Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, Singham, Thani Oruvan: What makes an action crime thriller click

Hemanth Kumar

Nov,20 2017 08:54 46 IST

In Karthi’s latest action drama, Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, dubbed in Telugu as Khakee, he plays DSP Dheeraj in a small town in Tamil Nadu. He comes across a shocking murder case in his area, where an entire family is brutally murdered by unidentified assailants. And as he digs deeper, he finds out that there have been more such murder cases pending all over Tamil Nadu.

Over the course of the next eight years or so, he hunts down the criminals and finally, his search ends in Rajasthan where some members of the Bawaria community are responsible for this series of murders. The story is inspired from ‘Operation Bawaria,' led by SR Jangid, which was launched in January 2005 soon after the murder of AIADMK Gummidipoondi MLA Sudarsanam.

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Karthi in a still from Theeran Adhigaram Ondru. YouTube

Theeran Adhigaram Ondru is an incredibly well-researched film which not only thrills the audience but also educates us about the history of crimes and how thugees — the assassins of medieval India —  shaped the law and order in the pre-Independence era. And that makes a huge difference to the film-viewing experience. For the past two decades, we have become so habituated to watching filmy cops taking on gangsters, mafia dons and local goons that a story like the one in Karthi’s film comes across like a breath of fresh air in the genre.

This is not the only action crime thriller which has forced us to look at genre from a fresh perspective. Suriya’s Singham series is one of the most successful franchises in South India, and starting from Singham, which released back in 2010, to the recent Singham 3, the franchise has expanded the scope of what an Indian cop can do. Leaving aside its over-the-top and loud action, the film’s lead actor Duraisingham (Suriya) begins his journey as a sub-inspector in a small village in Tuticorin district in Tamil Nadu. In the first part of Singham, Duraisingham’s arch nemesis is an extortionist named Mayil Vaaganam (Prakash Raj). Three years later, when Singham 2 hit the screens, Duraisingham, who is now promoted as a DSP, takes on Danny, an international arms and narcotics smuggler, and the ensuing chase takes Duraisingham all the way to South Africa to hunt down the criminal. Later, in Singham 3, the plot revolves around a major international racket which addresses an environmental issue of disposing medical waste and the chase spans across Australia, Malaysia and India.

In both Theeran Adhigaram Ondru and the Singham series, the thrill lies in the chase, and not necessarily, the lead actor’s ability to make you empathise with his mission. And this is where the problem lies with most films in this genre. Given Telugu and Tamil film industries' obsession with cop dramas, where almost every hero worth his salt is willing to play a cop, quite often the emphasis is more on the hero’s body language than the mission itself. In Telugu, leaving aside films like Gabbar Singh and Temper, which changed the onscreen image of Pawan Kalyan and NTR respectively, in most cop, dramas the villain is reduced to a puppet, who is ‘tamed’ by the hero mid-way, and there is nothing left to root for in the third act of the story.

So, what makes an action thriller click? The answer lies in how well any given film treats its villain. The more mysterious he or she is, the more enriching the experience of watching the film. A case in point is Thani Oruvan, where Arvind Swamy’s portrayal of a sophisticated villain, Siddharth Abhimanyu, was miles apart from anything that we had seen in recent times. In the film, Siddharth Abhimanyu is a highly regarded scientist; however, he has a plan of his own. In turn, Mithran (Jayam Ravi), who is an IPS officer, goes on a wild goose chase which ends at Siddharth Abhinmayu’s lab where he learns about the latter’s true colours. Talking about the film, Arvind Swamy had once said, “Mohan Raja and I co-wrote significant portions of the films and I was very clear that I didn’t want to play a conventional villain. Siddharth Abhimanyu had to be as sophisticated as possible and his expressions are so subtle that you have trouble believing that he’s a criminal. That’s what differentiates the film and the character from others in the genre.” He could not be more right.

In Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, the villain Oma, played by Abhimanyu Singh, looks as scary and uncouth as Dheeraj imagines him to be. The film almost reminded me of Ram Gopal Varma’s Killing Veerappan, where a joint special investigation team from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, led by Shivarajkumar, go on a massive hunt to nab Veerappan. The jungle is his safe haven; however, as he starts losing his gang members, Veerappan becomes increasingly restless and ultimately, his failing health and political ambition lead to his downfall. While Oma is no Veerappan, his belief that he is invincible is shattered when Dheeraj tracks him down against all odds.

Action thrillers revolving around cops and criminals are a typical case of David vs Goliath. You might be rooting for David throughout the journey but the fact that he might hit a dead end or lose his patience in his endeavour to take down Goliath looms large almost till the end.

There is no dearth of stories about cops and dreaded criminals who gave various police officials and government’s sleepless nights. There is Charles Shobraj, who continues to pique everyone’s interest even after so many years, the many dons of Mumbai’s underworld, and brave cops who took on each one of them. Who knows what else is hidden in the tons of files and how many untold stories are waiting to be told. For now, the writing on the wall is clear — it is the mission that makes a film unrelenting and thrilling, and it is time to cut to the chase and look beyond the borders for more fascinating stories.