping -- and conflicting -- pairs, Devaraj and Surya on the one hand, and Arjun and Surya on the other. The former is bound by affection, the latter by blood. And there's more: Kalyani's sons are fathered by two different men, Subbulaxmi loves one brother but is married to another, and Surya himself is his wife's second husband, and her daughter's second father, her first one having been killed by Surya himself. If it is true that in Ratnam's world whereever there is one there are two, each one inextricably bound and yet implacably opposed to the other, nowhere is that truer than in Thalapathi (except perhaps in the disappointing Agni Natchathiram)
In a film featuring two icons of the magnitude of Mammoothy and Rajnikanth, it seems odd to think of anyone else as the star of the show, but Santosh Sivan comes close, articulating Ratnam's vision with a highly stylized aesthetic that, although not always evenly brilliant, at its best moments might yet remain the benchmark for mainstream Indian cinema. The Ratnam/Sivan achievement is wonderful, and always utterly rooted in the film (in contrast to the more intrusive, even if impressive, efforts of Bhansali/Ravi Chandran in Black, for instance); the best compliment I can think of is to assert that not even the greater art of Iruvar can render the achievement in Thalapathi superfluous.
Mammoothy is superb as Devaraj, essaying a potentially hackneyed role with great dignity and authority, although he doesn't have much of significance to do in the film's second half; indeed it would be no exaggeration to say that most of his best moments come early on in the film, culminating in a wrenching blood-soaked battle with Kalivardhan's goons where Mammoothy's character is outnumbered perhaps ten to one, yet -- hacked, chopped, and stabbed seemingly dozens of times -- lives (albeit barely) to tell the tale. This action sequence is the most intense in the film, yet Ratnam somewhat unsatisfyingly truncates this, almost as if he were trying very hard not to let Thalapathi become an action film. Darn it Mani, you can't keep a good sickle out...
Rajni is, well, Rajni, that is to say he has that rarest of luxuries in that he never needs to be anything more or other than Rajni. To speak of someone acting "better" than Rajni almost makes no sense, so irrelevant is acting of the sort that a Mammoothy is capable of to the effect Rajni evokes and thrives on. The Thalaivar is not really a bad actor based on my limited experience with his work; he just seems to leave that sort of thing to mere mortals.
A masala movie needs worthy songs, at least one of which must be rollicking -- and it doesn't get much better (even if you are Ilaiyaraja) than Raakamma: has there ever been a catchier song? The unusual Kattukuyulu is no slouch either, and is aptly picturized on the two male leads at the heart of Thalapathi; but it is Soundari with which I conclude, simply because it is one of the finest Ratnam song videos ever, in its magisterial sweep taking in the stereotypical lovelorn girl as well as the larger-than-life iconography of Rajnikanth, all by means of an overt homage to Kurosawa's samurai cinema. The video moves between the ever-sweet looking Shobana and recurring battlefield settings without missing a beat, as if to announce Ratnam's command over both registers, the intimate and the epic. For such cinematic ambition, much may be forgiven.
[UPDATED December 20, 2006: Ashis Nandy examines (among others) Deewar and Thalapathi in light of the Karna myth from The Mahabharata in his book An Ambiguous Journey to the City: The Village and Other Odd Ruins of the Self in the Indian Imagination. While Nandy is more academic than film reviewer (in the sense that he is seemingly indifferent to cinema except for the ideology or psychology/mythos that a film may be said to "encode"), I find his discussion of Thalapathi and Deewar useful, even if I find his dismissive attitude towards the films he discusses a bit too facile. In particular, note Nandy's point about the "doubling" of Arjun and Karna over the last century or so.]