The Real Lion is jealous of Bosepandian's growing fame and murders him. Bose's timid brother Thilagar takes revenge by killing Ukkirapandian's three sons. Now, the old man vows to kill Thilagar and have his vengeance.
Right in its opening scene, Thilagar stakes its claim to be in the firmament of blood-soaked movies set in south Tamil Nadu. Four teenager, who have been arrested for murder, decide to kill the eight-year-old boy who will come to identify them in an identification parade the next morning. Even though there is no violence in this scene, it manages to be chilling, just by showing us the manner in which these boys behave at the juvenile home and how casually they talk about murdering someone.
Then, we get the flashback where we learn how the just Bosepandi is admired by his villagers and how this fuels the flames of hatred in the heart of Ukkirapandi, an aging big shot in the region. Bosepandi understands that the violent ways of his clan have to stop and so wants his brothers to get education. Chelladurai becomes a cop while Thilagar joins an engineering college. However, situations force Bosepandi to take on Ukkirapandi, which angers the old man so much that he uses his sons to murder his rival. And this forces the docile Thilagar (he is termed as a person who will move aside even if a butterfly comes in his path) into killing the sons and Ukkirapandi bides his time to get his revenge.
Thilagar is intended as a call for non-violence but unfortunately, the message is likely to get lost in the bloodshed on screen. The director Perumal Pillai tells this tale confidently and the film is fairly engaging but also hardly surprising. If you have seen films in this genre, you will be familiar with the beats of the film. The statesman leader, his dutiful family member, the seething villain, the rituals of the land (here, we get a baby shower, a temple festival and a death ceremony), bittersweet romance, Ilaiyaraaja song (this time, it is Nethu Oruthara Oruthara Parthom), and lots of sickles.
If Thilagar taking over Bosepandi's mantle after his death recalls Thevar Magan, the tit-for-tat murders and the egoistic Ukkirapandi and game of one-upmanship reminds you of Virumaandi and the character of Kothala Thevar in that film. And the brawl in the cinema theatre (interestingly, it is not a Rajini or Kamal film, but Karthik's Amaran, indicating the fan following the star has in this region) brings to mind Subramaniapuram.
The film is at its best when Kishore is around. The actor turns in a commanding performance and we can understand his plight of being caught in a Catch-22 situation. All he wants us progress but Ukkirapandi will always stand in his way. But the real tragedy is that no one around him seems to understand him and fall into the cesspool of violence.