A.P. Nagarajan is mostly famous as the director of various epics based on historical/mythological characters or Hindu Gods that are often characterized by riveting performances, spellbinding music, and by virtue of them being based on well-known history/religion. Arguably the most popular of his movies, certainly the most entertaining, is Thiruvilayadal, which provides an account of Lord Shiva’s grace in helping his devotees through a series of episodes. Starting with ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s arresting performance, K.V. Mahadevan’s timeless music, and Nagesh’s legendary comedy to name a few, I would be amazed if there is an aspect that can be used to qualify film masterpieces absent here. The film has been telecasted on TV every now and then, but it has still lost none of its charm and remains one of the greatest movies in Tamil cinema history.

As the director kindly informs us through a background voice heard during the beginning, Lord Shiva’s benign and kindly nature toward his devotees has been widely written about in the form of various epics, ithihasas, and puranas. This film borrows some of the most prominent episodes from such writings and tries to recapture the same playful nature of the Lord on-screen, and is entirely successful in doing so. Throughout the course of these four episodes, which see Lord Shiva appear in various forms, the film is highly entertaining, while also conveying a variety of messages through each of them.

The film opens with an introduction for Lord Shiva (‘Sivaji’ Ganesan), followed by the fabled “wisdom-fruit” sequence. The ever-mischievous Naradha provides the God with what he calls a unique “wisdom-fruit.” The God, playing along with the former, hands it over to Goddess Parvathi (Savithri), who decides to test her two sons and give the winner the prize. The test is who can complete a round-trip around the world first. Lord Murugan takes his trusted peacock and “actually” completes the task, while Lord Ganesha completes a circle around his parents and equates it to completing a trip around the world, thereby winning the prize. Murugan gets angered on his return as he sees this as his parents favouring their first child, and abandons them without heeding calls from his mother or avvaiyar (K.B. Sundarambal) that this is also one of his father’s playful acts.

If there is a single downside in the entire film, it is that these initial sequences can be inordinately slow by any standard. The elaborate set-design and dances that accompany the Sambo Mahadeva… song which introduces Lord Shiva are good, but this sequence itself is quite long and drawn-out. And, three songs immediately follow the “wisdom-fruit” sequence, further slowing down everything to a degree where we want the actual episodes to start. However, once the “movie” itself kicks off, with Parvathi recounting Lord Shiva’s playfulness to a very furious Murugan, it never flags and keeps things moving at a decent pace.

The first episode will be the most instantly recognizable to even people who have not seen the movie. The King of the Pandya land, Shenbaga Pandyan (Muthuraman), announces a flattering amount of gold to anyone who can solve his puzzle relating to the scent emanating from a woman’s hair (in this case, his wife, played by Devika). Inspired by the prize amount, a poverty-stricken poet, Dharumi (Nagesh), does what any person in his situation with his level of talent would: pray to God - who as usual solves his troubles by appearing in humane form. The highlight of this episode (or the movie, for that matter) is of course the verbal duel between Sivaji and Nagesh which has become the stuff of legend, with many a modern movie paying homage to it in its own way. And the “Nettrikkan Thirappinum Kuttram Kuttrame” dialogue is probably one of the most famous quotes in Tamil cinema and popular culture. Notwithstanding the other episodes, the movie touches its apex inarguably in this sequence.

The second and third episodes stand to be the weakest of the four, not because they are not entertaining (which they certainly are), but because they obviously lack the visual energy that pervades both the other episodes. The former sees Dakshan (Parvathi’s father) start a yaagam without inviting Shiva, which angers his daughter. Parvathi doesn’t heed Shiva’s calls and still visits her father requesting him to put an end to this madness. When it proves to be futile, she returns to her Lord, but the difference of opinion still remains. This is probably the only episode which doesn’t have any noteworthy aspect except, possibly, Lord Shiva’s “thaandavam” which serves the singular purpose of highlighting Sivaji’s weak dancing capabilities.

The third episode, in comparison, is definitely much stronger, and sees Parvathi forget her origins and be born as a fisherman chieftain’s daughter. Though it starts off slowly with another song, Sivaji’s reappearance as a fisherman provides some much-needed energy, and the episode itself concludes with an imaginatively picturized fight sequence in water, as Sivaji fights off and defeats a killer whale to win back Parvathi.

Finally, the fourth episode has Lord Shiva return back to Madurai, this time under the rule of Varaguna Pandyan. Hemanatha Bhagavathar (T.S. Balaiah), a carnatic singer of worldwide fame, has finally made his way to Madurai to sing in the King’s presence and prove his superiority once and for all. He poses a challenge to the King that if somebody from Madurai can defeat him, his voice and talent will be laid at the city’s feet and he will never sing again. However, if that person loses, then every man in the Pandya kingdom should henceforth refrain from singing. After everybody in the King’s court refuses to oblige, Baanapathrar (T.R. Mahalingam), who sings devotional compositions in the temple is chosen. The latter, realizing that he is no match in a straight battle with the famous out-of-town singer, prays to God to find a way out of this trouble. Of course, Lord Shiva appears as a woodcutter and rewards his devotee, while also teaching a lesson to Hemanathar.

Regardless of all the movie’s minor problems or for that matter its high points, it can be watched and re-watched any number of times just for ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s acting alone, whose radiant screen presence and majestic voice are aptly suited for such a role. Ever since its release, much has been written and said about this portrayal, so I would like to highlight my personal favourite sequence from the movie in order to demonstrate just how good a performance this is: The Paatum Naane, Baavamum Naane song.

Sivaji was one of the very few actors who could make us believe he was actually singing the song. Though T.M. Sounderarajan’s voice and its resemblance to Sivaji’s had a big say in this, the actor’s lip movements and genuine throbbing of the throat are the main reasons. The aforementioned sequence is the perfect example of both this fact and Sivaji’s acting talent. The twinkle in the eye as he gives a fleeting look at the room in which Hemanathar is staying when he sings “Paadum Unai Naan Paadavaithene,” or the rolling of the eyes accompanied by the inimitable smile when he utters “Naan Asainthal Asaiyum Agilam Ellame,” or even the ease with which his various forms handle the Veena, the Flute, and the Mridangam – all provide ample proof as to why he is arguably the greatest actor in Tamil cinema history and why this is decidedly one his best ever portrayals.

With such a commanding performance, the only other actors who make any sort of impact are Nagesh and Balaiah. As Dharumi, the former creates what is easily one of his most memorable on-screen characters. A variety of accolades has already been heaped on the role, but what I find most impressive about it is the consummate ease with which Nagesh accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us take our eyes of Sivaji and fixating them on Dharumi. A hard task in any of Sivaji’s roles, but to achieve it in this movie, and to a degree where we find ourselves incapable of removing our eyes off Dharumi, is proof enough of the late character actor/comedian’s greatness. Balaiah can generally be considered as a much underrated supporting actor who can leave a mark in any movie. As the egoistic singer who thinks the whole world is beneath his talent, he puts in a terrific shift, which injects a lot of energy to the movie, especially after the slower middle episodes.

With the exception of Sivaji, Savithri has the largest amount of screen time. However, this is definitely not one of the actress’ memorable performances, though she is quite suited and adequate for the role. (It has to be mentioned that this owes a great deal to Sivaji, with whom she shares much of the screen during the movie.) Director A.P. Nagarajan makes a cameo appearance as Nakkiran in the first episode and delivers the one critical dialogue with enough zest to firmly etch the role in our minds. Muthuraman, Devika, and Manorama all have minor appearances which further serves to the highlight the significance of the lack-of-ego argument I mentioned in my review of Saraswathi Sabatham.

As is a given in all of A.P. Nagarajan’s movies, the combination of K.V. Mahadevan’s music and Kannadasan’s lyrics stands him in good stead throughout, delivering a truly outstanding soundtrack. The standouts definitely are Paatum Naane Baavamum Naane…, Isai Thamizh Nee Seitha…, and Indroru Naal Podhuma…, all from the last episode. Of special note is the latter in which Balamuralikrishna’s voice and Balaiah’s expressions contribute effectively to craft an all-time great song. The other songs that have become very popular are Pazham Neeyappa… and Gnana Pazhathai Puzhindhu… from the first episode, which sing Murugan’s praise. Podhigai Malai… is also a very melodious number, while Sivaji has a lot of fun in Paarthal Pasumaram. The other songs work well within context of the movie, but are definitely not suited for casual listening on the Ipod.

Looking back at the history of Tamil cinema, few movies would come close to providing the same level of entertainment offered by this one. In a career that has seen him direct such movies as Kandan Karunai, Thillana Mohanambal, Thiruvarutchelvar, and Saraswathi Sabatham, just to name a few, this movie can be argued to be A.P. Nagarajan’s greatest movie. If not, then it is certainly close to the top. And, combined with what can be undeniably termed as a tour-de-force performance from Sivaji at the height of his craft, Thiruvilayadal is certainly one of Tamil cinema’s long standing masterpieces.