Manirathnam once mentioned in an interview that the three Indian actors most difficult to make a movie with were Rajnikanth, Chiranjeevi and Amitabh Bachan. His style of moviemaking clashes with the image these actors have cultivated for themselves and the expectations their fans have from their movies. But he manages quite nicely in Thalapathy with Rajnikanth. It is definitely more a Manirathnam movie than a Rajnikanth movie. The basic, familiar story(with its roots in one of our most famous epics) has been skilfully modernised with his trademark screenplay and dialogs, great cinematography and foot-tapping numbers.
Surya(Rajnikanth) was abandoned by his mother as a baby and has grown up as a rowdy in the slums. The area is ruled with an iron hand by local dada Devaraj(Mammootty), whose thug is killed by Surya. The two are against each other initially but become thick friends soon. Surya thereafter becomes Deva’s thalapathy(commander), carrying out his orders. Surya’s mother(Srividya) has since married and has a son Arjun(Arvind), who comes to the town as collector. Surya loves Brahmin girl Subbulakshmi(Shobana) but her father marries her off to Arjun while Surya weds Padma(Banupriya) whose husband he had earlier killed. Surya and his mother soon comes to know the truth but are torn between relations and loyalties since Arjun vows to eliminate Deva and Surya while Deva swears revenge on Arjun for police atrocities.
Manirathnam uses the Mahabharath as the base with modern day versions of the main characters here and makes several nods to leave us in no doubts about this fact. So we have characters named Surya(for Karnan) and Arjun(for Arjuna). There also a couple of other hints like the name of a town where Arjun goes to quell some riots(Pandavapuram). The ending is different here, though I believe this might have something to do with the standing of its main stars.