Mohan Raja: Mithran was stronger, craftier, wilier than Siddharth Abhimanyu in Thani Oruvan
Director Mohan Raja delves into the politics and ideology of his blockbuster success, Thani Oruvan, that recently completed its fifth anniversary
It’s easy to see where Mohan Raja’s films get their boundless energy—and their limitless appetite for social commentary—from. The filmmaker can go on hours at a stretch, discussing cinema and society, with an enthusiasm that if anything, only seems to increase as the conversation progresses. In this hour-long conversation to mark the completion of five years since the release of Thani Oruvan, he sheds light on the ideology of the film, the importance of the protagonist, Mithran, and of course, plans for the upcoming Thani Oruvan sequel.
It’s often said that Thani Oruvan transformed your life, and that of your brother, Jayam Ravi. What does this film mean to you?
Let me clarify right off the bat that this wasn’t a film done to prove my detractors wrong. This wasn’t about making a point to those who had decided that I couldn’t do any more than remakes. I don’t even see the ‘remake’ tag as an insult; I always poured my heart and soul into those projects. I needed all those remakes to be able to fulfill my eventual dream of making a film that was my own—a big-budget experimental film like Thani Oruvan. When talking to Mani Ratnam sir, I mentioned the climax of the Iranian film, Children of Heaven—about how the boy runs with his eyes closed and finds that he’s won first prize. I said that my success with Thani Oruvan was something similar and asked him how he managed to recover from the fatigue of making at least 25 such films, when I felt as drained after making just one. I’ll remember always what he told me: “Close your eyes again.”
The title of the film speaks of the protagonist’s solitude, a quality that is emphasised several times in the film.
Heroism in our cinema is usually of two types: Active, where the hero questions something wrong that happens around him, and Reactive, where he reacts to a wrong done to him. I don’t know if it has been done in Indian cinema before, but we came up with the idea of a ‘Proactive’ hero in Thani Oruvan. After acquiring reasonable knowledge about our society, I have always wondered what my life would have been, had I had as such insight as a 20-year-old. Mithran, the protagonist of Thani Oruvan, is a younger, extroverted version of myself. His solitude is important because it helps him accumulate his anger about the system and channel it productively. The badge of a police officer is only a tool for him to achieve his end goal. This idea of a proactive, reclusive protagonist… I have been thinking about it for at least a decade.
I see a lot of mythological underpinnings in this story. The villain, Siddharth Abhimanyu, resembles an Asuran in a sense, and his battle with Mithran goes through a series of almost mythical interactions.
I love the dramatic potential in the interplay between dharma and adharma. I believe—I must believe—that evil people will get their comeuppance. When I told my father that the idea of Thani Oruvan was about the destruction of an indestructible enemy, he said it reminded him of the killing of the asura, Hiranyakashipu. Siddharth Abhimanyu’s character was, in a sense, influenced by that. He comes into the world with a boon—that of intelligence, and believes that it makes him invincible. Just like Hiranyakashipu though, Siddharth too is vanquished by a manipulative, clever adversary who breaks his defences systematically.
Among the most enjoyable portions of the film are the scenes that detail the interplay between Mithran and Siddharth Abhimanyu, a relationship that is defined by an almost respectful admiration more than it is by enmity.
I think the 1984 film, Amadeus, is a huge influence. It’s my most favourite film. Has there been another film that has shown enmity almost like it were love, like it were poetry? In fact, I even had one scene where Mithran’s friend says, “En aalu vandhutaa…”, to which Mithran responds, “Mine too”, while looking at Siddharth. It’s almost love if you think about it, but then, of course, while the objective of love can be said to be possession, the objective of enmity is vanquishment. Mithran’s fascination for Siddharth is a result of his desire to utilise him to do good.
I remember that much of the appreciation to Thani Oruvan, following its release, centred on the character of Siddharth Abhimanyu, played by Arvind Swami. Were you pained that Mithran’s characterisation largely went unnoticed?
Yes, but it’s all right. I think the film’s enduring appeal is because of Mithran, even if people don’t verbalise it. It’s perfectly all right if Arvind Swami gets 10 times more fame than Jayam Ravi on account of Thani Oruvan, but I would hate for Siddharth Abhimanyu to get more respect than Mithran. Siddharth comes into the picture only as a consequence of Mithran’s yearning to create positive change, and his desire to find an invincible enemy. For me, the film ends when Siddharth recognises Mithran as an adversary worthy of his respect. Siddharth is a strong character, but I would love for people to see that Mithran is stronger, craftier, wilier.
The music by Hip Hop Tamizha is an important aspect of the film. The background music, especially, is a constant source of energy.
I remember when Aadhi (part of Hip Hop Tamizha) came in, asking if he could get three kuthu songs to show his mettle. Once he saw the film, he realised that there was no scope for such music in this film. However—and this is what I love about him—he saw this not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. When he came to me with the Thani Oruvan theme and the Theemai Dhaan Vellum track, I saw immediately that the music was going to play a big part in bringing audiences to theatres. Even without the music, I knew the film would do well, but with the music of Hip Hop Tamizha, I knew the film was going to work wonders.
Every important participant in this film, including Ravi, Arvind Swami, cinematographer Ramji, Hip Hop Tamizha, Thambi Ramaiah, writers Subha, in trying to make their contributions the best in the film, united to make Thani Oruvan what it is.
Be it in Thani Oruvan or your next film, Velaikkaran, it is evident that you have strong views on how businesspeople control our world. How were these views shaped?
As a student in the film institute, I was once tasked with taking a couple of American students around our city. One of them was shocked that private hospitals are trusted by our citizens in a way that government hospitals are not. At the time, I didn’t know enough to realise why this is a problem, or even how this came to be. I have constantly looked to equip myself with understanding on how our society functions, and in my films which will always be sociopolitical, I have and will try to present my observations, so our people can understand society better.
You have been quoted as saying that the villain in the Thani Oruvan sequel will be mightier than Siddharth Abhimanyu. I guess it’s fair to say you have your work cut out.
(Laughs) I think it’s a natural consequence of the story. In Thani Oruvan, Mithran wanted to reach up and vanquish a seemingly invincible enemy, and ended up discovering the existence of Siddharth Abhimanyu. He will continue to dig deeper and understand our system better, and this process will naturally lead him to a more dangerous, more powerful enemy. The film will also, of course, be reflective of my own evolving understanding of our society. The craft of my films may be a reflection of my ego, but the content… that is my purpose. It always will be.