Cast: Vijay, Nayanthara, Varsha Bollamma, Indhuja, Yogi Babu, Jackie Shroff
The first 30-something minutes of Atlee's Bigil are pure fan service. Watch Vijay make a cracker (literally!) of an entry. Watch Vijay being referred to as… CM. Watch Vijay fight. Watch Vijay do the Mersal double-hand wave™. Watch Vijay sing and flex his amazingly flexible body to AR Rahman's 'Verithanam'. Watch Vijay do cartoony comedy. Watch Vijay romance Nayanthara. Watch Vijay appropriate another MGR song (it was 'Unnai Arindhaal' in Mersal; here it's 'Ennadhaan Nadakkum', which says we shouldn't worry because there's a "thalaivan" to take care of us.) Best of all, watch Vijay in a second role, as a rowdy with grey hair and a raspy stammer.
About the time the two Vijays appear together is when the film becomes interesting. Till then, I thought Bigil was going to be like the earlier Vijay-Atlee collaborations, a sloppy and very random series of "highlight scenes" — some of them fun, the rest being what we grit our teeth through till the next fun scene. But for the first time with this actor and director, there's coherence. After the fan service, Atlee sits down to tell a real story — one that revolves around Vijay but doesn't revolve only around Vijay, who plays an ace footballer named Bigil. The older Vijay is his father, and their scenes together are terrific. There's real chemistry here. They made me think Vijay's best costar may be… Vijay.
The narrative revolves around a female football team, which Atlee and his writer S Ramana Girivasan use to address a number of issues. There's an acid-attack survivor. There's a woman with an eating disorder. There's someone who's oppressed by a conservative, patriarchal household. There's a bit that discusses the impact of pregnancy on a sporting career. Plus, there's the fact that many of these women are from underprivileged backgrounds. I have always been uncomfortable about "mass" movies paying lip service to serious issues in the midst of all the hero worship — but there's some dignity here. And it fits. (It is a women's team, after all.)
The screenplay could have been tighter, but it's still a model of how we can get serious even in the overblown world of a "mass" movie, and yet not forget to have fun. A scene in a police station is a riot, and what could have been a boring engagement scene is transformed into a rousing dance-a-thon. But Atlee dispenses with the mandatory duet in the first half, and once the story gets going, there are no diversions. Even the heroine fits. She's not like Kajal Agarwal in Mersal, twittering around the hero. She's a physiotherapist and this gives her a valid reason to stick around Vijay (who's the coach) and his team. My favourite bit of writing is an echo of an earlier scene where a son witnesses his father's death. Bigil is not just empty calories.
Which isn't to say it's health food, either. A truly imaginative filmmaker could have really made something out of this premise. Atlee's idea of scale is to allow cinematographer GK Vishnu go super-wide, so that we can marvel at how much is packed into each frame. After a while, with the football matches, a sense of sameness sets in. But the emotional through-line is clean and uncluttered, and the twists in the screenplay — little flashbacks that reveal a little more information — are decently thought through. And for a film of this nature (where, usually, anything goes), the positioning of songs is nicely done. 'Singappenne' comes at just the right moment. The preceding scenes build up to it and the song just explodes.
Yes, Bigil does make Vijay a saviour — but it doesn't deify him. Early on, we are told about the character's connection with these girls, whom he's been keeping track of. I kept waiting for the scene where the girls realise he has been their patron all along and fall at his feet, weeping, but the "saving" happens only because he is a coach and he needs these particular women. And there is a fight in the end, but it's not Vijay versus the villain's henchmen but these girls versus a rival team. I did not expect a star of this stature to take a backseat in the climax, of all places.
It must be something in the air. Like the two Ajith movies this year (Viswasam, Nerkonda Paarvai), Bigil shows that a huge star vehicle can use women as more than just props. They show that a "hero" can have impediments (the mental health condition in Nerkonda Paarvai; the stammer here), and he's none the weaker for them. They also show that catering to fans can happen without sacrificing the basics, like screenwriting. I would still like to see Vijay in the all-out-fun Thuppakki zone, but he does some solid, serious, "star"-acting here, especially in an inspirational speech shot in a single take. This "mass" movie has touches of class.