Mani Ratnam’s ‘Thalapathi’: A gangster classic that still holds up today

Mammootty-Rajnikanth-Thalapathi-1991

Tamil cinema, or rather Tamil gangster cinema, has come a long way since the days of the larger-than-life characterizations, the bombastic background scores celebrating the hero’s arrival, unrealistic storylines and heavy melodrama visible in old-fashioned gangster movies – a major chunk of which starred Rajnikanth.

Our tastes have become more refined since then, and although we are now glad to see an Aaranya Kaandam or Subramaniapuram, we occasionally need that balance by watching these over-the-top and quite cheesy rags-to-riches tales that would amaze even the Ambanis and Tatas.

But once in a while, we need to relive our childhood memories – those days when we would get back from school and watch VHS tapes of Billa or Baasha while munching on the snacks that our moms have made for us.

Then Mani Ratnam arrived with his The Godfather-inspired Nayakan – now also known to international critics – introducing us to something that was slightly different from what we were already used to. Time to put those snacks aside, sit up and take notice.

His unique filmmaking grammar, which perfectly balanced both arthouse and mainstream sensibilities, made “serious” cinema palatable to general audiences. But it was not the time to go fully arthouse yet. And Ratnam is not the right candidate for that. I mean he can, but I don’t think he wants to.

All he did was give that much-needed push that would enable young, aspiring filmmakers who grew up on a steady diet of his films to become inspired and expand on the foundation that he had already established. It would take another 20 years to see something really revolutionary like Aaranya Kaandam.

Nayakan was a breakthrough film, sure, and as much as I’m glad about the fact that a film starring my favorite South Indian actor, Kamal Hassan, has gained considerable recognition abroad, I still don’t consider it a favorite. I found it too melodramatic.

I’m not saying it’s a bad film, mind you. It’s still worth recommending for Kamal’s magnificent performance alone. If I saw it playing anywhere, I would still watch it for him. It’s just that, from a pure filmmaking standpoint and as a gangster film, I hold Thalapathi in much higher regard.

Perhaps there is a big Kurosawa influence in what Ratnam did with this project – this modern retelling of Mahabharata is akin to Kurosawa’s modern retelling of Hamlet, the 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well. This is a grand film rich with a multitude of themes: friendship, family, loyalty, love, betrayal, revenge, etc.

For me, seeing Mammootty and Rajni together was a big deal. And, of course, Amrish Puri (huge!). I don’t know how Mammootty – who had been in two Tamil films prior to this – was viewed by Tamil-speaking audiences back then. I was already familiar with Rajnikanth’s films and was quite aware of his larger-than-life persona.

Amrish Puri-Thalapathi

I was a big lover of gangster cinema back then. I hadn’t seen The Godfather or the Scorsese films or even Satya yet. I loved stories about good-hearted, independent, anti-establishment men operating outside the boundaries of the law. Most of us fantasize about being like them, no? This is why The Godfather is such a major classic.

Ratnam wrote Surya – my favorite Rajni role – as a man who was ordinary and considerably different from all the usual larger-than-life roles that he is normally associated with, but still retained his incredible screen presence and charisma which he took great advantage of.

He did not give Rajni a grand entry scene but still introduced him in an effectively stylish sequence – in the rain, bashing a goon in slow motion. (Malayalam director Badran paid homage to this scene in his cult classic Spadikam by staging a fight scene involving Mohanlal and a corrupt cop inside a theater playing this scene in the background). Outdated stuff, yes, but it’s Rajni da.

I viewed the friendship between Surya and Deva as the reverse version of the Dawood-Chhota Rajan legend. I loved the filming of their first confrontation –  which takes place at night, in the rain (again), their bodies illuminated by the headlights of white Ambassador cars. I mean, this is a scene which really screams “gangster movie”.

If it were in Hollywood, these characters would be wearing long trench coats, fedora hats, carrying Thompson machines guns and the headlights would belong to black Buicks and Cadillacs from the 1940s. When finally that scene came where they both announce their friendship, I had goosebumps all over. This was a sign of great things to come. I was elated!

Santosh Sivan did some of his best camera work here. He is sort of like India’s Roger Deakins – making good use of the rain, the sun, the twilight skies, the temples and the actors’ faces. The songs (and their picturization) still work today because no one shoots classy material like this anymore (even Ratnam has fallen prey to the MTV-style editing fad).

There is that mandatory celebration song that is present in nearly all of Ratnam’s films and then there is a fantasy love song (“Sundari kannal oru sethi…”), an ode to Kurosawa’s samurai films (it’s as if the characters in the song took a tour of Edo period Japan and decided to do something trendy by mixing two different styles).

Even though the story is powered by a heavy dose of melodrama in several parts, it all works somehow. I’m totally against the idea of using melodrama in films but I can’t imagine this film without it. And I must admit that Surya’s scenes with his mother (Srividya at her best) still make me very emotional whenever I see the film. Each actor was in fine form.

Everything about this film works, no matter how old-fashioned it looks. I guess it’s because of the wonderful memory we have of our first time experience with it. I don’t know how kids would react to a film like this today. It’s an important Mani Ratnam film because it not only reminds us of his incomparable genius but also teaches us some valuable filmmaking lessons.

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One comment

  1. Absolutely true.Mani rathnam had paved way for the youngsters to make sensible movies that satiaites the mainstream audiences too. thalapathi shows how a gangster movie can be made without going hyper. Like you said even the melodrama too was never forced and to be honest it was required for this heavy hitting movie. It suits the Tamil sensible to the T especially the Amma sentiments.

    Liked by 1 person

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