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Thalapathi poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMani Ratnam
Produced byG. Venkateswaran
Written byMani Ratnam
Music byIlaiyaraaja
CinematographySantosh Sivan
Edited by
Release date
  • 5 November 1991 (1991-11-05)
Running time
167 minutes[1]
Budget 30 million[2]

Thalapathi (transl. Commander) is a 1991 Indian Tamil-language crime drama film written and directed by Mani Ratnam, and produced by G. Venkateswaran. The film stars Rajinikanth and Mammootty, with Arvind, Jaishankar, Amrish Puri, Srividya, Bhanupriya, Shobana, and Geetha in supporting roles. It revolves around a courageous slum dweller who befriends a powerful don, and a district collector's attempts to thwart them.

The theme of Thalapathi is based on the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana, characters from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The score and soundtrack of the film were composed by Ilaiyaraaja, in his last collaboration with Ratnam, and the lyrics were written by poet Vaali. The cinematography was handled by Santosh Sivan, and editing by Suresh Urs. Filming took place primarily in the state of Karnataka.

Thalapathi was released on 5 November 1991, Diwali day. The film emerged a critical and commercial success, and won many awards, including two Filmfare Awards South: Best Director – Tamil (Ratnam) and Best Music Director – Tamil (Ilaiyaraaja), and two Cinema Express Awards: Best Actor – Tamil (Rajinikanth) and Best Character Actress (Srividya). It was later remade in Kannada as Annavru (2003).


14-year-old Kalyani delivers a boy in seclusion, fearing societal backlash and incapacity. She abandons him, heavy-hearted, placing him inside a moving goods train, which a slum dweller finds. The slum procures him as their common child, naming him Surya and they collectively raise him honest. He grows up, intolerant of injustice especially to the poor, though he wonders why his biological mother had impetuously abandoned him. A yellow shawl was the only identity he had of his mother, which she had placed him in when casting him away.

Devaraj, a powerful don who is kind yet feared by most in the society, also fights injustice, but by violent means. Ramana, an auxiliary of Deva's, whose abusive demeanour led Surya to attack him, succumbs to death. Surya is arrested for this. Once Deva perceives Ramana's felony and realises Surya's cause was genuine, he bails him out. Thus, Surya and Deva get to understand each other as both share similar social ideologies despite getting off on the wrong foot. Deva declares Surya his "Thalapathi" (commander) and best friend.

Arjun, the city's new district collector, wants to end violence by lawful means. He is the second son of Kalyani, now a doctor. After the abandonment of her firstborn, she wed a man who accepted her, despite knowing her past. Kalyani never let Arjun know the ordeal she faced as a teenager, but is constantly grieved by thoughts of her long-lost firstborn. Meanwhile, Surya gets wooed by a Brahmin girl, Subbulaxmi who is smitten by his transparent nature, restraining crimes.

Surya's appraisal to Deva leads the people in the locality to pay utmost respect to both. Both of them continue objecting to societal incongruencies, which other dons, like Kalivardhan, incite through moles in governance. While Deva leads Surya to help curb those unlawful discrepancies, Subbulaxmi initially despises Surya's use of violence and tries to persuade him against it. Deva tries to get an alliance between Subbulaxmi and Surya, but her orthodox father objects. Her marriage is subsequently arranged with Arjun.

Arjun turns to target Deva and Surya as they inflict violence, in the name of fighting organised crime. His attempts to chain them are futile. Meanwhile, Padma, Ramana's widow, makes Surya feel guilty for the sufferings he brought her by killing Ramana. Deva, understanding the pain a widow and single mother bears, shelters them. Padma, however, confesses that she is constantly troubled by the men surrounding her with dishonourable intentions, who concoct reasons to make advances towards her. Deva, considering Padma and her daughter's safety and Surya's future, requests both of them to accept each other. A guilt-ridden Surya marries Padma, and wins her child's affection eventually.

Later, at a medical camp, Kalyani meets Padma and her daughter along with the same shawl in which she wrapped Surya. Kalyani's husband, too, indicates that Surya was actually Kalyani's long lost son during a suspect identification. He secretly meets Surya and reveals the truth of his origin to him. Surya asks his stepfather to promise not to let his mother know of him as it would pain her to know that her son has grown to be a vigilante. Kalyani eventually finds Surya and meets him. Surya vows that he will not harm Arjun for her sake.

The long-standing feud between Deva and Kalivardhan, who is Deva's main rival, in due course of time, makes Surya admit the truth about his family when Deva doubts Surya's intentions after learning of his secret meeting with his stepfather and mother. Deva is pleased to know that, despite knowing Arjun was his half-brother, Surya still preferred to side with him and support him during unforeseen situations, thus valuing their friendship over family. As an outcome of this, Deva decides to surrender.

Deva and Surya meet Arjun, who now knows who Surya is through his mother. Suddenly, Kalivardhan's henchmen open fire, and Deva is killed. Enraged, Surya murders Kalivardhan's henchmen and Kalivardhan himself. He surrenders to the police, but is released due to lack of evidence. Arjun is later transferred and relocates to another city with Subbulaxmi, while Kalyani prefers staying with Surya.




Rajinikanth was a friend of Mani Ratnam's brother G. Venkateswaran of GV Films, and they were talking about a film together. Ratnam had met him twice because he had expressed interest in working with him, although Ratnam did not have anything for him then.[7] He needed a film that would have scope for Rajinikanth's stardom but yet remain Ratnam's film. He wanted something right for both himself and Rajinikanth. He wanted something that Rajinikanth could not refuse, and something that Ratnam really wanted to do. Soon the concept came up, of the story of Karna from the Indian epic Mahabharata, which thus laid the foundation for Thalapathi, written as a contemporary version of the Mahabharata from Karna's perspective.[7] Ratnam wanted to present a realistic Rajinikanth, which he saw in Mullum Malarum (1978) minus all his style elements and larger-than-life image.[8][9] This was cinematographer Santosh Sivan's first film with Ratnam.[10][11] Editing was handled by Suresh Urs, and art direction by Thota Tharani.[1] Thalapathi remains the only collaboration between Ratnam and Rajinikanth.[12]


Rajinikanth played Surya, the equivalent of Karna.[2] He was also firm that Karna's friend Duryodhana needed to be important to the story and cast correctly; Mammootty was eventually cast as Deva, the equivalent of Duryodhana.[13] Mammootty suggested Jayaram to Ratnam for the role of Surya's brother Arjun, but Jayaram declined due to scheduling conflicts.[14] Ratnam saw Arvind Swami in a Leo Coffee commercial and approached him to play Arjun; after a few screen tests, Arvind was cast, in his feature film debut.[15] Manoj K. Jayan was cast as Manoharan after Ratnam was impressed with his performance in the Malayalam film Perumthachan (1990), making his acting debut in Tamil cinema.[16]

Srividya was cast as Surya's mother Kalyani,[17] despite being almost three years younger than Rajinikanth.[18][19] When Bhanupriya was cast as Padma, the widow of a man killed by Surya who she ultimately marries, Ratnam told her that there would be no songs for her because Surya "was the cause of her husband's death. So it can't be the start of a new romantic track".[20] Krishna was chosen to play the younger version of Surya, but the character was later scrapped because it affected the film's length.[21] Mammootty was paid 10 lakh (equivalent to 69 lakh or US$97,000 in 2019), and Amrish Puri, who portrayed the antagonist Kalivardhan, received 5 lakh (equivalent to 35 lakh or US$49,000 in 2019) for filming for only five days.[2][a]


Rayagopura, Melkote seen in the song "Rakkamma"

Principal photography began without the role of Arjun having been cast.[20] Ratnam chose to shoot the film in Mysore, Karnataka, because it had everything the script required, including a waterfront and a river. While filming took place predominantly in Karnataka, the slum scenes were shot in Madras on a set erected by Thota Tharani.[22] The first scene to be shot was Subbulaxmi (Shobana) teaching a group of students by the river. Because the rising sun was important to the scene, it was shot earlier than 5:45 am. By the time Rajinikanth came to film his part in the scene, the sun had already risen, and to avoid continuity errors, he filmed the next morning after 4:30 am.[23]

Ratnam chose to shoot the beginning sequence, where Kalyani gives birth to Surya, in black and white instead of colour, because according to him, "Black and white gives the sense of this being a prologue without us having to define it as a prologue."[24] Rajinikanth recalled that he had a tough time while shooting for the film as Ratnam "was from a different school of film making and asked me to feel emotions even when taking part in a fight scene".[25] Ratnam deferred shooting for the scene where Surya meets his biological mother for the first time by a day at the request of Rajinikanth, who cited the need for more time to prepare.[26]

The songs "Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu" and "Sundari Kannal" were filmed at Rayagopura, Melukote and Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura in Karnataka respectively.[27][28] The former song was shot over the course of several nights, and choreographed by Prabhu Deva and his father Mugur Sundar.[5] For the latter song, Rajinikanth donned Samurai apparel; according to The Hindu's S. Shiva Kumar, this was the closest Ratnam came to doing something like his idol Akira Kurosawa.[29] With a budget of 30 million (equivalent to 210 million or US$2.9 million in 2019),[a] Thalapathi was the most expensive South Indian film at the time.[2]


Thalapathi is a contemporary adaptation of the Mahabharata. It does not, however, retain the epic's ensemble nature as the sole protagonist of the film is Surya.[24] The character of Subbulaxmi is based on Draupadi, while Arjun and Kalyani are based on Arjuna and Kunti respectively.[31] The film was not originally publicised as an adaptation of the Mahabharata; Ratnam said this was because the "parallels are hidden sufficiently inside the story to make it work. That is the way I wanted it – at a layer below and not crying out loud."[32] Venkateswaran said the film "questions people's normally held ideas of friendship".[33]

Ratnam refused to state who was the father of Surya, citing that the film "consciously avoids the who and the how of the underage girl's first love. It was the child, the son of Surya, who formed the story".[34] The name Surya was chosen to emphasise the character's connection to the sun, similar to how Karna is the son of the sun god Surya in the Mahabharata.[17] Ratnam never considered killing off Surya, unlike the Mahabharata where Karna dies, because he "always wished that he lived on. So much has gone wrong. There's so much stacked against him. Maybe there's a bit of hope, a bit of optimism in this, but I felt that his death would look too doomed, too tragic."[35]


Soundtrack album by
Released23 April 1991
GenreFilm soundtrack
LabelLahari Music
Ilaiyaraaja chronology

The soundtrack was composed by Ilaiyaraaja, and released on 23 April 1991.[36] It was the last collaboration between him and Ratnam.[37] According to Sivan, Ilaiyaraaja finished composing the entire soundtrack in just "half a day".[5] The original Tamil version of the soundtrack album features seven songs with lyrics written by Vaali.[36] The Telugu-dubbed version features lyrics penned by Rajashri.[38] The Hindi-dubbed version Dalapathi has six songs, which were written by P. K. Mishra.[39]

The first song to be composed for the film was "Chinna Thayaval", although Ilaiyaraaja had given the tune of "Putham Puthu Poo" to Ratnam much earlier.[40] The former song is set in Charukesi, a Carnatic raga,[41] and the latter is set in Hamsanandi.[42] The recording for "Sundari Kannal", set in Kalyani, took place in Mumbai with R. D. Burman's orchestra.[43][44] "Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu" was conceived and composed to introduce Subbulaxmi onscreen,[45] and is set in Abheri.[46] "Yamunai Aatrile" is set in Yamunakalyani.[47] The Bhogi-themed "Margazhithan" was inspired by Tamil folk music.[48]

The audio rights were sold to Lahari Music for 72 lakh (equivalent to 5.0 crore or US$700,000 in 2019), then a record price.[49] The soundtrack was included in The Guardian's 1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die.[50] "Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu" was placed fourth amongst the songs listed in a BBC World Top Ten Popular Songs of All-time.[51] It was also featured in the 2012 Hindi film Agent Vinod, and Lahari sued that film's producer Saif Ali Khan for using the song without permission.[52][53] "Kaattukuyilu" was sampled by M.I.A. for the song "Bamboo Banga" from the album Kala (2007).[54] "Yamunai Aatrile" was reused in '96 (2018), with this version sung by Chinmayi.[55]

1."Yamunai Aatrile"Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik1:22
2."Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu"S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, Swarnalatha7:10
3."Sundari Kannal"S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, S. Janaki7:14
4."Kaattukuyilu"K. J. Yesudas, S. P. Balasubrahmanyam5:32
5."Putham Puthu Poo"K. J. Yesudas, S. Janaki5:00
6."Chinna Thayaval"S. Janaki3:23
7."Margazhithan"S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, Swarnalatha, Chorus2:39

All lyrics are written by P. K. Mishra; all music is composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

1."Yamuna Kinare"Sadhana Sargam1:22
2."Jaaneman Aaja Aaja"Kumar Sanu, Sadhana Sargam7:10
3."Sundari Yeh Jeevan Tera"Suresh Wadkar, Sadhana Sargam7:14
4."In Aankhon Ka Tu Tara" (Version 1)Kavitha Krishnamurthy5:32
5."In Aankhon Ka Tu Tara" (Version 2)Kavitha Krishnamurti3:23
6."Aayi Holi"Udit Narayan, Abhijeet2:39

All lyrics are written by Rajashri; all music is composed by Ilaiyaraaja.

1."Yamuna Thatilo"Swarnalatha1:22
2."Chilakamma Chitikeyanga"S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, K. S. Chithra7:10
3."Sundari Nuvve"S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, K. S. Chithra7:14
4."Singarala"K. J. Yesudas, S. P. Balasubrahmanyam5:32
5."Mudda Banthi Puvvulo"Mano, Swarnalatha5:00
6."Ada Janmaku"P. Susheela3:23
7."Yamuna Thatilo" (Sad)Swarnalatha, Chorus1:47


In a first-of-its-kind marketing strategy in India, GV Films launched "a whole range of consumer products" based on the lead character of Thalapathi. As part of the marketing strategy, all products would be "of the highest quality" and sport the film's name.[56]


Thalapathi was released on 5 November 1991,[57] during the festive occasion of Diwali. Despite facing competition from other Diwali releases such as Gunaa and Rudhra,[58] it emerged a critical and commercial success.[59]


On 8 November 1991, The Hindu said, "Moving his pieces with the acumen of an international grandmaster, the director sets a hot pace".[4] The same day, N. Krishnaswamy of The Indian Express said, "One reason why Thalapathi, despite its visual grandeur is not as riveting as it should have been is that it does not have a strong antagonist."[60] On 1 December 1991, the review board of Ananda Vikatan praised Ilaiyaraaja's music, and called the film a mountain of a masala entertainer, adding that Rajinikanth had several scenes in which he could emote in a film and looked a caged lion left in the open.[61] Although Mammootty received good reviews for his performance, his fans were not happy to see him in a supporting role.[62]


Event Award Awardee Ref.
39th Filmfare Awards South Best Director – Tamil Mani Ratnam [63]
Best Music Director – Tamil Ilaiyaraaja
12th Cinema Express Awards Best Actor – Tamil Rajinikanth [64]
Best Character Actress Srividya
Film Fans Association Awards Best Actor Rajinikanth [65]


C. S. Amudhan said Thalapathi was "really ahead of its time" and called it "intellectual entertaining cinema". Karthik Subbaraj said that he watched the film during his childhood. Several references to the film are made in Subbaraj's 2015 blockbuster gangster film Jigarthanda. Rajinikanth's daughter, director Soundarya recalled, "I remember Thalapathy most vividly as that was the first time I went for a first-day-first-show ever".[66] Thamizh Padam (2010) parodied Thalapathi by featuring scenes with characters under dim light and one-word dialogues.[67] Atlee who directed Raja Rani (2013) cites Thalapathi was the main inspiration for him to consider cinema as a career.[68] Soundarya has stated that Rajinikanth's hairstyle in her directorial venture Kochadaiiyaan (2014) was inspired by his appearance in Thalapathi.[69] Baradwaj Rangan compared Kadal (2013) to Thalapathi as they both feature a character "who yearns for a lost mother and who is coerced into a life of crime".[70] The film was remade in Kannada as Annavru (2003),[71] and in November 2011, Bollywood producer Bharat Shah acquired the Hindi remake rights.[72]


  1. ^ a b The 1991 exchange rate was 17.90 Indian rupees () to one US dollar ($).[30]


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