Director: AR Murugadoss
Cast: Rajinikanth, Nayanthara, Nivetha Thomas, Yogi Babu, Suniel Shetty
How effective is the hero-intro scene? That’s at least one way to gauge how much thought has gone into the writing of a “mass” movie, where the first sighting of the leading man – especially Superstar – is everything. It needs so much style that a quick scan of Twitter feeds from the FDFS yields multiple iterations of the word “swag”. It needs so much punch that a mild Dolby Atmos tremor should rattle the floors of the theatre. It needs so much surprise that we forget we’ve seen this situation a few thousand times. It needs so much… mass that science classrooms of the future will stop saying Force equals Mass times Acceleration. Force will be redefined in units of Rajinikanth’s acceleration in this scene.
And this is how it unfolds in Darbar, written and directed by AR Murugadoss. We’re in Mumbai. We’ve been told that a “mad cop” – Commissioner Aaditya Arunasalam – in on a killing spree. Goon after nameless goon is felled by a bullet. One nameless goon – a complete idiot, if you ask me – issues an open challenge to the Commissioner: Come get me if you can! (The only excuse for this stupidity can be that he hasn’t seen too many Tamil movies.) He goes to a politician’s birthday party, expecting protection. The name of the politician – Amar Singh – made me sit up. Is this one of those vague hints this actor likes to drop in his films, like the saffron flag that flutters in the corner of a frame in a later scene? (Political classrooms of the future may find it interesting that the last time this actor was seen in Mumbai, in Kaala, the saffron flag was planted squarely in the opposition side.)
And then, it happens. Close the shutters, says Amar Singh. A shadow runs… um, accelerates through the scene. About two thousand guns are fired. Any elementary Maths classroom will tell you that the bullet count is 12,000. Not one falls on Aaditya Arunasalam, whose name acronyms to AA, like the battery – only, he needs no recharging. He swings around what looks like a Hattori Hanzo sword and everyone around him falls like rag dolls. That’s it? Where’s the style? Where’s the punch? Where’s the surprise? Where, apart from the gravity-defying guitar riffs from Anirudh, is the… mass?
The sequence is filled not so much with filmmaking energy as a sense of duty. It feels like a teacher making a tick mark. Okay, on to the next item in the list! That’s what all of Darbar feels like, like it’s going through the motions. It’s not bad. It’s not much good, either. Look closely and you’ll see what the film could have been. This could have been the story of a rogue cop, a single father whose daughter (Nivetha Thomas, who admirably fleshes out a sketchy role) wants him to get married before she does. The cop’s trigger-happy ways result in tragedy, and he loses his will to go on – until the daughter urges him to rise again and return to his slo-mo glory.
That’s a solid story. Even better, though the enemies are drug dealers, the director reins in his PSA-ey tendencies. There isn’t a lecture within earshot. And as always with Murugadoss, there are many good ideas that, at least on paper, sound smashing. An arrested man goes missing in an unusual way. A cop employs the services of prisoners. He also uses a powerful man’s influence to execute a massive cleanup operation. A daughter gives her father song-and-dance training in order to make his dating life more exciting. Best of all is the stretch where the villain (Suniel Shetty, whose character, like AA, is driven by fatherly passions) orders a hit on all cops, making bounty hunters of his band of thugs.
Why, then, is Darbar so bland? I think Murugadoss wanted to make another pacy thriller like Thuppakki, but the dramatic beats keep weighing him down. The film falls in a no-man’s land. The drama isn’t powerful enough. The action isn’t punchy enough. In such a film, we want a villain-intro scene on a par with the hero’s. Instead, we get one where he is appointed head of the international drug dealers’ ring. Or something. The scene should have had the pomp and ceremony of a presidential election. It feels like the anointment of a class pupil leader. By the end, the man is a joke. He threatens AA to land up alone, or else. We think he has a plan. He does. His plan is… fisticuffs. The sound of my palm striking my forehead echoed louder than anything from the speakers.
So how is Rajinikanth? Not bad, I’d say – only because the film doesn’t give him the scope to be much good. He goes through the motions, too – though, as always, he owns the screen. He keeps you watching. He also plays his age. Well, almost. When he starts following Lilly (Nayanthara) around, she thinks he’s a creepy stalker. Give the film some points for that. That’s exactly what would happen in real life if a man his age behaved this way with a woman her age. And give some more points for the scene where her cousin visits AA and asks him if it’s fair that he wants a woman so young. What if your daughter started seeing someone your age?
Okay. At least, we’re spared the duets – though I wished the film had treated the romantic angle more seriously. Nearly 30 years ago, in Annamalai, Rajinikanth made himself look older and romanced a grey-haired Khushbu. Now that he is actually that age, why can’t we see him in a song sequence as warm and sweet as ‘Rekka Katti Parakkuthadi…’? Nayanthara, as always, looks fantastic. She also looks like she should be in some other movie, where she’d be more gainfully employed. Then again, Darbar has bigger problems in the writing department – say, the fact that we learn about a character’s death long before the actual death occurs. Where’s the logic in this? Why strip away this suspense? Or should we not ask such questions? After all, the only logic, these days, is: It’s a “mass” film, so nothing else matters.