Thiruda Thiruda : A Very Very Late Review

I have been on a spree of catching up with movies of the 80s and 90s that I had missed out on originally watching.This has been helpfully enabled by Amazon Prime Video which has built up an impressive roster of regional Indian movies. So when I was sitting bored, late one Friday night, I decided to take the plunge with Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda (Thief! Thief!), which was originally released in 1993. I had always avoided watching this movie as it was one of Mani Ratnam’s first major flops since the time he found overnight success with Mouna Raagam, and I had assumed it would be bad. Oh how I was wrong.

The late 80s were the breakthrough years for Mani Ratnam when he delivered absolute gems such as Mouna Raagam, Agni Natchathiram, Nayagan and Anjali. And then in the 90s he took this success to the next level with movies like Dhalapathi, Roja, Bombay and Iruvar. Mouna Raagam, Agni Natchathiram and Anjali were family dramas, Nayagan and Dhalapathi were social/crime commentaries while Roja, Bombay and Iruvar were hard-hitting political dramas. Ratnam established himself as an auteur and exponent in the Indian movie industry who specialized in exploring serious subjects in a way that combined commercial and artistic sensibilities.

However, between these serious and sober subjects, he released a light-hearted, action-packed, heist-caper movie about two small-time thieves (a loose inspiration from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) who stumble upon untold riches. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and carried heavy expectations, coming right after the path-breaking Roja. However, it sank without a trace at the local box-office. This movie was Thiruda Thiruda. Watching it twenty four years later though, I cant help but feel that it didn’t and still does not receive it’s due recognition.

Plot

The film opens with a daring heist scene, in which the gang of a London-based criminal, rob Rs 1000 crores in newly minted currency as it is being transported from the printing press in Nashik, through the Western Ghats, by train. As the police come hot on the heels of the robbers, the cash locker and a smart card needed to open it, finds its way into rural Tamil Nadu where two petty thieves Kadhir (Anand) and Azhagu (Prashanth) find themselves sucked into the hunt for the money. Add to this ensemble a femme fatale (Anu Agarwal), a runaway bride (Heera) and an honest CBI officer (SP Balasubramaniam) chasing them all and you get the perfect ingredients for an action-packed caper story.

Whether the songs or the action sequences, the movie moves from set-piece to set-piece, letting you catch your breath in the small moments of character exposition and comedy. The first half is tight and paced well. The movie slows down a bit in the second half and you end up feeling that it was a tad too long at a 170 min run-time. The overall film, however, is top-notch in every department.

Music

So let’s get this out of the way. The music was the biggest highlight of this movie. While the music was highly popular upon release, this is among AR Rahman’s most under-recognized soundtracks as the years have progressed, mirroring the fate of the movie itself. When we think of AR Rahman of the 90s we think of Roja, Bombay, Uyire, Kadhalan or Jeans. These are the soundtracks that are discussed, played on radio and cover versions performed for.

But watching the movie, I was just awestruck by the grand music of Thiruda Thiruda. I had of course heard these songs before, a long time ago, in another age. Listening to them again, one can feel the energy pulsing through the music, much like the spirit of the movie. The music still feels very contemporary. If it was the OST for any movie releasing today, it would still be a huge success, something that I cannot say for a Roja or Bombay. One of the best composers in the Hindi music industry today, a genius in his own right, Amit Trivedi, considers this album as an inspiration for him.

Song: Veerapandi Kottayile

Konjam Nilavu is probably the most recognized track in the album. It has always been a joy to listen to it and feel the waves of euphoria wash over you as the song picks up pace and reaches a crescendo. The opening track Kannum Kannum is a fun peppy dance number, with some amazing guitar riffs electrifying the score. Veerapandi Kottayile is another great dance track with killer beats. In today’s music scene, where dance tracks have become synonymous with soul-less EDM and DJs, it is refreshing to hear this old song which harks back to an era where dance was for everyone and one which makes you just want to stand up and hop around to the thumping beats and lyrics. Rasathi is a slow soulful track and is wonderfully sung by the late Shahul Hameed whose voice succeeds in giving it a rustic, rural feel aided ably by the lyrics. The song eschews accompanying instruments to capture the raw emotion of heartbreak from the voice and background chorus alone. Mani Ratnam apparently didn’t want to include this song in the movie as he felt it was adding an emotional heft to the movie, while he wanted it to have a light-hearted sensibility throughout. Thankfully ARR and Vairamuthu prevailed over him to include it. Thee Thee is the romantic track of the album with a hint of lust and eroticism thrown in and is a classic by itself for its unique slow/fast musical arrangement.

Lyrics

Ofcourse I would be remiss if I discussed the music but didn’t mention the excellent lyrics of Vairamuthu. The lyrics itself is a source of elation while listening to the soundtrack. Consider these lines from Veerapandi Kottayile —

Veera Paandi Kottayilae
 Mai Iruttu Velayilae
Golusu Satham Manasai Thirudiyathae

And

Veera Paandi Kottayilae
 Velli Mullaikkum Velayilae
 Paruvapponna Thirudi Thazhuva
 Thittamitta Kalvarkalae

In three consecutive lines, Vairamuthu, describes night-time in three unique but apt ways: Minnal Adikkum Velayilae, Mai Iruttu Velayilae and Velli Mullaikkum Velayilae. Or sample these lines from Rasathi which describe a bride forgetting the pain of a broken heart and getting married to someone else —

Manjala Araiku Munne Manasa Aranjavalae

Thuniya Nanaiyavittu Manasu Puzhinchavalae

Kalyana Saelayila Kanneerai Thodachikittu Poravalae

I don’t think anyone could describe it better. Vairamuthu has always been an master of words and he hits a home run with this album.

Choreography

Along with the music and lyrics, the choreography of the songs is another feather in the cap for this movie. All the songs have great choreography, whether its the sensual moves of Anu Agarwal in Konjam Nilavu or the energetic, footloose and fancy-free steps of Kannum Kannum. But the song that really captures the beauty of the choreography work in this movie is Veerapandi Kottayile. It is a pure, joyful, riot of synchronized movements at scale. A mass of dancers sway and swirl to the rhythm in carefully coordinated steps. No movement is random, no step without a beat and every turn is in unison. Even the movement of silhouettes is captured through the swinging of a ponytail here or the swaying of cloth there. The choreography was done by Mugur Sundar and his sons — two young budding choreographers named Raju Sundar and Prabhu Deva. Enough said. Actually no. The movie went on to win the National Award for choreography.

Come to think of it, this combination of inspired music, lyrics and choreography must have had the theater audience breaking out in exuberant rapture when they saw it on the big screen for the first time. I only rue that I was not among them.

Cinematography

Now, PC Sreeram is to Mani Ratnam what Janusz Kaminski is to Steven Spielberg. When the two collaborate they produce some of the best cinematography the industry has seen. And so it is with Thiruda Thiruda. Whether it is a jeep grounded in a mist covered lake or a temple illuminated at dusk, PC Sreeram’s eye for color excels and towers over the scene. The emotion is coming not just from the characters and what they are speaking but also from the color of the sky, the earth and everything around them, as Sreeram captures light, bends it to his will and creates sheer magic. It’s difficult for me to describe the beauty of the cinematography in words, so I’ll just leave some images here for you to judge for yourself.

Song: Kannum Kannum
Azhagu, Kathir and Rasathi
Song: Veerapandi Kottayile
Song: Rasathi
Song: Kannum Kannum
Song: Kannum Kannum
One of the many chase sequences in the movie
Kathir and Rasathi
Song: Rasathi
Kathir and Rasathi
Song: Rasathi

Action

Mani Ratnam has stated that one of his goals with this movie was to bring the high profile action sequences one normally sees happening in cities into a village environment. So he did just that. And then some more. When the movie is not enthralling you with brilliant set pieces in its songs, its trying to dazzle you with its breakneck action sequences. Being a caper movie, it is naturally filled with chase sequences. Car chases. Horse chases. Elephant chases! There are multiple action sequences shot on top of trains throughout the movie. The execution of these sequences would have been a lot more difficult than his other famous train sequence (the Chayya Chayya song from Dil Se, which got a lot more attention) with actors slugging it out on the rooftop of a moving train with a steep drop on one side.

Multitudes of vehicles fly into the air and crash into the ground( a jeep, a bus, a chariot, a container truck) something that must not have been so easy to pull off in the pre-CGI age. In fact the practical effects used in the movie are a refreshing change. These are good old stunts. Where metal meets ground with a hard thump. An interesting thing I noticed is the use of chickens falling off the vehicles in such sequences, either to convey the rustic environment, or as a study in contrast to the speeding vehicles while the chickens haplessly flap for cover.

Chickens and baskets fly off the roof of a bus in mid-air
Chickens and baskets fly off the back of a jeep in mid-air

Most of the action scenes have aged well. They don’t look shoddy and have a contemporary feel. In fact, the movie won a National Award for special effects.

Dialogues

One of the things that is so striking in its simplicity in Mani Ratnam movies is the dialogues. A good dialogue sequence should always seem natural and effortless. It helps you get immersed in the movie rather than leave you thinking “No! Noone talks that way in real life!”. It’s one of the most understated yet hardest parts of making a good film. Just watch a Gautham Menon or Shankar movie to understand how corny dialogues in even the biggest of movies can ruin a good experience. This has always been a big part of making Mani Ratnam movies feel rooted in reality. The dialogues in this movie have been penned by Sujatha and Suhasini, and they often help in uplifting the scenes by pumping in much-needed oxygen and enhancing the actor’s performance. Of special note are the dialogues written for the character of the god-fearing runaway bride Rasathi, which are often hilarious and provide much needed comic relief, and for the character Azhagu which help portray him as the goofy happy-go-lucky thief.

Characters & Performances

None of the actors in this movie are renown for their histrionic abilities. But as it happens in Mani Ratnam movies, he manages to extract the best from them using a mix of a great script, earthy dialogues and well-written characters. Anand, as the thief Kathir, delivers a passable performance. He portrays a matured and serious foil to his playful sidekick. Prashanth, on the other hand, portraying the playful, comical and romantic Azhagu, delivers his performance with aplomb. Here is an example of good dialogues and character helping an average actor punch above his weight. His entire performance seems effortless and he gets some of the best dialogues in the movie.

If there is one aspect in which Mani Ratnam films stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries, it is in the presence of strong female leads. We seldom see any other director, in any other Indian language, write strong roles for his female leads but Mani excels at that. He never uses actresses just as eye-candy. Whether it is the hapless wife in Roja, the doting mother in Kannathil Muththamittal or even the unrequited love-interest in Dhalapathi, his female characters are empowered and have strong author backed roles. It is no different with Thiruda Thiruda.

Chandralekha, Rasathi, Kathir and Azhagu

Anu Agarwal plays Chandralekha, a dancer, high-profile thief and the proverbial femme fatale of the movie. She is aware of her sensuality but is not bound by it alone. She is strong-willed and packs the smarts to escape the police and the antagonists out to kill her. She is introspective about her past. She is not attracted to any of the characters. She simply desires her objective: the money. She seeks to compete with the villain to the riches and allies with our protagonists to achieve her goal. In this she is very different from other vamps portrayed in Indian cinema, who are usually one-dimensional characters trying to use their sensuality to overcome the protagonist. As always, Mani does it differently. This leads to a refreshing character whose motives you are always left guessing, and Anu Agarwal does a commendable job portraying this.

The best of the lot is the character Rasathi, portrayed by Heera. Rasathi is a God-fearing, simple village girl who finds the courage to turn rebellious even as she seeks forgiveness from God in the same breath for this rebellion. Her intro is a comical scene of her trying to commit suicide to escape an unwanted marriage proposal. She then subsequently decides to run away in the company of the burglars who have come to loot her house. In this she reminded me of many other heroines of Mani Ratnam movies who were strong-willed, empowered and rebellious. Remember the free-spirited Divya of Mouna Raagam who tries her best to avoid an arranged-marriage proposal at the beginning of the movie? Or Sujata of Guru, who we are introduced to in a song and in the course of it, in her own spunky, casual way tries to elope from home? Or even the young Indira, from Kannathil Muththamittal, who mock threatens suicide to escape from an unwanted marriage proposal, which she later finds the courage to call off? All these characters were headstrong, intelligent and played a significant role in their story. If heroines in other movies wait for a hero to come and save them from an unwanted marriage/situation, here the ladies take matters into their own hands and chart their own course.

Coming back to Rasathi, Heera has done a great job in pulling this character off. From her constant laments to God on the guilt of running away from home with two burglars, to helping reform them, to falling in love, Heera shows a good range to handle the growth of her character. It helps that she gets the strongest role in the movie and the best dialogues.

Direction

Now what do I say about the direction of the movie? If the director’s role is akin to the captain of the ship, in that he has to bring it all together, then no doubt as I have shown above, Mani Ratnam has done an excellent job. That the movie is outstanding is not in doubt. I would rate it among Mani Ratnam’s finest. Rarely have we seen a fast paced action movie like Thiruda Thiruda. This was Mani letting go and having fun with a different genre and he succeeded. He admits that this was one of the most fun movies to shoot. And that has translated onto the screen as well. The actors, music director, choreographer, cinematographer are all having a ball.

What only puzzles me is the commercial failure of this movie and its lack of recognition in the oeuvre of Mani Ratnam. Mani himself seemed puzzled about its commercial failure, speculating that maybe, after Roja, audiences were expecting another serious drama from him. That may well be true or it could just be the fact that the movie was way ahead of its time. If on watching it twenty four years after its release, it still feels contemporary and superlative in most respects, then it is clear that we are dealing with a movie that has stood the test of time. And isn’t that what the greatest of movies do? Endure.

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