Director: Obeli N Krishna
Cast: Silambarasan, Gautham Karthik, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Priya Bhavani Shankar
One of the highlights of director Krishna’s Pathu Thala is the way it uses an outsider’s gaze to slowly reveal the truth about a misunderstood gangster. Said to have been inspired by the Kannada film Mufti (2017), the writing is clever in the way it convinces the audience to dislike its protagonist AGR (STR) for much of its runtime until it becomes impossible to not love him. It also helps that the film is narrated from the point of view of an undercover police officer named Guna (Gautham Karthik), who has to infiltrate AGR’s circle of trusted lieutenants to gather enough evidence to convict him. This plot line gives the screenplay a structure of its own as he surpasses one lieutenant after another to get him closer to the real AGR.
The philosophy of its protagonist AGR also seems to be the philosophy that drives the screenplay. “Nallathu panrathuku oru ketta mugam theva (you need a bad image to do some good work)". This urges the viewer to develop the image of an unscrupulous bad guy who works against the government to run a network of illegally-run quarries. In one sense, the screenplay transitions superbly when it finally convinces you to think of AGR as a hero, forcing you to abandon notions of him being an anti-hero or villain.
Apart from how perfectly this suits the real-life image of its equally misunderstood star Silambarasan, this bad-to-good flow is just as ideal for the way the film plays with the Ramayana myth. This includes the obvious such as the title of the film and the multiple shots of Shiva in the background to convey AGR’s devotion to the god. This goes a few steps further in the way that AGR is always seen in black even when his opponents are in white to further mark the rakshasas versus devas dichotomy. It keeps the film enjoyable for the most part because it adds heft to even the sillier details; AGR’s helicopter does not remain simply a helicopter for “mass purposes” when you can also think of its as Ravana’s Pushpaka Vimana.
But what worked best was how it recalled the mythology for an intimate sub-plot involving a sister and her older brother. This of course is the troubled relationship between Ravana and Shurpanaka and it does a great job by also including Ravana’s murder of her husband as the most important conflict driving Pathu Thala. AGR’s inability to convey his good side to his only family gives this character an interiority, which a massy gangster film rarely achieves. This is also the stretch in which STR gets his best moments to perform with a subtlety that has long bettered his louder acting style from his earlier days.
Another aspect that keeps Pathu Thala engaging is the sheer imagination in the way director Krishna thinks up his action set pieces. We saw traces of this in the way he was able to mount astonishing chase sequences in a small film like Nedunchalai. You find similar sequences that take place on top of trains, trucks and even a chariot where the setting keeps moving to give even a regular action scene a new dimension. The idea of the chariot alone, where AGR is forced not to fight back, not only works as a single set piece but also adds to the excitement when the mass hero has to hold back for 90 percent of the full film, only to explode in the final climactic sequence.
Despite these long stretches of sufficiently enjoyable action and drama, you still find long spells where you’re taken in by the dullness. One reason could be the lack of imagination in the overall visual quality. In concept, the Kanyakumari setting should have been developed into a character with the statue of Thiruvalluvar staring down at the murkiness of this town and its residents. The imagery, even during a highly amped interval introduction scene should have ideally been a lot more explosive given the hours of hyping the film has been doing for its hero. The soundtrack too, by AR Rahman, amps up the action scenes a lot better than what it does in softer, more sober moments.
The lack of an arresting villain too then brings about another downfall. This is perhaps why we remain more interested in AGR’s dynamics with his sister and his relationship with Guna instead of the eternal threats that could bring his downfall. A flashback involving Guna and a local Tahasildar played by Priya Bhavani Shankar is not only flat and forgettable but also adds little to the larger scheme of things. Similarly, an action sequence between Tamil fishermen and the Sri Lankan navy should have amounted to something of real value, especially in a film that used the Ravana myth smartly. These are reasons why so much of the cleverness of its writing gets diluted as we sit through this longish film. With STR appearing more comfortable as the older brother than in his mass hero avatar, Pathu Thala has several faces that are as disappointing as others are surprising. It’s just about watchable as a mass hero movie, even though its deeper sides gets lost in all the noise.