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30 years of Thevar Magan: Revisiting the iconic Kamal Haasan-Bharathan film

Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan was released on October 25, 1992.

30 years of Thevar Magan: Revisiting the iconic Kamal Haasan-Bharathan film
Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan in Thevar Magan
  • S Subhakeerthana

Last Updated: 06.44 PM, Oct 26, 2022

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Thevar Magan hit the screens exactly 30 years ago, on the occasion of Deepavali. The movie, directed by Malayalam filmmaker Bharathan, was unique for a variety of reasons. First off, it included an excellent star cast, including two legends of Tamil cinema; Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan. The performances of these two men were quite overpowering that even genuine effort by other actors, paled in contrast. What else is there to write about the film that has already been discussed extensively? Well...

Off the sets of Thevar Magan
Off the sets of Thevar Magan

Thevar Magan revolves around Sakthi (Kamal Haasan), the son of a village chieftain Periya Thevar (Sivaji Ganesan). Sakthi goes to his hometown to ask his father for permission to wed his girlfriend, Bhanu, but instead becomes involved in village-related problems. Along the way, Sakthi is pressured by circumstances to abandon his relationship with his lover and engrosses himself in the village politics, which quickly escalates into violence.

In the 1990s, Sivaji Ganesan shifted to character roles, giving his career a new facet. Kamal Haasan once said Thevar Magan was a sort of “love story" between him and Sivaji Ganesan. He was quoted as saying, “I'm thankful that Sivaji sir allowed me to become him because I wanted to.”

Thevar Magan poster
Thevar Magan poster

The father-son bond between Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan serves as the central theme of Thevar Magan. The movie is driven by small details rather than big, dramatic moments. For instance, Sakthi swiftly grabs Bhanu's hand to help her in standing up when she slips as she enters the house. This incident is noticed by Periya Thevar, who takes offence to it. We can tell from the incident that he disapproves of their relationship.

Again… Consider Vadivelu's portrayal of Esakki. He gave a performance that was nothing short of extraordinary. Esakki is the epitome of loyalty; whether it be at the beginning, when he warmly welcomes Sakthi and his girlfriend Bhanu to Koovathur, or at the scene where he loses an arm, after deciding to pick a temple's lock, or at the moment in the climax, when he offers to take responsibility for Maayan's death. Vadivelu was convincing as Esakki that even now, 30 years later, just mentioning the character, conjures up images of the actor.

The different aspects of the soundtrack and cinematography complement and emphasise other instances of symbolism throughout the narrative. What required pages of dialogue was reduced to a few fleeting moments. Thanks to the powerful visuals by PC Sreeram and the superb background music by Ilaiyaraaja.

For instance, Kamal Haasan's character is forced into the politics of the hamlet after Maayan causes a flood that kills numerous locals. The actor's bare feet sliding into the floodwater mud serves as the sequence's focal point and foresees Kamal's future persona as a politician.

Kaka Radhakrishnan's performance as Chinna Thevar was another outstanding one that didn't receive the praise it deserved. It's not easy to play a stroke patient who has lost the use of his limbs, yet Radhakrishnan did a fantastic job of portraying a complex role. Imagine being forced to use a wheelchair and losing your right side... The fact that he had to distort his lips to show facial palsy is another thing to consider. Even holding this position without being required to present a conversation would have been difficult. With each of these, Kaka Radhakrishnan, was required to continue expressing a gamut of emotions.

Similarly, Thevar Magan regularly cuts to Gautami's character entering and exiting trains to emphasise her position as an “outsider”. The fact that only Revathy receives a love song and not Gautami's character further demonstrates the protagonist's attachment to the woman he marries.

Before Thevar Magan, Silambam was overdone in movies to suit the necessities of the medium. Thevar Magan, on the other hand, presented the traditional Tamil sport in all its splendour without exaggeration, prompting a sizable number of young people to indulge in it, following the release. 

Each song, composed by Ilaiyaraaja, was an art in itself. While Vaanam Thottu Ponaa, Potri Paadadi, Inji Iduppazhagi, Saandhu Pottu, and Puthiyathu Piranthathu became top hits; Manamagale and Maasaru Ponne Varuga, that were no less beautiful or melodious, were ignored, at worst, and not celebrated to the same degree as the rest, at best.

Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan
Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan

Thevar Magan set new standards for Tamil cinema in every area, including casting, filmmaking, acting, music, cinematography, and editing. That is most likely the reason why it is still enjoyable to watch 30 years, after it was originally released.

These are some of the facts that you may already be aware of. Yet, it's good to revisit:

  • Many critics view the film as a celebration of caste pride and a glorification of the Thevar community, whereas a segment of fans regards it as a “classic”.
  • The roles of Periya Thevar were first being considered for Vijay Kumar and SS Rajendran, but it was Haasan who approached Sivaji and convinced him to join the project.
  • In barely seven days, Sivaji Ganesan finished filming his scenes. As it focused on the life of a reluctant son, who was forced to sit on his father's throne full of thorns, Thevar Magan, was largely influenced by The Godfather.
Dilip Kumar
Dilip Kumar

  • Although Kamal Haasan collaborated with several talented actors during his acting career, Bollywood veteran Dilip Kumar was a performer he yearned to work with. Haasan was eager to collaborate with the late actor on the Hindi version of Thevar Magan. The film was later adapted by Priyadarshan in Hindi as Virasat with Anil Kapoor and Amrish Puri playing the father-son duo.
  • According to Kamal Haasan, despite pleading with Dilip, while holding his hand, the actor chose not to act. He felt the premise of Thevar Magan was “too violent”.
  • The story of Thevar Magan was written by Kamal Haasan. This was the first time that screenplay writing software (Movie Magic) was used in Tamil cinema.

  • The character Panchavarnam was originally intended for Meena. The cast realised she couldn't carry the role of the naive village woman after three days of filming. The filmmakers believed she lacked maturity.
  • Revathy replaced Meena. As they say, the rest is history. But word got out that Meena had dropped out of Thevar Magan because of scheduling conflicts.
  • Gautami's voice was dubbed by KR Anuradha.
  • Thalaivasal Vijay was cast as Sakthi's elder brother on Kamal Haasan's recommendation.
A still from Thevar Magan
A still from Thevar Magan

  • Vaali wrote the lyrics for the songs. Six-year-old Shruti Haasan made her singing debut in this one, with a version of Potri Paadadi Penne.
  • TV actor Neelima played the antagonist Maaya Thevar's (Nassar) daughter and it was her feature film debut.
  • Thevar Magan, produced by Kamal Haasan, was India’s official entry to the Academy awards for Best Foreign Language Film for the year 1992.
  • In 75 days, Thevar Magan was filmed primarily in Pollachi, with a few days in Madras and Ooty.
Thevar Magan poster
Thevar Magan poster

  • Thevar Magan was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994.
  • Ilaiyaraaja was a strong contender for the National Film Award for Best Music Direction, which he lost to AR Rahman for Roja.
  • In 2018, Kamal Haasan said there would be a sequel to Thevar Magan, but made it clear that it would not bear the same name. The actor-politician said that the caste system will be challenged in the follow-up.
  • The Thevar Magan sequel was chosen by Kamal Haasan, reportedly, to show how a modern village can be established despite all political obstacles. One of the key tenets of Kamal Haasan's Makkal Needhi Maiam is to create model villages, thus the actor chose Thevar Magan 2, to promote the significance of “development” in rural areas.
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