Thillana Mohanambal

Padmini is Mohanambal, a beautiful and exceptionally talented bharatanatyam dancer. Sivaji Ganesan is the less beautiful but equally talented musician, nadaswaram player Sikkal Shanmughan. Crossing paths at a temple festival sparks fly between them but within minutes they go from this:

To this:

They challenge each other to a contest of dance versus music at some later date. So the stage is set for a fiery romance, riddled with misunderstanding, thwarted by pride and a meddling mother (Vadivambal, played by C.K. Saraswathi).

Mohana believes that dance is for everyone and for all occasions, inspired by the world around the dancer as well as a gift of god. Sikkal is more of a princess, demanding that his audience give him full attention and due reverence as he displays his gift. He believes art exists for god and for the artist. He refuses Mohana’s invitation to stay and watch her dance, but sneaks back later to see this.

There are some interesting observations on women in the performing arts and Mohana is certainly subject to some assumptions by men who desire her beauty and talent. Her mother seeks to ensure a wealthy man as her daughter’s protector or husband, but Mohana rejects all offers even before her feelings for Shanmughan are an issue. Nagalingam (K Balaji) is one thwarted suitor and a kidnapping attempt results in a comedy fight scene that I could have done without. I don’t quite get the undersized guy with stupid hair as instant hilarity, and there are two of them (double the fun?). This diversion means Mohana and her group catch the same train as Sikkal who has been waiting in the hopes they might turn up.

Padmini is gorgeous and her dance training is evident in her deportment and expressions as she uses all of her skill in conveying Mohana’s emotions. She also does an exceptionally good eyelash flutter. Sivaji is more old school theatrical, and lays it on almost as thick as his makeup. But his somewhat rubbery face is wonderfully expressive, especially his eyes, and he does have palpable chemistry with Padmini. There is a delightful scene of wordless communication and voiceover on the train journey that is funny, romantic and beautiful.

There is lots of sparring between the two and she is not the heroine to fall in love and lose her sense of self. I liked seeing a young lady who was a bit of a brat, very self-confident, and who felt no need to be apologetic. I don’t think I would enjoy her half as much in real life, but she did keep my attention in the film. And there was no suggestion that she should give up dancing to be a servant of Sikkal’s muse. She was a dancer and was valued for her gift.

There are abundant comedy elements. Manorama is Jil Jil Ramamani, a folk dancer and girl of suspect virtue. Her ‘comic’ dances are strange, and perhaps the subtitle team decided to make sure we knew this was a modern film:

In addition to being the butt of many jokes, she does play a significant role at several points in the story. Manorama made her character both a caricature and quite sympathetic. I was left thinking Jil Jil understood herself and how others saw her, and she retained some dignity despite the silliness. Nagesh as Vaithy had a role that just irritated me. He is a Jerry Lewis kind of character, so if you like the style, you may have warmer feelings towards him than I do.

His presence extends the story with pranks and frauds, and a longwinded and obtuse approach to being a go-between. The supporting characters are pretty broadly drawn and usually played for comedic effect or buffoonery. There is some excellent face throughout.

There are pointed references to the issues of art versus money, the dedication of great artists and who owns art.  Sikkal storms out of a private party rather than be ‘owned’ by the landlord and plays an impromptu concert to the locals gathered outside. I particularly enjoy this face off where the classical versus modern question is settled judging by the smug expression on Sivaji’s face (wait for the white couple to turn up at about 4 min):

Mohana is pursued with increasing vigour by the landlord and the ensuing scenes are quite farcical. I was quite annoyed that Sikkal immediately assumed Mohana was playing him, without speaking to her or investigating. He just did the heroic leap to the conclusion that she was duplicitous and decided to feel sorry for himself. I might have been more tolerant of manly brooding in a more attractive character, but really I just wanted to slap him. He then departs to sulk with Jil Jil, now calling herself Rosarani, who owns a drama company. Word of this gets back to Mohana who knows about his misunderstanding but had hoped he might still be interested. Rather than giving up, judging or moping, she decides to confront him.

Jil Jil and Mohana show themselves to be more decisive and action oriented than many a filmi heroine. I have doubts over the subtitle translation of some of the relationships as people refer to the landlord wanting Mohana to live with him, but he is also referred to as a groom, there is mention of dowry and so on and he has a wife already. In one scene, Padmini begs him not to spoil both their lives and mentions women being enslaved by money. So I am guessing she would have been his mistress but perhaps the subtitle team decided to sanitise the arrangements. Regardless, her modesty and chastity helps to persuade the landlord to be a brother rather than a suitor.

Mohana knew that the only way to keep Sikkal from leaving India with Jil Jil was to appeal to his artistic pride. The Thillana contest goes ahead. Nagalingam returns for skulduggery resulting in Sikkal taking a knife to the arm. Sivaji really milks the scene, thrashing around like a fish out of water for what seems like minutes. This injury prompts a further outbreak of overacting, and Sikkal gets another opportunity to feel sorry for himself again. Thanks to yet another smart competent woman (his nurse Mary) he begins to see that perhaps he has been a little narrow minded.

The finale is predictable but unravels over yet another complex scheme to sell Mohana, this time to a King. She defends herself, verbally and physically, and finds an ally in the very peculiarly accented Queen. Her chastity proves transformative once again, and the King decides to be a good husband.

Sikkal jumps to conclusions (yes, again!) and flings himself around chewing the scenery. This time Mohana has had enough and decides to resolve things. The climax is very filmi and over the top but the duelling diva personalities of the leads made it less unbelievable than it might have been.

This is such a pretty film. The ladies wear beautiful jewellery and costumes, there are lots of sparkly things, the temple locations and houses are lovely. It also has quite a timeless feel, with only a couple of scenes overtly placing the story in the late 1960s. The story is an overblown romantic melodrama but the theme of art and excellence gives the characters much more substance than I expected.  The female characters stand on their own feet, and have their own plans and desires. Padmini and Sivaji are exceptional and really made me care about their relationship even as their characters annoyed me sometimes. And of course, Padmini’s dancing alone makes this worth a look. Who won the contest you ask?  Art was the winner! 4 stars.