Jagame Thandhiram begins with the image of a boat in the English channel with refugees who are approached by an English patrol boat. If you look at Karthik Subbaraj's career you will find a very similar scenario in Neer where three Indian fishermen (Vijay Sethupathi plays one of them) are attacked by a Sri Lankan patrol boat. There's a similarity between the refugees and the Indian fishermen because both are traveling into waters that are not their own country's. The question now becomes: what is your land and where do you belong?
This question seems to interest Karthik Subbaraj, especially in the context of the Eelam movement. The last scene of Karthik Subbaraj's short Katchi Pizhai has to do with war-torn Sri Lanka. In Jigarthanda, there's a reporter who says he covers arasiyal and Eelam. In Iraivi, SJ Suryah directs a film that's titled '17th May' which is a very important day in the history of the Eelam movement. In Jagame Thandhiram, he's diving into this interest in detail. And it's not particularly the Eelam issue but also a broader global refugee crisis. Karthik Subbaraj addresses the issue through the lives of a few displaced Sri Lankan Tamils who are living in London. There's even a line that goes: namma payyangallaam pulingada (our boys are tigers).
Suruli (Dhanush), a gangster from Madurai, doesn't even know that there are Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu. Maybe this is Karthik Subbaraj's way of saying that the younger generation has slowly forgotten what happened. The first half of the film (though it's hard to say on an OTT platform where you cut it into two halves) is about the rivalry between two gangsters: Sivadoss (Joju George) and Peter (James Cosmo). They're both involved in unlawful activities and tread on the other's territory. Peter is a white supremacist who wants England to be filled with only white people. Sivadoss on the other hand is a humanist who is open to all people. Through a series of events Suruli gets in the middle of a clash of ideologies between the two.
Joju George is excellent even though his character is written generically. His bigness and warmth (you also see it in the Malayalam film June) makes up for quite a lot. James Cosmo plays Peter excellently; a lot of foreign characters in our films are played by bad actors. Also, what surprised me was that his lines were like what an actual Englishman might say. They don't sound like lines an Indian imagines an Englishman saying. They really fit into the world of Peter. He even gets a great punchline about Lord Ganesha. After a long time, we get a worthy opponent for the hero.
This is a flamboyantly made film. There's an important meeting and Santhosh Narayanan creates a sound that sounds like a comb moving across teeth. Combined with a symphonic orchestra, it sounds eerie. And some of the setups work wonderfully. Like the scene where a car lies on a track as a train is approaching (cinematography by Shreyaas Krishna). The way it plays out, especially after Suruli gets into the train, is fantastic. There's a fight scene in a parotta mess where the narrowness of the place lends itself to a kind of fight choreography that we haven't seen much before. The film's most interesting shot is a 360-degree shot around four people where each time the camera comes around the power equations between them change. This could have been shown through direct cuts too but the 360-degree shot lends a certain flamboyance.
When it comes to the writing, though, Karthik Subbaraj hasn't been quite as confident, for some reason. A lot of recent Tamil films are overwritten and when they're edited to a certain length there are sudden jerks and the film goes all out whack: there's no rhythm and the scenes don't lock organically to each other. There's a beautifully staged introduction scene for Attila (Aishwarya Lekshmi), who is a singer in a nightclub. She's singing 'Kaathoduthaan' from Velli Vizha and her voice switches to LR Eswari's original once Suruli starts to become interested in her. But, for some reason, the song has to stop abruptly and there's another abrupt switch to a romantic scene between Suruli and Attila. There's also an odd stretch where we cut from a funeral dance to Suruli as a captured person (we don't see him being captured, though); there's something that feels missing in all this.
I also wish they had gotten rid of the larger subplot about immigrants and just kept it to Sri Lankan Tamils. The smaller the scope, the bigger the points you can make. The film also tries to make a larger point about a bill that suppresses immigration. This feels extraneous because so much of that is already being told through the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Because it's difficult to feel for an issue in a film, you have to personalize the issue through the characters. So, when people concerned with an issue die, we should really feel for them. By feeling for them, you are also feeling for the issue at large. But that doesn't happen here except for one character (though it's very effective and moving in that instance).
Dhanush doesn't play the usual hero in the film. Though it's not a stretch for him, the character is brand new for him because he's an unrepentant mercenary for two-thirds of the film. I was really impressed because the leading man had no redeeming qualities. He's willing to sell himself to anyone without worrying about the consequences. Even in the small Madurai portion, Karthik Subbaraj manages to bring in the issue of territory and ownership: there's a North Indian who Suruli can't stand. We already see a kind of territorial war.
I felt that this should have been Suruli's coming-of-age story. He has a great line: thanakkunnu vandhadhaan oraikkum valikkum. It's his pain that we should be feeling. The film should have been about him wrapping his head around the issue of refugees. The same point is made with superb economy by Murugesan (Gajaraajan). All he wants is his own piece of land and when he finally gets it, it's one of the most wonderful pieces of the film (he also gets a terrific line about what a first date constitutes).
Things get better in the last third of the film because it's more emotional and we're invested in the proceedings. But even these scenes are hastily written and done. Overall, you get the feeling of watching a not-bad generic drama. I'm left with the same question every time I see a major star in a film that discusses an issue, as opposed to a film like Pariyerum Perumal with a smaller hero.
To be fair to Karthik Subbaraj, there are heroic moments, slo-mo moments, putting on sunglasses moments, the big BGM moments — but they're kept to a minimum. Yet, there is this feeling that one guy is using his heroism to tackle and even solve a very, very complex issue. One of the best lines of the films is by Attila: you can start a war but you can't end it. But, apparently, if you are a hero, you can. That, sometimes, ends up being a disservice to the issue. You're torn between the fact that someone did a film about an important issue and that the film is not as perfect as it could be.