Scenes of children living in dire poverty in the slums of India. Grotesque violence committed by gangsters who run an entire village. Brutal police who tie men up in ropes attached to the ceiling so that they can beat them while they’re dangling in the air. And surrounding all this, great music by a Tamil film composer who’s done lots of beautiful film scores in the past few decades, whose music was recently mixed in a song with vocals by M.I.A.
Can you guess what movie I’m talking about? That’s right, it’s Thalapathi! And the film composer I’m talking about is Ilaiyaraaja, my favorite Tamil film composer of the past few decades.
I’m glad that I finally found a copy with English subtitles on YouTube last night. I had tried – not too successfully – to watch this movie without subtitles a while back, mainly because of the M.I.A. connection (i.e., the song here that was sampled in her song “Bamboo Banga“) and because of the Travancore Family connection (Shobana). (And along the way, I found out that there were other very good actors and actresses involved: Rajinikanth, the star of the film; Mammooty; Bhanupriya…)
Unfortunately, the film itself is what’s known as a mixed bag. For one thing, it revolves around some heavy cliches: The (anti-)hero and his rival – who happens to be a law officer – are involved in a long battle seemingly to the death until each one finds out that the other guy is actually his brother. The (anti-)hero also spends most of the movie longing to find his lost mother, a figure who never ceases to weigh heavily on his mind, even after he finally discovers her. Etc. These kinds of cliches somehow seem more acceptable in a film made back in the ’50s, before they got used and reused for another 40 years. It might help, at least, if such plot themes were somehow developed in a refreshing manner, but they aren’t.
There are, however, some moments when this film does seem unique, and some of those moments are very good. The beginning scenes, in which the (anti-)hero starts his life as a baby abandoned by a teenage mother(who probably had been raped), are harrowingly rendered and beautifully filmed, and they also contain interesting references to different religious myths. (He is born in a manger, then he is dropped on a train and then set afloat on the river, where he begins a journey that, as explained in the excellent summary at Wikipedia, contains a lot of references to The Mahabarata.)
I also appreciated that the film had some moral complexity, often connected to problems of class and caste. The gangsters who run the town through most of the movie (which gangsters include our (anti-)hero) often act to avenge foul deeds committed against poor people. There is a lot of talk about how these gangsters step in to bring real justice for people who can’t afford to hire lawyers or bribe policemen, etc. (Although, these gangsters helping people out are the good gangsters. There are also other, really bad gangsters…)
So, obviously, the writer/director, Mani Ratnam, invested this movie with a lot of good literary-type thought. It’s too bad about the violence – not just because it’s violence (which is sometimes simply necessary for the plot or message and so on), but because it’s so sensationalistic, silly, and often gratuitous, and it takes up so much time that could have been devoted to more interesting things. (There were plenty of ways they could have saved time spent on the violence. For instance, maybe if that guy got smashed in the face five times instead of ten times before getting shot in the head, or maybe if that other guy who kept getting beaten up over and over while being chased got beaten up only once while standing in one spot…)
The best part of the movie, of course, is the part devoted to love… More specificially, to the (anti-)hero’s love interest (at least for about half of the film), a girl who sings hymns and studies bharatanatyam, played by Shobana. It should be obvious why romantic scenes with Shobana and scenes of Shobana dancing and “singing” and just generally acting like a very nice person should be so welcome, considering what’s going on in the rest of the film. Plus, whenever Shobana enters the picture, she is accompanied by the prettiest and most serene music in Ilaiyaraaja’s score.
The dancing in general is kind of mixed, though it is generally mixed with more good stuff than the film. I appreciated the touches of traditional Indian dancing – especially with Shobana involved – but I got mixed feelings when the dancers were trying to be too much like 1980s and early ’90s MTV videos, especially the kind with Michael Jackson in them. Although it did often seem as though they were not as interested in emulating that stuff as parodying it, dancing with a lot of humor to provide nice breaks between those scenes of dragged out violence.
And I should add that I tend to accept or reject western influences in Indian movies according to my own strong biases. For instance, as some people know, I love old Indian dance scenes influenced by western pop culture from the 1950s. Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind as much that some of this dancing also reminded me of West Side Story…
(“Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu”)
The music by itself is very, consistently good. I can’t find a bad or mixed thing to say about Ilaiyaraaja’s music here. His score alone makes this film worth watching, though those with limited spare time might do just as well sticking to the song-and-dance clips.