41 years of Thillu Mullu: This hilarious Rajinikanth film still entertains

One of the funniest Tamil movies ever made, K Balachander’s ‘Thillu Mullu’ is famous for showcasing the comedic skills of Rajinikanth, who has to contend with a screen-stealing turn from actor Thengai Srinivasan.

This is as much a Visu (dialogue writer) movie as a K Balachander (director) one. The short-lived genius of Ananthu (assistant director) is also at work. However, the star of Thillu Mullu is Rajinikanth, who has to contend with a screen-stealing turn from actor Thengai Srinivasan. The repartee between the two actors gets most of the laughs in a movie whose stated ambition is to make you laugh.

As the film begins, Rajinikanth, making faces with his face pressed against a sheet of glass, says he is going to pretend he has a twin brother. The elder twin will sport a moustache while the younger will be clean-shaven. Rajini also raises the question: is it humanly possible for one man to be exactly like another? Why not, he asks. Much of what the movie is about is thus revealed. It is argued that if two people in general have similar personalities, why can’t they have a similar appearance? KB then signs off as Humorously Yours, K Balachander.

Arguably one of the funniest Tamil movies ever made, Thillu Mullu is famous for showcasing Rajinikanth’s comedic skills. The Superstar employs a new gait as Chandran and is stylish as Indran. Visu’s dialogues are full of incandescent wit, with alliterations in particular showing up at delightful moments. Balachander, quite expectedly, leaves behind his usual mark at directing the proceedings.

The ensemble cast includes Nagesh, Poornam Vishwanathan, Sowcar Janaki, Madhavi and Viji Chandrasekhar with Bhairavi and Jancy in smaller roles. Kamal Haasan and Pratap Pothen appear in cameos while Lakshmi appears as a woman director in one sequence. Released in 1981, the movie harks back to an era when it was made in a matter of months despite the constraints of shooting on film (these days we shoot in digital).

Thengai Srinivasan plays Sriramachandramoorthy, who is the strict but conscientious proprietor of the prestigious Sarojini Traders. I believe this is Srinivasan’s best role, and his performance cements his place among the all-time comedy greats in Tamil cinema. The dialogues between Srinivasan and Rajinikanth are side-splitting.

Poornam Vishwanathan is Sriramachandramoorthy’s doctor and the business partner of Chandran’s late father. To get a job at Sarojini Traders, Chandran has to abide by the following rules: have a moustache, take advantage of the proprietor’s affection for youngsters, add his father’s full name when saying his name (Ayyampettai Arivudainambi Kaliaperumal Chandran, which has become legendary among Tamil film buffs) each time, dress in khadi, display no interest in sports (a crucial rule), show respect towards elders, and appear for an interview at the company with no recommendation whatsoever.

Chandran’s interview at the firm is one of the funniest scenes in Tamil cinema. We will come to that in a bit. At the interview, Chandran is preceded by several applicants. After being dejected by the answers of the applicants, including a man named Subramaniya Bharathi who can’t speak Tamil, Srinivasan lets his PA ask a few questions. Name four colleges in Chennai is one question, with the answer being the names of four women’s colleges. Please state the showtimes at Devi Bala Theatre, is another question. The PA explains to Sriramachandramoorthy that these are safe questions and only these should be posed to today’s youth. The scene, even though comic, is a telling comment on the unemployment crisis of the day.

Chandran is the last of the candidates. The way the Superstar says “Vanakkam” itself is funny. Next he makes an elaborate show of praying to the pictures of Gandhi and other such greats on the wall in Sriramachandramoorthy’s office. He lies through each stage and secures the job, but hates the fact that he cannot be himself. Because of the khadi shortage, he is forced to borrow a costume from Nagesh, a leading actor.

By this time, we are sure that Chandran is already engaged in ‘thillu mullu’ (a casual and humorous term for fraud). As time goes by, he and his gang of friends, who are football fans, want to go to a match. Gundu Kalyanam, one of the gang, rings up each of his mates at their workplaces and homes with excuses. When he calls Chandran’s workplace, he gets his facts wrong and says that Chandran’s mother has fallen in the toilet and broken her leg. The quick-witted Chandran, who does not have a mother, goes along with the story and lands up at the match, only to be caught by his boss.

In a flash of inspiration, Chandran invents a twin called Indran who does not have a moustache – Rajnikanth is nothing short of brilliant in this scene. Indran is then hired by Sriramachandramoorthy to teach his daughter Sarojini music.

Chandran – with a fake moustache – continues working at Sarojini Traders and his non-existent twin, who doesn’t have a moustache, becomes Sarojini’s music teacher. In between, there is a top-notch funny sequence in which a tearful Chandran shaves off his moustache.

A smartly dressed, nonchalant Indran shows up at Sriramachandramoorthy’s house and begins to teach Sarojini, played by Madhavi. The couple fall in love.

We have to take note of MS Viswanathan’s sublime score at this point, with the ‘Thillu Mullu’ song becoming a theme for the impersonation sequences in the film.

Meanwhile, an errand boy (who is also a fan of actor Nagesh) at Sriramachandramoorthy’s house witnesses Chandran’s double-role plan and starts to blackmail him. At one point, the boy remarks: “With a moustache, you were handsome like Rajini, but now – without the moustache – you look like Nagesh, and you act like MR Radha.” (MR Radha was an actor famous for playing the villain in the 1950s). Later, Rajini calls the boy the MN Nambiar (another great villain actor) in his life.

In a curious turn of events, Sriramachandramoorthy hires Chandran to tutor Sarojini and suspends Indran’s music classes. This move is prompted by the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with Indran, whom he detests.

Sriramachandramoorthy also decides to visit Chandran’s mother, who again doesn’t exist. Sowcar Janaki, who plays a socialite who is passionate about theatre, is flattered into acting as the mother. Later, she is forced, quite hilariously so, into inventing her very own twin.

At one point, Rajinikanth observes in sheer desperation that the father is in love with Chandran and the daughter is in love with Indran; “between them, I’m dead,” he rues.

Chandran is finally able to tell Sarojini that he and Indran are one and the same guy. This is a movie in which all is well that ends well. (I have left some of the plot points out for those who haven’t seen the movie yet, and I strongly suggest that you watch it).

As much as this critic can sense, there is no larger meaning underlying the comedy in Thillu Mullu. But it is genuinely funny, and you can sympathise with all the characters. The timing of all actors, especially Thengai Srinivasan, and surprisingly Rajinikanth too, is on the spot. The humour is intelligent and deviates largely from Balachander’s usual fare – for example, the trope of the triangular love story.

Watching it 41 years after its release, I can attest to the fact that the movie has not aged at all, except in art direction, which understandably does not stand up to modern standards. If a light-hearted entertainer is what you are looking for, this one is for you.

Nandhu Sundaram lives in Medavakkam, a Chennai suburb, with his wife and nine-year-old daughter. He loves the city deeply and wants to change it everywhere he goes. He loves movies (all kinds), books and cricket. He is also trying his hand at short stories.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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