Director: AR Murugadoss
Cast: Vijay, Keerthi Suresh, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar
This seems to be the year for NRIs plunging into the muck of Indian politics. We saw it in Bharat Ane Nenu. We saw it in NOTA. We see it in Sarkar (Authority), directed by AR Murugadoss (with a mile-long opening note acknowledging screenwriter and filmmaker Varun Rajendran, whose Sengol was apparently based on the same idea). Vijay plays a hot-shot tech CEO named Sundar Ramasamy — no relation, I presume, to Sanjay Ramasamy, that forgetful chap from that other Murugadoss movie — and people call him a "monster". This isn't about his appearance, of course. Trim away a few flecks of grey, and the fortysomething Vijay wouldn't look out of place in a college. The monstrousness refers to Sundar's appetite: he gobbles up companies and is always on the prowl for more prey. Indian corporates are terrified when they hear Sundar is coming back to Chennai. Is he going to have them for lunch?
No worries. Sundar just wants to cast his vote in the assembly elections. He cares about democracy. One would be happier if he cared similarly about his carbon footprint — he consumes tons of jet fuel in order to spend a few hours at home — but I guess nobody's perfect. Besides, consider the fact that Sundar lands in India and heads to the voting booth even before visiting his family — that's how committed he is to the electoral process. There, he discovers that someone else has voted in his name. Sarkar, which Murugadoss co-wrote with Jeyamohan, doesn't waste much time in setting up its plot. There's a song-and-dance in Las Vegas, to establish that Sundar's world is filled with limos and incredibly fit backup dancers. And then, boom, we're in Chennai. Even the heroine angle (with Keerthy Suresh) is handled smartly. Sundar already knows her, so there's no distracting falling-in-love nonsense. Her name is a stroke of genius, given that her character has practically no gravity and is only asked to orbit the hero. It's Nila.
The early portions are engaging to anyone with a sweet tooth for political fairy tales. When Sundar moves court in order to delay the announcement of election results until he has cast his vote, the back-and-forth is superb. Should we hold back a process that's been set in motion for just one vote? But then, this sort of judgement is how awareness is created — so that the public, too, learns about Section 49P of The Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961. I am no fan of messages in movies, but if we have to put up with them, this kind of information is vastly preferable to Samuthirakani's forthcoming lecture on, say, how we should love and respect caterpillars because they grow up to be butterflies. Or something. I have always fantasised politics as a corporation, where only the people most qualified for their jobs are hired, and to see that put into practice — even if only for a couple of hours on screen — is very satisfying.
Some of the detours (a divorce angle, a burn victim) and lectures could have been axed. (Vijay sells what he has to sell, but these lines could have used more fire.) But the scene where Sundar uses a tomato flung at him during a speech to launch into the state of the State made me wish this sort of heartfelt speechifying spilled over into real-life political scenarios as well. Maybe it soon will, for Sarkar is essentially some three hours of Vijay telling the audience that Tamil Nadu needs new leadership. The film's credits play over animated rulers down the centuries — the Mughals, the British, and what seems to be the Chola dynasty (from the "tiger" flag) — and take us through leaders of the modern era, like Periyar, Kamaraj and Gandhi. A female politician is seen in a black-and-red sari. The rising sun peeps out in several shots. And Sundar's big moment has him talking about Rameswaram fishermen being targeted by the police of a "neighbouring country" — it's an issue that aligns with Vijay's politics. The actor has often spoken out about the attitude of the Sri Lankan government towards Tamil Nadu fishermen, and Sundar's graph, too, is that of a privileged man speaking for the underprivileged: he starts out with shiny blazers and ends up in a crumpled shirt.
So yes, Sarkar is an efficient setup for a political entry, but as a movie, it should have been far more effective. Murugadoss, as always, comes up with terrific masala ideas: the scene where a hospital is filled with victims of apathy by various government departments, or the scene where Sundar (who destroys global brands) vows to destroy the brand value of the Chief Minister (Pala. Karuppiah), or the father-daughter scene that's laced with both ambition and poignancy. But while there are no speed breakers (except the blingy music videos set to AR Rahman's songs), the air is filled with the dull drone of proficiency instead of being charged with electricity. There's no sizzle, no punch. The big problem in this long film is that there are no surprises. The hero is always three steps ahead, and his enemies look like clueless fools — even the character played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, who hisses like a snake but is defanged by the writing. Trivia buffs will be thrilled to note that she is Tamil cinema's newest vamp with a multisyllabic name: Komalavalli.
But if "watchable" is all you're after, we've seen worse. This is a handsomely mounted production, and I was especially surprised by Girish Gangadharan's (Angamaly Diaries) cinematography. These big star vehicles usually have very anonymous images, just a lot of light and colour, and I thought this was simply an opportunity for Girish to take home the kind of pay cheque he wouldn't get in Malayalam cinema, where he's done his best work. But, like Santosh Sivan in Thalapathi, he keeps finding interesting ways to either show the sun or suggest its warmth. The sun peeks out from behind buildings in fight sequences (though the stunts themselves are depressingly routine). It casts pools of golden light on a hospital floor. I don't know if it means anything, but the cinematography unifies the movie with a tonality that's hard to find in massy star vehicles. Or maybe it does mean something, that Vijay is the rising sun of Tamil Nadu politics. In which case, I would urge potential rivals to begin practising the steps to 'Simtangaaran'. You're going to need the right moves.