Is it a reflection of the gross misfire Thalaivii is that in a biopic that purports to tell the story of J. Jayalalithaa, the best turns come from the men: MGR (called MJR right through — so much for authenticity), Karunanidhi and R.M. Veerappan? Of course, one can argue that the Jayalalithaa saga is all about breaking the glass ceiling in a world where men set the rules. But I am not sure that’s the reason for the skewed perspective in the film.
The fatal flaw with Thalaivii lies in Kangana Ranaut, who never quite overcomes being Kangana Ranaut to become the character. So, what you have at the core of the film is a gaping Jayalalithaa-shaped hole — or is it a medu-vadaa-shaped one, given the writers’ penchant to refer to the snack in a series of exchanges between Jayalalithaa and Veerappan?
That apart, it is testimony to the director’s lack of imagination that a life as dramatic feels so leaden-footed, all 153 seemingly unending minutes of it, at the end of which you know little about the protagonist that you did not already know. Between them, MGR, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi rewrote the cultural, political and social landscape of Tamil Nadu and influenced all three spheres at a national level too.
However, watching Thalaivii one would be hard-pressed to gauge that. The approach to the epoch-making events is laughably school-bookish, providing at best a potted-history account. And one is not even talking of authenticity here. One is willing to grant the makers the creative licence making a biopic in India entails. The narrative starts with the infamous manhandling of Jayalalithaa in the state assembly and her thundering denunciation (as channelled by a fire-and-brimstone Kangana) equating it with Draupadi’s plight in the Mahabharata ("The other name of the Mahabharata is Jaya," she bellows), with a promise to return to the assembly only as the chief minister.
The film then goes back in time to the beginnings of the Jaya-MGR partnership on screen from the mid-1960s, chronicling the next twenty-five years till her ascension to the post of chief minister. But what we get are snapshots as creatively done as an obit listing of events instead of cinematic storytelling (for God’s sake, they don’t even get the Doordarshan news-reading right), with Kangana oscillating primarily between two modes: fiery and teary. Something as intricate as politics is dismissed with the one-liner: if you love the people, they will love you too. And when
it comes to the relationship between MGR and Jaya, we have the cringe-worthy equating of it to that between a mother and son, a father and daughter, a guru and shishya and a God and devotee!
Here’s material that has all the masala inherent in it. And the filmmakers do give it a masala feel, what with almost every sequence ending with a punchy dialogue, Jayalalithaa moving in slow-mo to overblown background music, so much so that if you close your eyes, you could almost imagine Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn on-screen in Dabangg or Singham mode. Yet, none of the masala in the life of the protagonist comes across.
The film’s saving grace lies in the characters of MGR, Karunanidhi and Veerappan. Arvind Swami is phenomenal as the iconic filmstar-turned-politician, getting every nuance — from the way he pirouettes on set to the way he dabs his mouth with a handkerchief — spot-on. This is probably the performance of the year in Indian cinema so far. Nassar shines through as Karunanidhi, despite a role written with almost criminal disdain and disregard. With his misogyny, fanatical loyalty to MGR and barely disguised antagonism for Jayalalithaa, Raj Arjun is the other actor who makes every scene count.
Masala can be good. Masala can be fun. Thalaivii aspires to masala. Unfortunately, it is neither good nor fun. Those two stars are one each for Arvind Swami and Nassar.
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Nassar, Raj Arjun
Director: A.L. Vijay
Rating: 2 stars
Where: In Theatres
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)