Monday, April 30, 2018

Rajinikanth as Karna, Mammootty as Duryodhana: Thalapathi revisited

[Did this piece about Mani Ratnam’s 1991 Thalapathi for Mint Lounge. Much, much more to say about this remarkable film – possibly as part of a collaborative project with my Mahabharata-obsessive friend Karthika Nair – but here’s the short version]


Contrary to what you’ve been hearing from some quarters, airplanes and internet technology are almost certainly not a bequest from the days of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. However, mythology has other, softer ways of affecting our contemporary lives – by supplying the tropes and archetypes of our popular culture, for instance.

Take the celebration of male friendship in Hindi cinema, which draws heavily on mythological relationships such as Krishna-Sudama (a parable about true love being eternal and transcending the class divide), Krishna-Arjuna (two good guys combine philosophical wisdom and fighting skills to defeat evil), and even deity-devotee friendships like Rama-Hanumana.

But one of the most striking examples of male bonding – especially the sort that plays out in dramatic, morally ambiguous circumstances – is the one between Karna and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata. And I can’t think of a better cinematic treatment of this relationship than in Mani Ratnam’s 1991 film Thalapathi, where Rajinikanth plays Surya, a modern-day Karna who is abandoned as an infant, grows up in penury and becomes regent and friend to the ganglord Devraj (Mammootty).

Notably, the two men start as adversaries and their friendship begins as a result of Devraj recognizing that one of his minions had transgressed and that Surya did the right thing in punishing him. “I am not a virtuous man,” he tells Surya when he first extends the hand of friendship, “but I value justice.” Devraj belongs to the (perhaps overworked) tradition of cinematic crime bosses who have their own moral codes which they scrupulously adhere to – but the film is less concerned in giving us the details of his underground activities than in examining his friendship with Surya; it's enough to know that the two men operate in a deeply unjust world where many official lawmakers, including policemen, are corrupt and predatory, and that they provide an alternate means of justice to underprivileged people.

As with anything else in the Mahabharata, there are many possible perspectives on Karna and Duryodhana. Some tellings and analyses treat the relationship as purely one of convenience – two men brought together by hatred of a common enemy – or interpret it cynically: the “good” Karna feels bounden for life to his benefactor, while the “bad” Duryodhana is simply exploiting the skills of the great warrior he has unexpectedly discovered. The anthropologist Iravati Karve, for instance, scoffed at the idea that such a friendship would be possible between such social non-equals.

But even in the more sentimental-emotional renditions of the epic, which treat the friendship as wholly genuine, Duryodhana is mostly the story’s main antagonist or “villain”, with Karna as the person who humanizes him.

An intriguing aspect of Ratnam’s film, then, is how sympathetic and conscientious it makes its Duryodhana, who is an exemplar of friendship and justice. “You are making me a better person,” he tells Surya, “People used to fear me earlier, but now they respect me.” But both men benefit from the relationship: Surya is also made more stable and responsible by Devraj’s guiding presence.

In an interview with critic Baradwaj Rangan, Ratnam said he wanted to give his Karna a happy ending because “I’ve always wished that he lived on [in the Mahabharata] … there’s so much stacked against him.” This need to reverse a doomed hero’s destiny, to give him a ray of hope, fits well with this film’s tone. Rajinikanth’s Surya, though a fine performance with some very moving moments – such as when he learns his mother’s identity – is different from other Karna-inspired suffering heroes: Amitabh Bachchan’s intense, brooding Vijay in Deewaar, or the reticent and melancholy Karan played by Shashi Kapoor in Kalyug (a much more sombre Mahabharata updating).

Surya might not perform any cigarette-flicking tricks, but in some ways he is very much a Rajinikanth hero. Within the first 15 minutes of his onscreen appearance, we see him beat up a hoodlum in an action sequence, and shake his hips in a raunchy song (the great Ilaiyaraaja composition “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu”). Thalapathi is a reminder that the Mahabharata lends itself to “masala” treatment just as much as a Shakespeare play does; that loud, dramatic moments can coexist with small, subtle gestures and revelations of character; that an “item number” where Rajinikanth and Sonu Walia and their backup dancers shake their hips at each other can exist in the same space (literally in this case) as a more restrained interlude that introduces one of the film’s women protagonists (Subbalakshmi, played by Shobhana).

During the Bhogi festival, Surya and Devraj sing undying love to each other, in the time-honoured tradition of Hindi-film buddies like Veeru-Jai and Dharam-Veer. There is even a lighthearted comic take on the idea of “daan veer” (generous) Karna, who can never refuse anyone anything: at one point Surya, who doesn’t have money on him, orders a young woman to hand over her bangle – to pay for someone’s hospital treatment – with the assurance that he’ll get it back to her.

And yet there is also a bittersweet tinge throughout the film, a dramatic heft and a final sense of loss – notwithstanding the relatively “happy” ending – that comes in large part from the Devraj character.

A pivotal scene in the original Mahabharata is the one where Krishna tells Karna the truth about his birth and invites him to join his brothers, the Pandavas; Karna declines, citing his loyalty to Duryodhana and saying that even if he were offered kingship of the world, he would pass it to his friend. In its climactic passages, Thalapathi offers us a rarely glimpsed possibility of what might have happened if the truth had come out. So deep is Devraj’s love that on learning that his nemesis, an upright district collector, is Surya’s brother, he promptly declares a stop to hostilities, says that Surya’s family is like his own family, and decides to end his illegal activities.

It is a classic example of cinema as wish-fulfilment: such is Ratnam’s craft, the power of this film’s narrative arc, and Mammootty’s stirring performance that one is, temporarily at least, seduced into thinking that this could have been an apt alternate ending for the epic: that a great friendship could have helped avert a cataclysmic war, and the Duryodhana-Karna relationship could have received as much positive press as the Krishna-Arjuna one.

1 comment:

  1. I remember going in to watch Dalapathi (the Hindi version) having heard a lot about Mammootty and wondering through most of the movie what the hype was all about - the plot was, and he came across as, pretty much formulaic. It was the scene that you refer to above, where Devraj discovers that Surya has been faithful to him even after knowing that it is his brother he's going against, that drove the point for me. In one fleeting take, there's all these emotions that wash through Mammootty's face - incredulity and anger, leading to realization, gratitude, and conviction. That scene is a case study in emoting.