Mohan Raja wakes up from remakes to deliver a brilliantly orchestrated mind game,

writes Mani Prabhu

The more successful the villain, the more successful the film, exclaimed a certain Alfred Hitchcock, when asked about the secret of a good film. Make the bad guy badder and stronger than the good guy, spells out Blake Synder. We are not sure which one of these incited Mohan Raja to wake up from years of slumber, prompting him to co-script Thani Oruvan with the writer duo Subha. Anyways, good that he did, we actually get to see on-screen one of the most charismatic, well-written and deadly antagonists of our times. The name is Padmashree Dr. Siddharth Abhimanyu Ph.D, who keeps claiming that he is not at all bad; just pure evil.

How refreshing it is to drool at the brains, arrogance and veiled indifference of Siddharth Abhimanyu in a cinematic atmosphere that routinely hypes up dimwits and clowns in the name of villains! When was the last time we saw a film that begins with the back-story of its antagonist? When was the last time a film-maker traced the character arc of the villain from age 15 with the hero coming into the central scheme of things only a decade earlier! When was the last time a writer treated the good and the bad guy as two halves of the same person in a mad cat and mouse game for superiority, and for that reason, end up as equals in ability and competence?

Two sides of the coin

Think of films that have managed to carve a niche for themselves: Kuridhipunal (Adhi/Badri), Thevar Magan (Sakthivel/Mayathevan), Baashha (Manickam/Antony), Kaakha Kaakha (Anbuselvan/Pandian). Aren’t the protagonist and the antagonist of each of these films the good and evil sides of the same person? The sunny and shadowy shades of the human psyche? And either of them has something that the other wants, even if that amounts to just keeping the other on his toes. The message is loud and clear; something which Mohan Raja has finally realized much to our delight. In Thani Oruvan, Mithran IPS and Siddharth are a matched pair. They complement each other with Siddarth being a tad more daunting than Mithran, simply because he doesn’t play by the rules. He doesn’t care about emotions or values. While Mithran. bound by his own goodness. comes across as unidimensional, Siddarth knows no shackles. As of every iconic villain, Siddarth is the hero of his own story. Only that, on many an occasion, he is also the ‘hero’ of Thani Oruvan.

Effortlessly evil

Aravind Swamy plays Siddharth Abhimanyu with such style, poise and panache, that you never get to see the actor throughout the running time of a little over one fifty minutes. He shoulders the film scene after scene, mesmerizing us with his conceited grin and effortless body language. In whatever screen time he gets (which is actually huge for our industry standards), he manages to be scary, compelling and weird, all at the same time. A powerful villain can make a good film better, but it’s also easy to see, what a less capable actor with a weaker screen presence, could have done to the final output. You must catch him toss off that nonchalant look, while raising his finger and scratching his forehead to understand what we are talking about! A hero is as good as the villain, they say. With an adversary like Arvind Swamy to deal with, Jayam Ravi lifts up his performance several notches higher than usual, portraying the angst and passion of an upright cop beautifully. And he seemed to get better as the film progressed, and in the climax, almost equalled the invincible antagonist.

Mohan’s dazzling googly

And finally, what a comeback for the man at the helm of affairs! Every single thing from the imaginative atmosphere building, detailed character arcs, an envious thematic flow and the sincere storytelling makes us wonder what this man was doing remaking films for nearly a decade! The film starts off dramatically with four youngsters doing some familiar daredevilry, but soon a purpose ensues. The narrative is given loads of mood and context. The writing is slick and never boring. The conflict pervades throughout. But Mohan’s biggest feat may be in proving that it is still possible to sneak in intelligent psychological mind games past the barb-wire commercial boundaries of our cinemas.

Romance and humour entwined with class

There are just a couple of music-video interludes, but they are better woven into the scheme than many of our thrillers. The romantic sequences superbly overlap moments of intense thrill. We would have loved to see Nayanthara in a more pro-active role, but she does have a purpose in her limited screen time. The pace sags at times, but the proceedings never get predictable till the end. Barring the song intrusion in the second half, the cat and mouse game portions work beautifully, and even in the cinematic face-offs, a hint of realism pervades. The humor writes itself through the character of Thambi Ramiah, not pandering, at any moment.

It takes immense guts to come out of your comfort zone and try something radically different. Mohan Raja has done exactly that, giving us a smart and engaging tale of good vs. evil, with some intelligent twists. And more importantly, he has given us a delightfully savvy and evil villain. And he has done all that, being truthful to the script and not to the star. Thani Oruvan deserves a watch just for him.