Son of the Solar Deity!

On sacred Jahnavi’s shore I say my prayers to the evening sun.  

Karna is my name, Son of Adhirath the charioteer, and Radha is my mother. 

That’s who I am.  Lady, who are you?” 

Karna and Kunti, Rabindranath Tagore, Spring 1900

I wanted to reply to Ratnakar’s Post … But my reply was getting longer … and i also wanted to add some pictures, videos and slideshows and it was all not possible in a reply. So here is a post about Son of The Sun God, Our Hero Surya, the Thalapathi.

Surya played by Rajni is based on Karna, which was depicted in Mahabharata as child of the Sun God. Throughout the whole film, Mani Ratnam and Cinematographer Santosh Sivan reminds us of this fact with masterly visual treatment.

At the very start of the film we see Kalyani dumping her newborn baby. And When Surya is found in the river, by his foster mother and while she picks him up; he is shown in the silhouette against the sun. Crying. Surya, Child of The Sun God.

Thalapathi 1

Surya is found by his foster mother

And in the next scene Surya and his foster mother stands against reflection of the evening sun, again in silhouette and Surya asks her “Why my mother dumped me ?”

Why My Mother Dumped Me

Santosh Sivan uses this kind of silhouette’s throughout the film, giving it an unique look and feel, which i doubt if  i have seen in any other Indian film before Thalapathi.  He employs Low key and high contrast lighting to bring those dark emotions visually. I won’t call Thalapathi dark film per say. But then it is a film about dark emotions, especially in a country where even today unwed mothers are considered a taboo. Ironically, Mahabharata always mentions such children born out of wedlock as son of the Gods.

Low Key High Contrast Lighting

And while portraying dark emotions, visual artists over the centuries preferred high contrast images and filmmakers are no different. Now, Mani Ratnam surely had few creative choices in front of him. As a filmmaker you have the option of shooting lots of night scenes, when it is relatively easy to create high contrast imagery. In day light anything against the sun is total silhouette. So there is little chance of showing facial expression of your characters. Shooting against sun is difficult because dynamic range of film stock, which is less than human eye. Even for human eyes it is difficult to see against the sun.

When Surya becomes Thalapathi,he is shown fighting against the sunlight, in silhouette along with Illyaraja’s background chanting “Thalapathi”

As Surya is a Modern day Karna, son of Solar Deity, the visual treatment demands creating high contrast situation in day light. And that’s where the challenge begins. It looks like Mani Ratnam surely made a conscious decision to creatively use the sun in conjunction with Surya’s character. Now, once that creative decision of “putting characters against the sun” is made, you are actually committing to use a peculiar style of cinematography, where back light is powerful and key light (the main source light) is low. And inherently it creates high contrast image. Hence It is called low key high contrast lighting, which we see all over in Thalapathi.

In a way, decision to use Sun to signify Surya, which was a risky one cinematically, might have easily looked ordinary.

Even during Surya and Subhalaxmi love affair, the Sun stays strong in the background

Another way of showing soft and yet strong Sunlight

Personally i would always prefer a song or two less in all of Mani’s films. Usually songs often fucks mis-en-scene on the pretext being surrealistic and/or dream like. But not here. We see again the Son of the Sun God, the Surya against the Sun!

Surya in Dream Song

The scene, where Surya breaks up with Subhalakshmi, is visually stunning. Shot against evening sun, but not in silhouette and among the old ruins of some royal palace. If you know where it is shot, let me know. I would like to go there and see how Sivan felt when he shot Subhalaxmi going away from Surya. And it is magical to compose shots like this.


In this film, we mostly see the evening sun or the sun among clouds. As I said before, it is due limited dynamic range of film stock, noon is out of question. Even then it must have took special effort to creatively use the sun as a light source. You can control a light but with sunlight there is a very limited way to control it.  Yes you can fake it. But it doesn’t look authentic. It is always better to wait for the right moment. And it means while shooting you are totally at mercy of the Sun God. It also mean patience. In commercial film making industry where every second costs you, it finally means tremendous production pressure. And at the same time when it is a multi-starrer, it means your schedule is also at the mercy of stars and their busy schedules. And when everything is ready, few clouds come up and everything is ruined, stars are frustrated, producer is worried, crew is bored. And it is so easy to give up. Producer might have said ” after all it is story which important, what is the heck with low key high contrast chicken shit … Mr Mani I am losing my money, please shoot this fuck and complete the damn thing, even without lighting, after all it is just damn a film”

Had Cinema not been Mani and Sivan’s religion, we would not have seen a visual delight. Yes, it is the story but it’s also cinematography and background score which takes Thalapathi to another level. Mani and Sivan, surely waited for right moment for the Sun God.

The Solar Deity

This is the First scene of Rajni in the film, first scene of grown up Surya, the same Surya, who was deserted by his hapless mother, now a violent and angry Surya, who can’t tolerate atrocities on the poor, kills a tyrant Rammana, in heavy rains.

Surya Kills Rammanna

Above shot is actually a night shot. But it  features a powerful back light again reminding us of the Sun, and it’s where it becomes Thalapathi’s Mise en scène. There is very less light on both the characters (low key) and hence create high contrast lighting, which Sivan employs to heighten the emotions of the scene. To visually match the evening Sun, Sivan uses very very strong back lights during night time.

Again there is another night scene in heavy rain ,which is again shot amazingly, portrays Surya against strong back light, when he confronts Deva.

                             Surya Confronts Deva!

This is a scene which simply takes you to another level purely with cinematographic techniques. Imagine had it had same content and same actors and same dialogues and without such kind of visual. Had it been equally effective? A weak confrontation here would have paved the way of great friendship later?  This Surya never sets whether its day or night. Mind It. Literally. Cinematically. And this film was made 1991, seven years before Satya, a film which I till date had wrongly assumed as a game changer for modern day Indian filmmaking. Any way lets not compare them. Both of them are great films. I just want to say that i can’t believe that this film was made in 1991, it was way ahead, in its vision and it’s execution.

When Deva is lying seriously hurt and Surya opens the door of the hideout, we see him again against a strong backlight and again it is a night scene.

Deva … You Can’t Die!

In the next scene an angry Surya wants to take revenge. He chases and burns the culprit alive and his step father becomes a witness. Surya and others are paraded into the police station. He is asked about his father and mother, he shouts telling everything his stepfather needs to know!

What’s your Father’s Name?

Again this epic scene where for the first time Surya comes across his mother.

Ohh the Solar Deity … I am your Son! Where is my mother?

It is a breathtaking scene, no dialogues and all visuals and just a sound of a train passing by. It was the same sound Surya heard as a newborn baby when his mother dumped him into a train bogey. It was the same sound, which Kalyani last heard when she left her baby and even today she regrets. Kalyani’s husband and Surya’s Stepfather knows everything. Again Surya is lit by a strong sunlight coming from the temple window. It is also terrifically edited and as well acted especially by Srividya.

Although this post is more about the Sun as cinematographic choice, but its brilliance in almost all department which makes this film a true epic. I just feel it is only the action scenes that are a little outdated compared to present day and time.

In a scene, when his step father tells Surya about his mother. And Surya is shocked and there he is shown against an evening sun in silhouette, even though the shot doesn’t match in cuts, but it takes audience to another level. A dramatic choice in cinematography, heightening Surya’s emotions.

Any other director, except Mani, would have shot the whole scene in silhouette, simply may be because continuity issues (as CUT IN’s  doesn’t match partly due to limitation of tech and partly due to bad colour correction) or may be simply because of creative choice. A whole scene against the sunlight in a situation where Surya is told about Kalyani, is not that bad a creative choice. But that’s why Mani is Mani … he never overdoes things … he always keeps restraint as a director … that’s the difference between Ramu and Mani. Many a times Ramu goes over the top. Trying to do too much. BTW I am a fan of both the filmmakers. But in the name of direction, style and dramatic creative option you just cannot fuck your character and their emotions. When it comes to Mani, even if there are continuity issue in the scene, character’s emotions always takes precedence. No wonder he is so popular among the actors. And as IRRANAND pointed out in a previous post, the same thing gave him chance to make Mouna Ragam, despite his early failures.

Promise Me!

Anyway the scene ends with Surya asking his step father not to tell her mother about him. Again holding his hand against the sunlight, in front of his mythical father(the sun)  and his step father, he cries and decides to stay away from his mother, whom he used to hate. Dramatic !!!  I don’t know tamil and I read only subs … but if I can feel power in reading subs … I can imagine what it would have sounded in one’s mother tongue. It is an epic scene … because of its position in the film, its content, its creative and tech choices, cinematography, direction, dialogues and acting. Watch it.

Few more shots which again and again reminds us of Surya, the Solar Deity.

Surya Meets Subhalaxmi and Arjun

Surya secretly watching his Mother!

And finally the scene where Surya meets his mother. I ideally wanted to put a video link , but i couldn’t find one online. So i decided to embed an animated GIF, if it doesn’t play here, in this window. Just open it in a separate window!

The use of movement, use of lighting and use of  composition. I think this is masterly. One of the best scene in Indian Cinema. There is also a cut away, where we see Surya’s wife and stepdaughter watching Surya and his mother. There is no need of this cutaway. But it heightens emotions once again. Actually on Deva’s insistence Surya is married to Rammanna’s widow, the man he killed. His stepdaughter loves Surya a lot. And when she innocently asks those few question, which heighten already dramatic scene. It is where editing and cinematography and acting works in tandem, creating unforgettable emotions.

The treatment of using strong back lights goes up till the climax.

Deva dies in the arms of Surya

And when Surya takes revenge. Btw Amrish Puri’s dubbed diloauges is surely turn off. But Kalivardhan does his job.

Revenge of Surya

Again Image below is an animated GIF of the last scene of the film, where Kalyani decides to stay with Surya and then dissolving into  one last tribute to the Sun God and besides it we read “Written and Directed by Mani Ratnam.” (Click and open in separate window if it doesn’t play here)

Thalapathi’s cinematography is outstanding. It has a unique trademark. A unique style. And all that style goes in sync with the story and its character and their emotions. In fact it takes those emotions to another level. But it is not only cinematography but also the excellence in almost every other department,  let it be screenplay, acting, music and editing which makes it a classic. It is also a classic because of director’s non compromising attitude and demand of perfection. Also because of the technical and creative ability of his cast and crew to execute his vision.

I would like end the post with some masterly compositions we see in Thalapathi!

Going Away

Surya with his sweet stepdaughter!

My Brother .. I can’t … because he is also my brother

The end of an Epic!


36 thoughts on “Son of the Solar Deity!

  1. Epic post Sirjee… Aankhon mein aasu aa gaye mehnat dekh kar….

    I am quitting as an author… Fucking Fantastic…. The blogathon was all the worth for this legendary stuff…

    • Mehanat Nahi hain rey … Ye pyar hain … Tumhare, Humare, aur Apane Guruji Mani aur Santosh Sivan ke liye. This film is so special for me for personal reasons as well. Every time i watch it i get high dosage on Cinemarijuana. And that “Cinemarijuana” made me write it.

  2. This is a phenomenal, insightful post Chhatrapal. I found your breakdown of Sivan’s work to be thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening.

    The extreme, prominent use of backlight is more a Mani Ratnam technique than Santosh Sivan. In fact, if you take a look at Sivan’s work for other directors, or himself (i.e. Terrorist, Asoka, Meenaxi), the use of backlight is a lot more subtle.

    In movies like Agni Natchathram and Anjali, the usage of backlight in some scenes is almost garish. Sivan in fact got stuck with the loud backlight obsession for a few films after Thalapathy, such as in Rudaali, Gardish, Barsaat, Darmiyaan. Slowly he let it go. Still he knew how to keep it in control. Unfortunately, all other Tamil cinematographers since Thalapathy didn’t quite, and this came to be known as The Garish South Indian Backlight technique.

    However, slowly Mani Ratnam also moved on from this. His subsequent films with Sivan showed more subtlety, the finest of them being IRUVAR. I have written a post on IRUVAR, which should go live in sequence sometime next week. It would be awesome if you could do another detailed analysis focusing on Sivan’s work on that film like you have done for Thalapathy.

    • Ok. The Garish is it? I didn’t know that. I think it was Mani who made the decision to use Sunlight against Surya Character. And i think it was Sivan who come up with idea of The Garish, specially during the night scene. I think because of relatively dark emotions it goes well with this film. And for an artists, it is difficult to let a technique go, specially when it worked out so well. But Mani is right not overdoing in subsequent films. Thats Mani is Mani and Ramu is still has camera on Jimmy Jib. And tab se ghumaye ja rahe hain … arrey ab to rukiye :d (Ramuji Maf kar dijiye, main to majak kar raha tha) Anyway Iruvar is classic, probably one of the best Indian films, it should have a song less in second half … It is no less than Citizen Kane. Sivan is outstanding specially in scene when Anandan is talking to party members and camera starts encircling them. At the end i dont remember sivan, as i did in thalapathi. But what i remember is Acting of Prakash Raj … outstanding. Mani is master when it comes to drama. Iruvar is his best and probably one of best indian films ever made. It is quite a task to write post on Iruvar. I will share if something comes to mind.

  3. OMG! OMFG

    Epic post.kya analysis hain boss.I like the way you have included images from the film.If I am not wrong this is your first post correct?
    People score century on debut apne to Double century mar di. 🙂
    I havent seen the film but will take it from you and watch it asap.

    Please keep writing on MAM.

    • I officially declare Kushal K Shah as my sabse bada fan :d. Kushal first line is bad joke. Well i wrote four posts for passionforcinema, and few on my blog and you are the only one who commented on it. You see why i wrote the first line. Madaboutmoviez ka definitely first post hain … i wanted to write but i couldn’t. King Mani and Thalapathi Sivan made me write it.

      • HAHAHA.In a way you can say that as I have also reviewed your film Dwandva on IMDB 😛
        Of course, I was talking about MAM.I have read your posts on PFC(The post about your making of film was awesome you should post it here someday).

        As far as your Blog is concerned,Sergio Leone is one of my all time fav. directors and none of the people, I know have watched all his films so your blog was ideal to talk about the film.

        Will love to read your take on RGV’s Satya

  4. Wow!Chhatrapal this post makes me feel all the more proud of being a fan of Mani Sir & Raja Sir.And Thalapathi is a wonderful example to showcase the work of the genius,Santosh Sivan. I think its high time I paid a re-visit to the film. The film is what we can consider to be almost perfect within the sphere of commercial cinema-awesome!!!

    • I will keep re visiting this film. It is made with lots of passion. It is wonder how Mani able to make this film commercial cinema setup. Thats why he is Legend. An Inspiration!

  5. Wow! kya baat hain! Maaza aa gaya. You were great company during the Asian Filmfest. I got to learn quite a bit from you during those few days. Please keep coming up with such posts so that i get to learn lot more from you.

    • :d this is film is so close, that’s why i couldn’t resist. My salute to all bloggers on this site. Very frankly It is tough write a blog, yet so meditative, self exploratory. I can imagine how you guys enjoy writing as much i love to read!

  6. @Kushal I hate Sergio Leone for stealing Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and love him for everything he did after that. Specially Once upon time in America, it gives me goosebumps and I Know that you didn’t like it that much. Writing on Satya is tough. May be some other time!

    • Yes I saw Leone’s version first and thats why din’t like Yojimbo.But Ek galti sab se maaf hain bhai and Leone is no exception.Leone also gave us Dollars Trilogy.
      As far as OUTIA is concerned yes I dint like it because may be I was too immature then to understand it then and also many filmbuffs also told me that you need to have a good knowledge about America’s history to understand films like Gangs of Newyork,OUTIA etc.

      I would love to read a similar post on Satya as well.

  7. beautifully written brother…..this certainly is one of my favourite movies ever…
    and after reading through this awesome article written by you….i’m planning to watch this master piece now… 🙂
    with an even better perspective…thanks to u for that!!!!

  8. Ah what a post,i was eager to read it from morning when Ajay had msgd abt this.So far the best in Blogathon,you have raised the bar to a higher higher level.This is kind of posts i was telling you to write.

  9. Brilliant post. Minblasting, mindblowing, mindpumping, fabulous, fantabulous Chaiwaala(oops -sorry for the Chaiwaala part)
    Superbly detailed analysis and a cracker of a post. Great debut. Finally welcome to MAM. And yes please keep writing often.

  10. Its so rare to see a post on the grammar of film making on an Indian Blog…. Chatrapal this is among the top 5 Posts on movie I have read ever anywhere and easily my fav in MAM so far.
    Standing Ovation !!!!

  11. Amazingly written Chhatrapal! Thank you so much for this :))

    Thalapathy is and will always be my favorite film of Maniratnam and I’ve lost count on the number of times I watched this film. To be frank, I was slightly disappointed when I read Ratnakar’s review on the film since I felt he missed out on a lot of vital elements that made Thalapathy the special film that it is. I was about to move on to another blog when I saw a second review of Thalapathy being posted here. What a sheer delight to read your review Chhatrapal. You made me feel like watching the film all over again 🙂

    I can’t agree more with your take on Thalapathy and I absolutely loved reading your views on the lighting that was brought out in this film. Truly, sunlight couldn’t have looked more beautiful than what was seen in Thalapathy. And I loved the way sunlight was used to emphasize quite a number of scenes in this film. Btw, as much as I loved reading your views on this topic, I wished you had elaborated on the scene where Srividya finally meets Surya in his house. That scene marked the best usage of sunlight, I feel. I loved the way Srividya’s image is shown in darkness when she first walks into the house. But when Surya turns to look at her, the morning sun is shown slowly rising up and along with Surya, we too get a glimpse of the angelic Srividya shining brightly in the sunlight. That was such an awesome scene and I’ve been a fan of Santosh Sivan ever since.

    • I wanted to explain both the scenes … temple and the one you mentioned … because not only cinematography other things such acting, editing, sound direction are also top notch … but i thought let me put video and let people feel it themselves. For Srividya scene i have put an animated GIF images … which has selective grabs of the scene (just right click on the image and opens it another window) and once you know the theme of the post, it is more than self explanatory :d … and you are right it is one of the best scene I have seen in my life.

      • Just saw your GIF images. Kindly accept my apologies. Just another case of me shooting the guns too fast (facepalm)

        Yes, you’re absolutely right. The images were self explanatory alright. Thank you once again for the review and for the images :))


  13. Pingback: Kannathil Muthamittal- An Innocent Journey of a Girl | mad about moviez

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