thalapathi Rajinikanth
Culture, Movie Review

Thalapathi-Redefining the Mass Hero Trope

Starring one of the biggest, most celebrated superstars to ever exist, from an industry that celebrates its heroes like anything, we get a film that redefines the mainstream mass hero concept. I’m talking about Thalapathi, directed by Mani Ratnam, and starring Rajinikanth. Thalapathi is not only one of the finest adaptations of Mahabharata but also a film that redefines a mainstream hero in many ways.

Instead of taking the entire story of Mahabharata, Mani Ratnam picks the segment of Karna and Duryodhana’s friendship to create his masterpiece. Rajinikanth plays Surya, an orphan who is based on Karna while Mammooty plays Devaraj, a gangster who is based on Duryodhana. The entire film is centered around their friendship and its after-effects.

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Surya falls in love with Subbulakshmi, an upper-caste girl but their innocent love is opposed by her father due to Surya’s orphaned identity. And thus, Subbulakshmi and Surya part ways, and the former ends up marrying Surya’s stepbrother. The hero does not get the girl he loves. In response, he does not go to pick up a fight with his lover’s father or try the filmy “macho” elements to win his lover back. Nor does he find comfort in alcohol to forget her. He moves on, and so does Subbulakshmi. Given the era in which this film was released, showcasing the hero who does not get his woman and is yet calm and accepting of the situation is indeed a rare thing to witness.

The next time Subbulakshmi and Surya meet, though having moved on, they still have the same respect for each other. They exchange pleasantries and are happy that the other is doing well.

But that’s not it. Surya ends up marrying someone- a widow, with a child. The same woman who was widowed because of Surya becomes his wife. Can you imagine! Tender, young woman who might probably give up everything for the hero- this was one of the most common templates used in our movies back then. By getting Surya married to Padma, Mani Ratnam brilliantly rewrites this convention. He also deprives Surya of any significant male ego and that’s the reason why his equation with his romantic counterparts feels very mature and much ahead of its time.

Giving Rajinikanth a break from his larger-than-life screen presence, Thalapathi brings a more emotional touch to Surya. He is vulnerable and weeps at the thought of his mother who abandoned him. He understands that he is in the wrong by siding with Devaraj, but the orphan in Surya does not want to let go of the love and support that Devaraj has showered on him. The feeling of belonging that Devaraj showed Surya is something that Surya has craved for his whole life.

Shobhana and Bhanu in Thalapathi
Left- Sobhana as Subbulakshmi, Right-Bhanupriya as Padma

Let’s come back to the women in Thalapathi. While the story may be centered around the friendship of two gangsters, the women in the film have a strong story of their own. They aren’t just objects of beauty or submissive dolls for the male characters. Both Padma and Subbulakshmi have strong personalities that set them apart. Even Kalyani, Surya’s long-lost mother is a refreshing character very different from the maternal templates back then.

“I wanted to make a film that covered the scope for Rajinikanth’s stardom but would remain my film.”, Ratnam had said during an interview. Well, Thalapathi, in every scene stands true to this.

You can watch Thalapathi on Prime Video and YouTube

Image Courtesy: YouTube

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