Before Rajinikanth became an otherworldly figure whose screen presence was announced by the honorific “SUPERSTAR” in the opening credits of his films, he appeared in a series of acclaimed roles in Tamil cinema. Among the movies that established Rajinikanth’s acting prowess was Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum (The Thorn and the Flower).

Mahendran’s highly accomplished directorial debut, available on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube Movies, is a Raksha Bandhan favourite. Mahendran’s loose adaptation of Uma Chandran’s 1960s novel of the same name examines a man’s all-encompassing love for his sister, which eventually comes in the way of her happiness.

Kali (Rajinikanth) and Valli (Shoba) are orphans who have grown up in dire poverty. Kali has wangled a job as a winch operator at a power station. He’s the darling of his village as well as the object of fear for his sharp tongue and no-nonsense ways.

Back at home, his beloved sister Valli (Shoba) is the only source of pride and joy for Kali. The arrival of the new clean-cut engineer Kumaran (Sarath Babu) reminds Kali of his rough-hewn ways and sets him on edge. Matters get worse when Kali loses an arm in a workplace accident. Meanwhile, Kumaran falls for Valli – and she responds.

The film has been gorgeously lensed in intimate close-ups and available light by Balu Mahendra, who would go on to direct Shoba in a few films and marry her. Shoba’s death by suicide at the shockingly young age of 18 robbed Southern cinema of one of its brightest stars. (Balu Mahendra fictionalised his strange love for Shoba in Moondram Pirai, remade in Hindi as Sadma).

Shoba is an equal match for Rajinikanth in Mullum Malarum, the flower to his thorn. Their tender interactions set the stage for Kali’s obduracy when he learns of the romance. Radiating anger, frustration and confusion, Rajinikanth is at his finest when Kali is agonising over the prospect of his only blood relative leaving.

Mahendran’s sensitive script, a fine set of actors, Ilaiyaraaja’s soulful tunes, and Rajinikanth’s fiery performance have powered this 1978 production into the all-time-classic club. The movie surely had an influence on Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, in which youthful rebellion has to be sanctioned by the family patriarch in order to be fulfilled. That iconic last scene in DDLJ? You might have seen it before in Mullum Malarum.

Mullum Malarum (1978).

Also read:

When was Rajinikanth first anointed ‘Superstar’?

‘Moondram Pirai’ revisited: How well does Sridevi’s child-woman act hold up?