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.