The masala entertainer is a tough tightrope act. More so if it's a star vehicle – the best like Dabangg or Om Shanti Om, honour the myth of the actor being showcased but the films also expand it so that frenzied fans are both nourished and surprised. However, directors don't often find this sweet spot and end up making stale salutes that don't land – case in point: Dilwale, Race 3 or Jab Harry Met Sejal which extinguished Shah Rukh's romantic hero persona with lazy writing.
Which is why the Tamil film Bigil (Whistle) is worth watching. This is the third collaboration between writer-director Atlee and Vijay. The earlier two Theri and Mersal were big hits. I haven't seen either but in Bigil, Atlee successfully creates, what I call the Indian thali movie – meaning that there is something for every taste – romance, emotion, drama, action, dialogue-baazi, comedy and tragedy. He creates set pieces which give Vijay ample room to be heroic – there is superbly choreographed action sequence on a bridge in which he decimates men on motorcycles. But we also see him fail and weep and falter. And to this, Atlee adds a woman empowerment narrative. As Shah Rukh Khan tweeted – Bigil is Chak De on steroids.
Vijay plays both, a powerful don Rayappan and his football player son Michael. Rayappan is a benign godfather who understands that the sport can be the key to a better life for his neighbourhood, that if boys pick up the ball instead of a knife, they have a shot at a better life. Like Michael Corleone in the first Godfather, this Michael is also aloof from the sins of his father. In one scene, Rayappan pleads with a national selector to not ruin his son's life because he is a criminal. The scenes between Rayappan and Michael are some of the best in the film. Vijay playing against himself, imbues them with warmth and affection. But Rayappan's many enemies lay waste to their dream.
The film changes tack in the second half moving from a father-son story to the story of an underdog woman's football team that Michael must lead to victory. The screenplay, also written by Atlee, gives space to many of the key players on the team and we understand their specific issues – one comes from a conservative home, another has become a recluse after an acid attack. There's are also other issues to tackle – a pregnancy, lack of team spirit and the corrupt sports establishment. Yes, Michael is very much the male saviour who solves these problems one by one but Atlee makes this more palatable by giving the players distinct personalities.
The beauteous Nayanthara plays Angel, Michael's partner and the team's physiotherapist. In a wonderfully written scene, she stops Michael from raging against a player's chauvinistic husband and simply asks: is passion only for men? Doesn't it apply to women?
As you can imagine, this is a lot to fit in. At almost three hours, Bigil is bloated. The many footballs matches will test your patience – after a while, they start to look the same. But hang in there because Bigil moves toward a rousing climax, in which Vijay, incredibly takes a back seat. It's the women who do the heavy-lifting. Vijay is very much a superstar but he isn't playing Mr. Invincible. There's a tenderness and humanity about him (in one scene, he weeps while listening to a mother speak about her daughter's tragedy) that makes his heroism more believable and rousing.
You can watch Bigil on Amazon Prime. And do keep watching through the end credits – the story is still going on.