Thillana Mohanambal (1968)

Finally. Finally, finally, finally!

Okay, perhaps I need to step back and explain that a bit. Back in 2013, to mark a hundred years of Indian cinema, I watched my first-ever Tamil film (actually, first-ever South Indian film, as far as I can remember), the excellent suspense thriller Andha Naal. Someone, commenting on the review, recommended another Tamil film for me to watch: Thillana Mohanambal.

That was the start of it. After that, every time I reviewed a Tamil film (not often, I have to admit, simply because finding subtitled old Tamil films is an uphill task), I was asked to review Thillana Mohanambal. Even a review of a South Indian film, not necessarily Tamil (Chemmeen, Chakrapani and Maya Bazaar are examples) attracted further recommendations of Thillana Mohanambal. Some diehard fans of the film refused to take no for an answer, egging me on to review the film even when I insisted I wasn’t being able to find a subtitled copy.

So now you know the background to that somewhat relieved opening to this post. I have finally watched Thillana Mohanambal.

The film begins in Madurai, where a very accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer named Mohana (Padmini), has come along with her troupe, to perform. Mohana’s entourage includes her bossy mother Vadivambal (CK Saraswathi), musicians, maids, etc. Mohana isn’t the only one whose performance is a draw at the temple: also invited to the temple to perform is the renowned nadaswaram player Shanmuga Sundaram (Sivaji Ganesan). Mohana’s mother tells Mohana about Shanmuga’s being there as well, and both mother and daughter recall that Shanmuga is known not just for his musical ability but also for his very fiery temper.

That temper is about to make itself felt. Shanmuga, along with his fellow musicians, is performing in the temple when a fireworks display begins outside. The audience’s attention is diverted, and several people get up and go out to see the display. Shanmuga is so annoyed, he stops playing immediately.

He gathers up his troupe and leaves, only to meet, at the gate, Mohana…

Mohana has been listening to Shanmuga’s playing and has been mesmerized. But now, when they finally come face to face, there is friction between the two artistes. Shanmuga is scornful of Mohana’s supposed talent, and claims that when he plays, she won’t be able to dance well enough to keep up. Mohana taunts him right back: when she dances, he won’t be able to keep pace.

They go their separate ways, but since Shanmuga and his group have been accommodated within the temple precincts, even when they go into their quarters to sleep, they can hear the music and dancing in the temple hall nearby. Shanmuga may have argued with Mohana, but his colleagues have no quarrel with her, so they all sneak off to watch her dance.

And once Shanmuga realizes, he too goes to the temple, sees Mohana dance, and is as enchanted as she was when she heard him play the nadaswaram.

Meanwhile, much angst is being expressed in other quarters. Jil Jil Ramamani (Aachi Manorama), who used to earlier dance at the temple, has been told by an old lover, Nagalingam (?) that this year she will not be dancing at the temple.  Ramamani has been a fixture at the temple for a long while, and the fact that this year the Chettiyar has invited Mohana instead of Ramamani is a bad blow for Ramamani. She is very bitter.

Worse still, Nagalingam (who has known her long enough to call Ramamani by her real name, Karuppayi) now has the hots for Mohana. After Mohana’s performance, he goes to Mohana’s room, bearing an expensive diamond ring, which he offers her. Mohana is canny; she is able to understand Nagalingam’s intentions, and throws him and his ring out.

Nagalingam is so angry, he decides to have his revenge. So he catches hold of a shady-looking friend and gives him instructions to kidnap Mohana and her group, who will be travelling, in carts provided by the Chettiyar, to the next town. Luckily for Mohana, Ramamani happens to overhear this conversation. Even more luckily for Mohana, Ramamani is gracious enough to not hold a grudge against Mohana for supplanting her. She quickly rushes off to the swami at the temple, begging him to save Mohana.

Nagalingam’s men have already abducted Mohana and her lot, but thanks to the quick-wittedness and resourcefulness of Ramamani, the swami, and the Chettiyar (who is also called upon to help), they are rescued and all is well. (The mini-battle, mostly with sticks, takes place in a very striking temple complex, with impressive plaster statues all round).

Mohana and her party now have to travel to Thiruvarur, and coincidentally are in the same train compartment as Shanmuga Sundaram and his troupe, who are off to Tanjore. In the course of the journey, Shanmuga and Mohana fall in love with each other, and it is with tenderness in their gazes that they finally separate when the train arrives at Tanjore.

At Tanjore, Shanmuga is met by the obnoxious Vaithi (Nagesh), a sort of secretary to the Singapuram landlord, at whose mansion Shanmuga is supposed to play. Here, the group finds that a swinging Western band is playing for jiving-twisting-waltzing couples of the rich, hip set. Shanmuga says he will play only once the Western music stops, but when Vaithi refuses and tells him to play anyway, an angered Shanmuga refuses and walks out.

Outside, the hoi-polloi, who truly appreciate good traditional music, persuade Shanmuga to play for them, so he does—and succeeds in impressing even the hip-hop set (more so when he skillfully plays their type of music on his nadaswaram).

After the triumph at Tanjore, Shanmuga heads for Thiruvarur, to meet Mohana. Unfortunately, instead of Mohana, he meets heartbreak.  Vaithi has stolen a march on Shanmuga here; he has brought with him the Singapuram landlord (K Balaji), who is much married but wants to make Mohana his mistress. Mohana’s mother is so dazzled by the man’s diamonds and power, she has connived to have Mohana be away at the temple so that the landlord’s offer may be accepted behind Mohana’s back.

Mohana isn’t there, therefore, when Vaithi and the landlord visit and are fawned over by Mohana’s mother; but Shanmuga, arriving just then, sees it all and is sickened by what he sees as Mohana’s two-timing.

Back home, Mohana learns everything: about the landlord and his icky proposal, and about Shanmuga, whom Mum is very derisive about. Mohana is furious with her mother, but there’s little she can do. Shanmuga is gone.

But Mohana has a friend in one of her troupe members, Varadha (Ramachandran TR). Varadha is like a brother to Mohana; he offers to go to Shanmuga and clear up the misunderstanding.

Varadha ends up doing a good bit of travelling to get to Shanmuga, because a broken-hearted Shanmuga, sickened by Mohana’s faithlessness, has gone away to Nagapatnam, where he meets an old friend, Jil Jil Ramamani, who’s now calling herself Rosarani. She owns a theatre group, and she’s so happy to meet her old buddy Shanmuga, she invites him behind the stage to have a long chat, and to share the news that she has been invited to tour Malaysia. Would Shanmuga like to come along too?

Shanmuga is so overwhelmed, he grabs Rosarani/Ramamani/Karupayyi’s hands and is telling her how much she means to him, when Varadha (unseen) comes by and overhears the conversation. He, given this is an old Indian film and nobody ever waits to hear the whole thing, rushes off back to Mohana to tell all. And basically break Mohana’s heart.

Which is just the start. Because the path of true love, as everybody knows by now, is by no means smooth. Mohana and Shanmuga have to go through a lot before they can get that happy ending they want. There’s Mohana’s greedy and bossy mother, there’s the slimy Vaithi (who’s constantly trying to sell Mohana off to any wealthy man who lusts after her) and there are n number of wealthy men who do lust after Mohana…

What I liked about this film:

The music, more specifically, the nadaswaram pieces. A blog reader, cautioning me when I was being flooded with requests to review Thillana Mohanambal, had said that if I didn’t much care for classical music and dance, I may not like the film that much. But oddly enough, the nadaswaram performances were for me the best part of this film. Padmini’s dancing is of course fantastic as always, but the music is in a class all its own.

(Note: Another aspect of this that impressed me was Sivaji Ganesan’s acting as a nadaswaram player. He actually looked as if he really was playing it, though an admittedly cursory Google search suggests that he didn’t really know how to).

What I didn’t like:

The melodrama and the hamminess in a good bit of the film. Yes, I am used to melodrama and hammy acting thanks to a lifelong love for old Hindi cinema, but still: it doesn’t mean I like it. Thillana Mohanambal had it in spades, and some scenes (the Shanmuga-Mary one, or the climactic scene at the Maharaja of Madanpur’s palace, for example) are almost painful in their over-the-top melodrama.

Then, there’s the sudden, rather unbelievable turnaround of two characters. Both are men who’ve paid Vaithi to hand Mohana over to them, and both, thanks to some timely speechifying by a woman, see the light and become changed men. One time, I might have rolled my eyes and carried on; twice, I see this as repetitive, lazy writing.

And, third, Shanmuga’s attitude towards Mohana. Yes, he’s got a vile temper and all, but why does he constantly suspect her and (worse) pronounce sentence on her without giving her the chance to defend herself? He jumps to conclusions, he is always suspecting Mohana of ditching him for other men, and in the final analysis, it’s because of another (a man) that he finally revises his opinion. If I were Mohana, I would have dropped this man like a hot potato.

So, all said and done, not a horrible film, but nothing exceptional either, barring the nadaswaram performances. I wonder if I’m missing something here because of the language barrier, but this was, to me, a fairly average film that I am not in any hurry to watch again.

21 thoughts on “Thillana Mohanambal (1968)

  1. If only someone could explain to me why Tamil/South Indian heroines lean forward from the waist, in a gesture of supplication, at the slightest provocation.
    Collateral damage of Bharata Natyam?!

    • The gesture is certainly not one of supplication at all . Women from the South have been quite liberated compared to elsewhere . I can give a few examples : Avvayar & Kannagi(Tamil Country), Akkamahadevi
      & Sanchi Honnamma( Kannada country) and much after them we had Kittur Channamma , Obavva & Belavadi Mallamma from Kannada country who were rulers . When education itself was a taboo for women in the 19th & early part of the 20th century , we had Nanjangudu Tirumalaba , who not only wrote prolifically, but also turned into a kind of educationist exclusively for women. Style is no supplication

  2. Madhu, I think you are right regarding all the problems with this film. It’s been over a decade since I watched it, but I don’t think I would like most of the film in general any more if I watched it now than I liked it back then. But, as you pointed out, the music and dance are great, and it’s worth it for those things alone. Padmini’s dance to “Maraindhirundu Paarkum” is spectacular, a contender for her best dance of all. Her demonstration there of the Navarasa (“Nine Emotions”) – in less than nine seconds! – is the most impressive that I have ever seen. (By the way, it hasn’t been a decade since I watched this dance. I’ve probably watched it hundreds of times since. :) )

    • Richard, I was thinking of you when I was watching this film, because Padmini’s dancing was so good! And yes, that depiction of the navrasas was fantastic, wasn’t it? I loved that piece, it was brilliantly done.

  3. The hamminess was a carry over from theatre, and most Tamil films of the time had it in spades (Malayalam fillms did too, but it was considerably lower in volume). But yes, this film is basically worth it for the music and dances.

    Shivaji didn’t know how to play the nadaswaram, but like Dilip Kumar in Kohinoor, went to considerable trouble to look as authentic as he could while playing the instrument. He was an under-rated actor – unfortunately, for him, the masses wanted to see his over-the-top theatrics and he got slotted into that box. There are some wonderful performances of his where his restraint leaves an impact – I’m specifically thinking of Muthal Mariyathai and Oru Yathra Mozhi.

    • Yes, I seem to remember someone else also talking about the hamminess being a carryover from theatre (which I think was also the case in early Hindi cinema – most actresses in the 30s and 40s are really hammy).

      Thank you for the Sivaji Ganesan recommendations, Anu – I’ll look out for those. I also liked him a lot in Karnan, even though I wouldn’t call that a restrained performance.

    • Sivaji was very capable of underplaying his roles, but he always acted keeping in mind the least movie savvy among his audience and hence he remained , by & large , over theatrical . This point he has made repeatedly in several interviews. He was probably the only actor , who would cry on the screen and make his audience cry and hen clap

      • Yes. That makes sense, because it’s eventually the general public that makes or breaks an actor – critical acclaim can come later, but if you cannot connect with the general audience, your career may well end before it can really start. It’s a smart way of thinking.

  4. I think i also recommended to watch this movie. This movie is considered cult classic in tamil nadu. Those who are not from south india would consider this just a boring film. To fully understand the movie, one must know the history and lifestyle of tamil people in 1940’s and 1950’s. This movie depicts zamindar rule, their status in society, culture and tradition, devdasi system, costumes etc. Both the characters of padmini and sivaji were egoistic in nature throughout the movie.
    Here is a scene from making of thillana mohanambal.

    • This behind the scenes section is so fascinating! I hadn’t known anybody actually took the trouble to do these back in the 60s – I’d been under the impression that in India at least this was a relatively new phenomenon. Thank you for sharing that.

      I didn’t find Thillana Mohanambal boring, just a little regressive in the way the romance was depicted, and a little unrealistic in the way two men (the Singapuram landlord and the Maharaja of Madanpur) changed so suddenly and quickly.

  5. Ugh there I go again
    while trying to give you the link to the source of English notes which is played from 3:00 onwards in the clip you had linked I closed the window and puff my twenty odd minutes of efforts all gone.
    So I will just give you this today

    and hopefully come back tomorrow for my thoughts.

    • This is so fascinating! Thank you so much – I loved that. :-)

      Sorry about you losing all that work. I look forward to hearing from you on this review – you were on my mind when I was watching Thillana Mohanambal, since you had recently reminded me of it.

      • Agree with you on the hamminess (very apt, but is that a word though) and melodrama. The film had it in large measure!
        Some of the reasons which make it such a favourite among Tamil cine goers
        • The popularity of the source material. The novel came out in the popular tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan and so there was curiosity as to how it would be picturised. As you have rightly pointed out the novel, as such is not a classic, and because it was serialised there had to be the mandatory cliff hanger ends and twists and turns.
        • The clash of two bone headed artistes made for compulsive watching. Sivaji Ganesan excelled in playing such characters who had such flaws. Nobody could bring out the shades of grey better than him. (Again, I can shamelessly pitch Puthiya Paravai)
        • The ensemble casting which is a veritable trove of great character artistes. For the outsider this wouldn’t matter but to see the likes of Nagiah, Balaya, Sahasranamam, Sarangapani, Thangavelu, T R Ramachandran, Balaji, AVM Rajan et al was a once a life time occurrence and almost all of them were perfectly cast.
        • The inimitable duo of Manorama and Nagesh. Jil Jil Ramamani was a role of a lifetime for the all-rounder Manorama and she just chewed it up with her charm. This character was expanded and shown in a more positive light by the director. The way she plays the nadaswaram and the way Shanmugasundaram responds is a hoot.
        • Nagesh as the slimy Vanity was equally fantastic and the way he worms his way into any situation which would be beneficial to him is perfect. It is another matter though when I saw the movie the first time as a kid, I was heart-broken to see the good comedian who I had slotted as “a dear friend” could be so treacherous. Mind you I should have been only around five and half at that time.
        • Of course, who can forget the music! The movie itself is if I remember dedicated to one of the greatest nadaswaram players Karukurichi Arunachalam. It was therefore fulfilling to see the nadaswaram in the movie was played by the skilled duo of M.P.N. Sethuraman and M.P.N. Ponnusamy. The movie, justifiably, did wonders for their career as this article would vouch
        https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/on-a-musical-journey/article2051507.ece
        • The way Sivaji Ganesan could enact , the way he puffed his cheeks, the appropriate moments where he took in the breadth, the way his fingers raced up and down were raved for months after the release of the movie, by our barber Shanmugam, himself an amateur nadaswara artiste, during our monthly hair cutting sessions in his saloon.
        • While certain things are universal, certain other things require some background knowledge perhaps. As some other commenter had written the film captured the socio-economic environment of erstwhile Tanjore district. The land then was fertile with abundant water and the landed gentry were all rich with lot of idle time. So they were great patrons of the art , or in some cases pretended to be as a matter of prestige. As with most idle rich, quite a few of them indulged in debauchery . So that aspect of at leat three guys being lecherous is par for that period of time.
        I do get it that you found the film just okay! It is like me struggling to read “Gone with the wind ” when I was in college but somehow found it difficult to get through . I gave up more awed by the number of pages still left. (I have read far worse books but those were a lot slimmer. Frankly I didn’t give a damn -about the pro slavery South- is my only excuse!)
        Sorry for the rambling post. You asked for it!

        • Thank you so very much for that detailed and insightful comment! That really helped me understand why so many Tamil-speaking people seem to love this film so much. A case, I guess, of some things being lost in translation. Some films seem to carry well across cultures, appealing to a wider audience overall; some have relatively hidden nuances too that may escape the outsider. This was obviously one of those, though I totally agree re: the music and Sivaji Ganesan’s depiction of the character – I was convinced he actually knew how to play the nadaswaram!

          Thanks again. Not a rambling post at all, and I’m really grateful to you for taking the time and effort to explain all of that.

  6. Quite an objective assessment of the movie as is always expected from you. The Indian movies of that era (irrespective of the language) tend to be regressive. And that’s what irks us when we watch them in today’s times. I haven’t understood the meaning of the movie’s title. Please tell.

    • Thank you.

      Thillana Mohanambal, from what I can gather, means ‘The Dancing Queen Mohanambal’.

      Yes, I suppose a lot of Indian movies don’t age well. But then, regressive movies are still being made, so I guess it’s just a question of overall mentality. Too many people, both film makers as well as film goers, still have attitudes that should have gone out in the last century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.