When we first meet Mithran (Jayam Ravi), he’s just the best cop ever. He knows exactly where to be, what to do, whom to shadow – it’s like he can do no wrong. And then he meets his match in Siddharth Abhimanyu (Aravind Swamy, underplaying nicely). Siddharth gets a terrific introduction. I’m not talking about one of those scenes where the villain’s face is revealed after a bullet goes off and he brings the gun down. The film begins with his birth. He’s that mythic. Had this been myth, his birth would have been accompanied by the cries of vultures. Here, a blaring siren tells us he’s bad news. But Siddharth isn’t your usual teeth-gnashing villain. He’s a cool customer. He’s suave. He wears great jackets. He’s got a girlfriend from the fashion industry. He uses words like “incorrigible.” He even speaks French. He’s the kind of villain you’d get from a screenplay discussion session between Mani Ratnam and Gautham Menon.
Mohan Raja’s Thani Oruvan makes the most of the sustained cat-and-mouse game between Mithran and Siddharth. The authors who go by the name Suba are credited as co-writers, and this is the first time their pulp sensibility really shines through. Their earlier films – Maattraan, I, Anegan – were let down by the bloat that often afflicts mega-productions. This is a tight affair. Another filmmaker would have used the sequence built around a Miss India competition to stage a full-blown pageant, with strutting models and flashing cameras. Here, we get quickly to the point. The film doesn’t veer off into comedy tracks and romances either – at least not too much. The comedy comes with a touch of pathos, courtesy Thambi Ramaiah, to describe whom Siddharth unleashes another term from the GRE word list inside his head: “imbecile.” And the romance comes with a side of smarts. Like all Tamil-film heroines who fall for a hero who claims he’s not interested, Mahima (Nayantara) won’t take no for an answer. But she’s not allowed to get annoyingly chirpy – you don’t want to guide her gently to the nearest psychiatrist. She has something that’s rare in our heroines: dignity. She’s a forensic scientist. She can do more than just hold the hero’s hand. She can analyse his fingerprints.
There’s style too – more style than you expect in a Mohan Raja movie. Scrolling text. Embedded videos. Split screens. Cinematography (by Ramji) that keeps shuffling the shades. But as with any self-respecting work of pulp, this film’s biggest strength is its ability to keep coming up with twists. We get a superb one right at the start. Someone dies. Someone doesn’t want to get caught. We think we know who’s going to end up with the rap. But something unexpected happens. Most of these twists are smartly done, and the film builds on such small, unexpected things as an exercise at the police training facilities. There are bigger, whistle-worthy bits with a gun case, a bug detector, a whiteboard. I liked this whiteboard scene so much, I readily forgave the rather needless duet that followed. Mohan Raja and Suba use every trick in the book to keep us doing the cinematic equivalent of turning the pages feverishly.
And yet, Thani Oruvan isn’t all that it could have been. If you’ve wondered why we don’t make thrillers like the Bond films and the Mission: Impossible films, the reason is right here. In those films, a few minutes are devoted to detailing who the target is, what the mission is, and then we’re up and running. But Tamil films keep trying to transcend the basic thriller. They want to deliver enriching messages. The too-good-to-be-true hero wants to preach – he spouts four lines when he only needs one. All this becomes a lot of extra baggage. The film slows down from time to time. Then there’s the length –over two-and-a-half hours. There’s also the question of the leading man. Jayam Ravi certainly looks the part, but he keeps hitting the same note. He’s earnest, sincere – the acting world’s equivalent of the kid in the front bench who keeps raising his hand. You keep wondering how much better Thani Oruvan would have been had the hero come in a few other colours.
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