One of my favourite stories (or collection of tales) is the ancient Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata. Like most Indians growing up in the 80s and 90s, my introduction to Mahabharata was largely through family and then the amazing Amar Chitra Katha comic series. To add to this, was the epic B.R. Chopra TV series which aired sometime in the late 80s. Over the past two decades, I have tried to read as many interpretations and translations of the epic and the fascination hasnt reduced.
I dont watch much TV – but I admit I was curious about the
Ekta Kapoor version that aired last year. (Correction: Apparently the last year’s MB was not by Ekta Kapoor. Thanks, Jabberwock!)..However, I couldn’t sit past the first episode and decided to remain content with the memories of the previous version.
This weekend, I was reminded once again of Mahabharata, as I watched one of my favourite Tamil films for the n-th time. Growing up in Delhi in the 80s and 90s, I wasnt much exposed to films from the South – only those that cousins raved about or the ones that DD would play on Sunday afternoons. So my Tamil film knowledge is limited and superficial.
Mani Ratnam is one film maker whose films we watched at home. My introduction to Mani Ratnam happened in the late 80s. We were visiting relatives in the South for a wedding and the raging topic among my relatives, other than family and wedding related gossip was about how well Kamalahasan had acted the role of Velu Nayakan (the Bombay wala don) in the Tamil movie, Nayakan (1987). So I remember the family (read elders, while us kids pranced in and out) sat and watched it. Some years later when Dalapathi (The Commander) was made by Ratnam, we rented out the cassette in Delhi and made it a point to watch it.
I enjoyed Dalapathi much more than Nayakan (which I haven’t till date watched fully!) This was because of the Mahabharata connection. And the fact that it focuses on my favourite character – Karna. Dalapathi is about the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana. Rajnikanth plays Surya (minus his trademark swagger), who is abandoned by his mother at birth (in a goods train and from there the baby lands up floating in a river) and is brought up in a slum by a kind lady.
He grows up to be a kind Robinhood kind of local, slum hero, avenging injustice and bashing up bad people.
One such kickass fight session results in bad guy’s death. But bad guy is local don’s henchman. Now the local don, Devaraj, is played by that very charming Malayalam actor Mammooty and so one knows that he may be Duryodhana in the larger scheme of things but he cant be all and out negative. Mammooty (call me biased) comes across in all the roles I have watched to be noble and good! (He dies in the end, hence redemption complete.)
Anyway, bad guy dies, Devaraj swears revenge and asks for Surya to be summoned to his court. Surya is busy celebrating his victory with Sonu Walia by dancing and singing! In the song, he even gets a glimpse of the heroine (the pure Brahmin girl Subbulakshmi, played by Malayalam actress Shobhana) – where else , in a temple! She dances to classical music while Surya dances to Rakamma Kai Vecha.
But since Karna doesnt get Draupadi, Surya wont get Subbulakshmi! But thats getting ahead.
Surya then bashes up Devaraj’s goons who had come to pick him up and says if Deva has to meet me, he has to come here.
Devaraj makes a grand appearance, threatens Surya that if his bad guy dies, Surya is dead too!
Bad guy dies, Surya lands up in jail… Gets bashed up in jail and shouts Amma….. and who hears his cry? His mom who had abandoned him but knows that her son is in trouble! She now has another son, the very capable Arjun (played by the young smart Arvind Swami) who is an IAS officer. (more about him later)
But now, Devaraj knows the truth and realises that his bad guy is really bad and since “Nyamamum onnu Irukku (there is something called justice), gets Surya out of jail. Surya is touched and pledges his life as return for this friendship and becomes his Dalapathi (The Commander.)
Story moves ahead; Bad guy whom Devaraj had rightfully killed had a wife who was pregnant. She has a kid so Deva, his wife and Surya come to see the child. There is lot of tension in the air; after all the baby is fatherless because of Surya! Poor Surya is maha guilty. Then we have the main villain, Kalivardhan, an MLA, making an entry (a bald, menacing Amrish Puri – that man had screen presence!) He hates Devaraj and wants Surya to come over to his side. Surya of course refuses. Devaraj is touched by Surya’s loyalty and the love story continues (both Surya-Deva and the one with Subbulakshmi). Then ofcourse, there is an evil sub-inspector who rapes a girl who kills herself and her father pleads for justice. Surya delivers justice – mid-road by bashing him up and cutting off his arms. Subbulakshmi, who is in a bus, watches this in horror – she loves a goon! She cries and love duet (in dreams of course) ensues!
There is a face-off between Kalivardhan and Deva and Surya on the steps of some govt type building; following which Deva is attacked. Deva survives; but Surya will take revenge. Time for Collector saab to make his grand entry. Arjun lands up in town with his parents. And as some parade is taking place, Surya immolates guy who betrayed Deva. The collector’s father watches this in horror.
And finally the story gets to where it is supposed to. The earnest, smart collector is appalled that there is no witness. the father decides to be the witness. During the identification parade for the culprits at the police station, Surya yells that he doesnt know who his parents are and that he was abandoned, wrapped in a yellow cloth, and left in a goods train. The collector’s father looks shocked and doesn’t identify Surya to everyone’s shock. Prompting the smart, earnest collector to start spouting Subramania Bharati lines about being brave and fearless and speaking the truth. The collector’s father shuts up and starts his own chhota-sa- investigation. He asks the mother about the boy she abandoned ages back. The pining mother recounts tale and cries some more. Cut to the next day, when both long-lost son and mom are at the temple and look wistfully at a passing by goods train. The father has deduced the truth!
More politics and gunda-gardi ensues. The earnest collector wants to end this parallel raj of Deva and Surya. What follows in short is this: Subbulakshmi gets married to Arjun – her brahmin father rejects the proposal sent by Surya! “We dont know his caste you see. Only Pucca Brahmin groom for my girl!”
Surya out of a sense of guilt and enough emotional blackmailing by Deva marries bad man’s widow and is a guardian for his little daughter! Lil girl gets along with Surya – Surya shows her the yellow cloth and says – I am black, my mum threw me cos she didnt like me! Very important dialogue for future mom-son reunion this!
Tension escalates; Arjun is now behind Deva and Surya’s blood. Arjun’s father goes and spills the beans to Surya. Please leave Deva, you are good. You have a mother, brother and a father-like-me. So come to us! Surya is shocked; but refuses and pleads to Arjun’s father- “Dont tell her! I am an unworthy son – I am a goon!”
He spends a whole day stalking his mom and then drinks and cries at night revealing his secret the the little girl. Her mother who now has taken a liking to the man who killed her first husband overhears.
She is smart so she decides to so something about it. She takes her daughter to this place where the collector’s mother is being a collectors’s mother and doing good things like spearheading local polio campaign! She leaves the yellow shawl. The mother recognises it, cries and is torn with guilt cos her son is a goon. Her husband finds her pining and crying and assures her – “Your son is a good man! I know him!” And she finally lands up at Surya’s house and the grand mother-son reunion takes place. Surya promises her that no harm shall fall upon Arjun.
Simultaneously, the war between the two factions is heating up. The collector doesnt mind cohorting with Kalivardhan to get rid of Deva and Surya. Surya tries his hand at placating Arjun – says you are like my younger brother; stay away! Arjun retorts with the taunt of the movie – “If my mother had a son like you, she would have thrown you away at birth!” Poor Surya nods and shuts up. There, back home, Devaraj wants Arjun dead. And somewhere, amidst all drama, the truth comes out – Devaraj gets to know that Surya is Arjun’s step- brother. And Arjun gets to know that Surya is his step-brother. Devaraj is touched by Surya’s loyalty and decides to immediately surrender. Kalivardhan uses this moment to get Devaraj killed. Surya gets shot but goes and kills Kalivardhan. No witnesses are found against Surya. Surya is exonerated. Arjun gets transferred and the mother decides to stay with Surya.
Arjun is my brother – says Surya! While at the same time, the mother pleads – “Dont kill Surya – he is my son!”
and it is Reunion Time! And The End!
My recent viewing of this movie was as enjoyable as before. This is one of Rajnikanth’s finest performances and lacks the swagger and style one usually associates with his acting. He is not playing a larger-than-life role. Dalapathi is very much a director’s film and Rajni’s character isnt allowed to become all-encompassing and become larger than the story. Mammooty is brilliant as the humane don. Srividya as the mother stands out and the rest of the cast is competent. What I liked was that they didnt make Surya’s mom’s backstory that important. there are no moral judgments and the fact that her husband plays a uniting factor was heartening. No kalankini type of drama. The story was true to its focus – the Surya-Devaraj relationship.
Regarding the Surya-Subbulakshmi-Arjun angle, I didnt make much of it previously when I watched the movie but this time, when I watched it, I was definitely struck by the way Mani Ratnam brings in the folk story of Draupadi preferring Karna but having to marry Arjuna. Maybe because I had recently re-read The Palace of Illusions (2009) This is an angle that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni brilliantly explores in this work. The Palace of Illusions looks at the Mahabharata (certain seminal events therein) from Draupadi’s point of view and Draupadi loves Karna in this book but marries Arjuna.
Coming back to Dalapathi, it remains a classic movie, even 23 years after it was made! And is worth a watch for sure.