Cast: M Sasikumar, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar
Bala’s Thaarai Thappattai is a powerful documentation of a folk form in Tamil Nadu that is performed by extremely agile women to the beat of several musical instruments, but chiefly a drum called thaarai thappattai. Narrated through a gripping plotline and embellished with some haunting Ilaiyaraaj music and almost acrobatic dances, the film is a tragic reminder of how ancient Indian traditions and arts are falling prey to modernism, struggling, in the bargain, to retain their purity and the very essence of their cultural uniqueness.
Thaarai Thappattai’s opening sequences draw us most bluntly into this conflict. We see a foreign television crew eager to capture the essence of Tamil Nadu’s temple town of Thanjavur, chance upon the ageing Pulavar Samy (GM Kumar), whose brilliance as a drum player is unrecognised, a rejection that pushes him to anger and alcoholism.
The crew is not impressed with Samy’s performance and wants something more “commercial”. His son Sannaasi (Sasikumar), who heads a troupe of folk players, steps in to give the television crew a saucy, seductive number in which the chief dancer, Sooravali (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), produces the fireworks with her skimpy costumes and fiery steps. Off the ground, Sooravali is a drunk, in love with Sannaasi and extremely fond of his old man.
When the troupe gets a chance to sail to the Andamans for a show, the members are deliriously happy, but things take a nasty turn on the island when the sponsors expect sexual favours from Sooravali and other women.
The film weaves into its fictional narrative a whole lot of unsavoury truths about folk forms in general and this includes abuse of women, considered easy prey because of their provocative mannerisms. And, finding their source of livelihood getting battered in the face of poor patronage, a couple of members branch off into a vulgar, degrading form of dance.
Watch Thaarai Thappattai trailer here:
A subtext of the movie is the love story between Sooravali and Sannaasi that takes on an ominous pattern -- perhaps conveying the death of traditional beauty.
Bala, sometimes referred to as the Mike Leigh of Tamil cinema, has been an expert in characterisations, tracing the dark and disturbing lives of the working class. An excellent example of this has been Naan Kadavul. In Thaarai Thappattai too, his characters come alive most vividly as they struggle to survive, fighting the modern world that is unfeeling towards fascinating culture.
Sasikumar has always been a great actor, but the surprising find has been Sarathkumar, who plays the dancer with a kind of unbelievable strength. In a way, the movie belongs to her.