Contrary to what you’ve been hearing from some quarters, aeroplanes and internet technology are almost certainly not a bequest from the days of the Ramayan and Mahabharat. However, mythology has other, softer ways of influencing our contemporary lives—by supplying the tropes and archetypes of our popular culture, for instance.

Take the celebration of male friendship in Hindi cinema, which draws heavily on mythological relationships such as Krishna-Sudama (a parable about true love being eternal and transcending the class divide), Krishna-Arjun (two good guys combine philosophical wisdom and fighting skills to defeat evil), and even deity-devotee friendships like Ram-Hanuman.

But one of the most striking examples of male bonding—especially the sort that plays out in dramatic, morally ambiguous circumstances—is the one between Karn and Duryodhan in the Mahabharat. And I can’t think of better cinematic treatment of this relationship than in Mani Ratnam’s 1991 film Thalapathi, where Rajinikanth plays Surya, a modern-day Karn who is abandoned as an infant, grows up in penury and becomes regent and friend to the ganglord Devraj (Mammootty).

As with anything else in the Mahabharat, there are many possible perspectives on Karn and Duryodhan. Some retellings and analyses treat the relationship as one of convenience, or interpret it cynically: In this view, the “good" but misled Karn feels bounden for life to his benefactor, while the “bad" Duryodhan exploits the skills of the great warrior he has unexpectedly discovered. Even in the more sentimental renditions, which treat the friendship as wholly genuine, Duryodhan is mostly the story’s main villain, with Karn being the person who humanizes him.

An intriguing aspect of Ratnam’s film, then, is how sympathetic and conscientious it makes its Duryodhan, who is an exemplar of friendship and justice. “You are making me a better person," he tells Surya. “People used to fear me earlier, but now they respect me." But both men benefit from the relationship: Surya is also made more stable and responsible by Devraj’s guiding presence.

In an interview given to critic Baradwaj Rangan, Ratnam said he wanted to give his Karn a happy ending because “I’ve always wished that he lived on (in the Mahabharat)...there’s so much stacked against him." This need to reverse a doomed hero’s destiny, to give him a ray of hope, fits well with this film’s tone. Rajinikanth’s Surya, though a fine performance with some very moving moments—such as when he learns of his mother’s identity—is different from other Karn-inspired suffering heroes: Amitabh Bachchan’s intense, brooding Vijay in Deewaar, or the reticent and melancholy Karan played by Shashi Kapoor in Kalyug (a much more sombre Mahabharat updating).

Surya might not perform any cigarette-flicking tricks, but in some ways he is very much a Rajinikanth hero. Within the first 15 minutes of his on-screen appearance, we see him beat up a hoodlum in an action sequence, and shake his hips in a raunchy song (the great Ilaiyaraaja composition Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu). Thalapathi is a reminder that the Mahabharat lends itself to “masala" treatment just as much as a Shakespeare play does; that loud, dramatic moments can coexist with small, subtle gestures and revelations of character.

During the Bhogi festival, Surya and Devraj sing undying love to each other, in the time-honoured tradition of Hindi-film buddies like Veeru-Jai and Dharam-Veer. There is even a lighthearted comic take on the idea of “daan veer" (generous) Karn, who can never refuse anyone anything: At one point, Surya, who doesn’t have money on him, orders a young woman to hand over her bangle—to pay for someone’s hospital treatment—with the assurance that he’ll get it back to her.

And yet there is also a bittersweet tinge throughout the film, a dramatic heft that comes in large part from the Devraj character.

A pivotal scene in the original Mahabharat is the one where Krishna tells Karn the truth about his birth and invites him to join his brothers, the Pandavs; Karn declines, citing his loyalty to Duryodhan and saying that even if he were offered kingship of the world, he would pass it to his friend. In its climactic passages, Thalapathi offers us a rarely glimpsed possibility of what might have happened if the truth had come out. So deep is Devraj’s love that on learning that his nemesis, an upright district collector, is Surya’s brother, he promptly declares a stop to hostilities, says that Surya’s family is like his own family, and decides to end his illegal activities.

It is a classic example of cinema as wish-fulfilment: Such is Ratnam’s craft, the power of this film’s narrative arc, and Mammootty’s majestic performance, that one is, temporarily at least, seduced into thinking that this could have been an apt alternate ending for the epic—that a great friendship could have helped avert a cataclysmic war, and the Duryodhan-Karn relationship would have received as much positive press as the Krishna-Arjun one.

Above The Line is a column on Indian cinema and how it presents the world.
The writer tweets at @jaiarjun

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