To watch Aayirathil Oruvan on the big screen is to go back in time, to an age when no one knew what a multiplex was, and the spit-stained theatre near your home played reruns of old movies all the time (one in the noon-show slot, another one in the regular shows).

To watch Aayirathil Oruvan is to be reminded of how new the concept of colour once was, and how delirious filmmakers were at the prospect of splashing it across the screen. When we first glimpse the despot played by RS Manohar, he seems to have stumbled out from an accident in a paint factory — scarlet shoes, blue tights, a spinach-green tunic, and a face Kabuki-white with makeup.

He rules the province of Neidhal Naadu with an iron fist and a rampant libido — and he sets the story in motion when he arrests Manimaran (MG Ramachandran) for helping a band of rebels. Manimaran, a physician, merely tended to a wounded individual, but that’s enough to get him and the rebels shipped off as slaves to Kanni Theevu, home of the beautiful princess Poongodi (Jayalalitha).

To watch Aayirathil Oruvan is to be reminded of how canny writers were those days in building an image for actors. We see this in the scene where a smitten Poongodi offers Manimaran a place in her palace. He says he’ll accept — but only if his cohorts are allowed to accompany him. Later, Manimaran is forced into a life of piracy — the film pretty much follows the template laid down by the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood — by a pirate leader (how fun it is to see MN Nambiar gnashing his teeth again!), but he decides he will loot other pirate ships but not passenger ships. And when Nambiar relinquishes his throne and asks Manimaran to step in as leader, the latter says, “Thalaivar aavadhu en nokkam alla,” even as people fall at his feet and plead, “Neengadhaan thalaivar.”

To watch Aayirathil Oruvan is to be reminded of how even the songs were used to build this image, something that continues to be done today but with far less finesse. But let’s step back a second and recall these songs. What a hit parade from Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy. There’s, of course, the rollicking one-time Oliyum Oliyum staple, ‘Adho andha paravai pola.’ Then, there’s ‘Naanamo,’ ‘Paruvam enadhu paadal,’ ‘Yen endra kelvi...’

Let’s mull over the superb ‘Odum megangale’ for a minute. This is what happens: Poongodi tells Manimaran she loves him. He says he’s not suitable for her. What we’d normally see, in terms of a “song situation,” is either a before song or an after song. A “before” song would be a happy number, along the lines of “Oh, I love him and I’m going to tell him I love him, tra la la.” An “after” song would be a sad number, along the lines of “Oh crap, he said no, woe betide me.”

But the genius of ‘Odum megangale’ is that it’s a during song, sandwiched between the before and the after. As in the epic poems, the hero calls out to nature (the rolling clouds in the lyrics), and at first, he just seems to be singing a philosophical number about his predicament. She’s a princess, he’s a slave, and so forth. And then we get to the part that recalls the film’s title: “Naattil ulla adimaigalil aayirathil naan oruvan.” We were thinking all along, that he was special, that he was one in a thousand, but now he says he’s merely one among a thousand.

Of course, such self-effacement is only possible with the hero. The cosmic balance is restored, subsequently, when we get ‘Unnai naan sandhithen,’ where the heroine insists that the hero is aayirathil oruvan, one in a thousand.

To watch Aayirathil Oruvan is to be reminded of how perfunctory the plotting was those days, and yet, how pleasurable the films were. A modern-day screenwriter would laugh at, say, the pirate queen character (played by L Vijayalakshmi), whose sole function is to relay to Manimaran her husband’s nefarious plans. And while the anti-slavery theme is interesting — at one point, Poongodi becomes a slave too, and she’s “bought” by Manimaran, who was her slave earlier — it’s blunted by the rich-girl-poor-boy romance and the (minor) comedy track with Nagesh.

But something somewhere makes it all come together. Is it the soundtrack? Is it the director BR Panthulu’s broad good-versus-evil storytelling, which harks back to the simplest of fairy tales? Or is it just our rose-tinted nostalgia, our need to keep believing (despite the evidence on screen sometimes) that they don’t make ‘em like they used to? Whatever the reason, there’s enough here to warrant a trip to the theatre. If they’re planning to restore another vaadhyar padam, may I suggest Kudiyirundha Kovil? One of the great double-role movies. Not as much moralising. And a killer soundtrack too.

Genre: Action

Director: BR Panthulu

Cast: MG Ramachandran, Jayalalitha, Nagesh.

Storyline: A physician becomes a slave, then a pirate, then a saviour...

Bottomline: Still pretty decent after all these years.