Manimaran, an idealistic doctor, becomes a slave on the orders of the dictator of Neithal Nadu, after he is caught treating a rebel. How he gets the slaves to fight for their homeland, while romancing a princess and working for a pirate leader, forms the plot.
Re-released almost 50 years after its original release (1965) in a digitally restored version, this classic MGR film, which paired him up with his future protege Jayalalithaa for the first time, remains a swashbuckling adventure with hardly a dull moment. It is remarkable that for an almost three-hour film, the film whizzes past from scene to scene and any problem that we may have with the dated staging or the theatrical acting or the frequent hero worship by the characters is washed away by the narrative momentum.
The plot revolves around Manimaran (MGR), an idealistic doctor who becomes a slave on the orders of the dictator (Manohar) of Neithal Nadu, after he is caught treating a rebel. The slaves are sold off to Sengappan (Ramadoss), the governor of Kanni Theevu, whose princess Poongodi (Jayalalithaa) is attracted towards Manimaran after witnessing his integrity, bravery and leadership quality. When pirates headed by a ruthless leader (Nambiar) attack the island, Manimaran and the slaves battle against them after they are assured by Sengappan that they will be set free for their help. But, the governor backtracks from his promise and so, the slaves abandon the island and join the pirates. The pirate leader takes them to his land only to betray them and forces Manimaran to work for him. Meanwhile, Poongodi is captured during one of the pirates' raids and is brought as a prisoner to the island. The leader lusts after her but Manimaran saves her honour by buying her at an auction. Misconstruing his actions, the princess detests Manimaran but realizes her folly in due course. Meanwhile, the slaves decide to break away from the island and fight for their nation's cause, but the pirate leader catches them in the act. But, he too undergoes a change of heart, and joins the slaves in their mission to capture the dictator who is on a sea voyage.
Despite this essentially being a "masala" film, we can see the thought that has gone into the script. The film is uses the classic three-act structure to narrate the story. We have the prologue where Manimaran becomes a slave; the first act takes place in Kanni Theevu, the second in the pirates' island while the last act is the rousing climatic battle on the ship; there is even an epilogue where we get to see if Manimaran becomes Neithal Nadu's leader or not. Every sub-plot has a proper arc and is brought to a closure. The whole plot is set in motion because Manimaran chose to treat a rebel, and in the end, everything is resolved because he treats the dictator, brining the arc to a full circle. The romance between Manimaran and Poongodi is no exception. It starts off with her wooing him then turns into a tiff and eventually gets a happy ending. There is real chemistry between MGR and Jayalalithaa, and we get to see that in how they trade off quips that were uttered by each other in earlier scenes, especially in the tiff phase of the relationship. Even the comedy track, involving Manimaran's sidekick Azhaga and Poongodi's maid Themozhi is well integrated into the plot, and we can see the influences for contemporary comedians in Nagesh's performance. The only narrative thread that is left unresolved is that of Sengappan, who is shown plotting a coup of sorts when Poongodi leaves Kanni Theevu.
If you are still unconvinced, you should go see the film at least for its wonderful songs and spectacular stunts, especially the swordplay, which is athletic and precise. There are sword fights inside confined spaces (one inside a house and the other on a ship), and a literal cliffhanger on a rocky seashore. These are presented minus the frenzied editing that we have come to associate with stunt scenes today, in lengthy takes, with the actors themselves sparring most of the time, which makes them truly incredible to behold.