Pathu Thala Movie Review: Gangster-worship puts paid to narrative pleasures

Pathu Thala Movie Review: Gangster-worship puts paid to narrative pleasures

The ambitious attempt to portray a larger-than-life gangster drama is ultimately bogged down by simplistic narrative structures, familiar tropes, and copious amounts of hero worship
Rating:(2.5 / 5)

Pathu Thala (an adaptation of the Kannada film, Mufti) has many flaws, but a lack of ambition isn’t one. It’s talking about toppling governments. Vast sand-mining operations are underway. There’s a CBI investigation going on. At the centre are two political rivals—one who operates in the open (Nanjilaar, played by a compelling Gautham Menon), and the other, who controls from the shadows (AGR, played by Simbu). Is there any doubt who the film wants you to side with? The disappointment, however, is that the film looks to achieve this through rudimentary narrative strokes, through simplistic, do-gooder anecdotes. “AGR helps the poor and the needy.” “AGR loves his sister and niece.” The first statement is designed to lull you into believing he’s a ‘good’ man; the second is designed to humanise him in a way that Nanjilaar isn’t.

Director: Obeli N Krishna
Cast: Simbu, Gautham Menon, Gautham Kartik, Priya Bhavani Shankar

Both are stone-cold murderers; both can get brutal. But you see, AGR does it for ‘the right reasons’. He is ‘bad’ because that’s the only way to accomplish any ‘good’: “Nalladhu panradhukku, inga oru ketta mugam thevai.” It’s a philosophy espoused in films like Lucifer. Even the scope of it all and the constant barrage of ‘epic music’ feels somewhat similar. I found it unsettling, however, that we barely get to see AGR, let alone understand his motivations and general mental makeup. During a crucial scene with his sister, he tells her that she should have simply trusted him to do the right thing. “Do I not know the value of a life?” he asks. And yet, when you picture AGR, you picture him slicing heads off; you picture him breaking necks; you picture him going on a mad killing spree.

STR, playing this almost elderly mafia boss, is fine, even if he has done much heavier work in his career. Here, leaving his late arrival aside, he’s largely relegated to walking out of helicopters or storming through corridors, propped up by henchmen and AR Rahman’s energetic score. His introduction scene has him decapitating someone, and someone calls him the ‘devil’. The film’s titled Pathu Thala, and AGR expands to AG Raavanan. Somewhere, there’s a reference to Kamba Ramayanam, which is thought to paint a kinder picture of the demon king, Raavanan. The film itself is similarly kind to AGR. Right after the interval, we see people clearing away as AGR walks towards a chariot to perform a temple ritual. Shortly, people sacrifice themselves to defend AGR, and it’s quite clear who the film considers to be its god.

The best role and the most complex character of the film is Shakti (played by an invested Gautham Karthik), an undercover cop who finds himself questioning his loyalties. It’s a character painted in gray that deserves more exploration than it gets in this film. The problem is, Pathu Thala isn’t as interested in the mental makeup of its people as it’s interested in milking them for fleeting, memorable moments. For instance, take the scene in which AGR—omniscient as he is—confronts someone from his inner circle for betraying him. The scene is loaded with a long history between both characters; there are accusations, revelations, and motivations. What the film is interested in, however, is quickly moving to a stylised explosion aimed at enhancing the mass appeal of AGR. Take another heavy moment, when a senior government official, Leela (Priya Bhavani Shankar), gets almost run over by criminals. The film, rather strangely, decides to milk this for humour (she develops a fever, which is worth laughing about, apparently). There are many such ideas worthy of exploration, of a more caring eye—but the film opts to eke out easy entertainment.

So, while the film might masquerade as deep commentary about politics and corruption, what it in fact is, is yet another exercise in hero worship, no, scratch that... Gangster worship. The film expects that our loyalties lie with AGR, but when an activist questions his involvement in sand-mining operations, AGR’s justification is that the region and its people are better off with him doing it—as opposed to another, more opportunistic individual. “I’m funnelling all the money back to the people,” he says, but what he perhaps doesn’t talk about are his mansion, convoy and helicopter expenses.

There are some interesting ideas, surely. The central idea is of a ‘good’ man needing to be ‘bad’ to do ‘good’. And then, there’s the subplot of an idealistic infiltrator changing his worldview. But I doubt I’ll remember Pathu Thala for too long though. Neither are its mass moments particularly original, nor is all the scale and violence used to make any fresh or particularly compelling observations. Dropping a Thirukkural here and there doesn’t suffice.

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