Perumal Pillai’s Thilagar is the story of two brothers in a village by the Thamirabarani. The older one (Bosepandian, played by Kishore) is the most respected man around, and he wants more for his brethren. He encourages a relative to stop this aruvaa business and become a cop. Thilagar, the younger one (Dhruvva), needs no convincing. He is “educated” (the fact comes up a few times, almost like a pejorative), and is repelled by the thought of violence – he becomes nauseous even at the sight of a chicken being slaughtered for dinner. But we know he’ll transform – the film, after all, is named after him.
It’s the same template that gave us Thevar Magan. It’s the same caste too, even if the title does not explicitly tell us so. If Thevar Magan had as its anthem Pottri paadadi penne / thevar kaaladi manne, Thilagar features a song with the lyrics Ethanaiyo perumaigalai vachirukkum vamsamada / sathiyama kulangalile enga kulam amsamada. A subsequent line makes clear what kulam this is (if we were still in doubt, after seeing the moustaches on these men) – we hear the word “pasumpon,” and we cut to a statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar. A little later, there’s a scene that unfolds in a cinema hall, with frenzied fans delighted at a glimpse of their “thalaivar.” We are talking about Karthik. The film is Amaran, which gives us an idea of the time period – 1992, the year Thevar Magan was also released. In case you missed all this, ‘Silk’ Smitha bites her lower lip and stares down from the rickety walls of the local arrack shop.
One way to regard Thilagar, then, is as a rehash of Thevar Magan targeted at the C-centre audience. The narration, in some parts, is ridiculously old-fashioned. After Bosepandian is killed (but you knew that was coming, right?), Thilagar stands mutely beside the corpse that was once his brother. His mother taunts him: pottachi. Bosepandian’s wife says it’s okay if he doesn’t do anything, There’s a lion in her womb, and he will avenge her – till then, this thaali will remain around her neck. It’s been a while since a Tamil film worked us over with the thaali sentiment, and I’d almost forgotten what we used to be subjected to in the 1990s. When Bosepandian’s wife is avenged, she walks into the house, stands in front of a mirror. She doesn’t just take off the thaali. She tugs at it – and tugs at it, and tugs at it – till it snaps off. She tosses it into a pitcher of milk. She wipes off her pottu. She removes her bangles. It’s widowhood porn, all over again.
But it’s not easy to dismiss Thilagar. Even in the midst of all this regressive behaviour (though who are we to call it regressive if this is indeed accepted practice?), we find a very progressive heroine. Jaya (Mrudhula Basker) is the film’s best character. The early portions of her romantic track with Thilagar are pure cliché. Usually, in these films, we only hear snatches of an Ilayaraja number, the aural equivalent of an amulet. Here, during this courtship, we hear practically all of Nethu oruthara oruthar paathom. (No wonder the composer is mad. Forget royalties, he doesn’t even get a thank-you note.) But when Jaya’s father finds out and accosts her, the scene is a pleasant surprise. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t start beating her up. He just grumbles under his breath, he lets on that he knows. Her reaction is equally muted. She doesn’t get panicky. She doesn’t deny it. She says she will marry Thilagar. The mother’s in the scene too. What’s not is melodrama.
In another scene, Thilagar is standing on the steps leading into the river. His lungi floats away, he can’t swim, so Jaya retrieves it for him – she performs the “saving the honour” duties that are usually the male’s prerogative in these films. She’s the one who initiates the romance, she’s the one who breaks it off too. After Thilagar turns into whatever Kamal Haasan turned into at the end of Thevar Magan (there’s even a scene involving decapitations, plus a message about ending the cycle of violence), Jaya summons him and says something like this: “You are justified in doing what you’re doing. But you’re making a lot of enemies. I don’t have the courage to marry you and lead a life constantly fearing for my thaali.” There, that word again. But this time, it’s not a sop-to-the-audience “sentiment”— we feel the weight of her words. I expected her to keep hanging around him, and then one day he’ll turn around and snap that he hasn’t got time for all this anymore, after which she’ll sing a sad number by the banks of the river from which she retrieved his lungi. But she makes a tough decision. She ends up with the upper hand. Thilagar, too, is written with insight and empathy. After the break-up, he isn’t a sad, broken man. He doesn’t look back, even once, at Jaya. Instead, he redirects all his love to his young nephew, who we see as the film opens. (The rest is a flashback.) This bonding isn’t overdone – it isn’t “cute.” There’s always a pall of grief.
One of the things that’s always bothered me about Thevar Magan is the Kamal Haasan character’s near-instantaneous transformation – clothes, chains, aruvaa moustache and all – into a drastically different person. Thilagar’s transformation is much more convincing. His brother is killed. His mother and sister-in-law taunt him. It’s easy to see why this pacifist, this coward even, takes to violence. But the how is beautifully depicted too. He goes to an expert and learns shooting. He assembles a small team. They learn to make crude bombs. His feelings may be his own, but he realises he’s not going to be able to avenge his brother’s death without the help of others. How strange to find this level of… realism, if you will, in a film which has those scenes with the “thaali sentiment,” along with an item number in which Neetu Chandra shakes everything she’s got, come-hithering the audience with lines like “Dumm dumm dumm edhuku / pee pee pee edhukku / Ellaame idhukku / Vaa mama.”
There’s some unexpectedly bravura filmmaking, most notably in the atmospheric stretch at a village festival. This is the sequence in which Bosepandian will end up killed, and the director infuses it with a mythical quality. The assassins – dressed up like demons, with long tongues and garlands of skulls – wander amidst the crowds, looking for their target, and after he’s slain, we get a visual grace note, the feet of a demon walking away from the corpse, anklet bells ringing. Search all of Kaaki Sattai or any random big-budget movie – you won’t find a single second that’s crafted with such care, with such a sense of composition. A couple of other sequences stand out – one in which Bosepandian’s son performs the rites for his father, and another where Thilagar, after hearing a noise in the night, steps out of the house and begins to look around for an intruder. Is there really someone, or is he becoming paranoid?
This is another improvement on Thevar Magan. Unlike the Kamal Haasan character in that film, Thilagar doesn’t really change – rather, the changes are only on the surface, so that others can see that he’s taken his brother’s place, that the village, therefore, is safe. (How I wished Thilagar had been played by a better actor. Kishore, though, is fine. He brings to his part what has become his trademark quality: dignity.) Inside, Thilagar is still the same man. He hasn’t slept in years because every time someone looks at him, he fears they are assassins sent by Ugrapandian. The latter (played by ‘Poo’ Ram) is this film’s Nasser character, and he’s promised to crush Thilagar in so horrifying a manner that “un aathavoda garbapai nadungum.” Ugrapandian is one of those old men who, to steal a line from Pauline Kael, “carry never-ending grudges and ancient hatreds inside a frail frame, those monsters who remember minute details of old business deals when they can no longer tie their shoelaces.” By the end, you may end up feeling a little sorry for him too, that he’s lost everything but his thirst for revenge, and now he’s too weak to do anything about it on his own.
There are times I wondered what this film might have been with a bigger budget, better production values – but the non-“classy” filmmaking, if you will, somehow ends up making things look more authentic. There’s no PC Sreeram to burnish the frames, and there were times I felt I was actually inside this village. (Some of the footage looks like a documentary, and I couldn’t make out if it was deliberate or the result of cost-cutting.) While watching Thilagar (with Thevar Magan running in my mind as a parallel track), I wondered if a film like Thevar Magan makes rustic life “safe” for an urban audience, like how it is when we step into Dakshin Chitra. You could say the same thing about the Madhavan portions in Aaydha Ezhuthu too – it’s squalor, all right, but it’s at an arm’s reach. The rich production values act as a buffer. There’s no buffer in Thilagar.
- Thilagar = Sorry, no translation here; that’s just a dude’s name
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