Back when Jigarthanda released, almost seven years ago, Tamil cinema was a very different place. The Internet was slower and more expensive, Netflix hadn't entered our markets and we were just being introduced to our first batch of filmmakers who had graduated from The Tarantino University with a Masters in Style and Irreverence from The Guy Ritchie School. Most of us had already seen gangsters (and films) behave this way but never in a Madurai setting. So, when Assault Sethu uses a bloody sword to cut his birthday cake, or when Rolex Rawther (Jil Jung Juk) literally runs out of 'time', we were being seduced by the novelty of Tamil sensibilities mixing with a borrowed-yet-attractive filmmaking style and visual language.
In the opening minutes of Jagame Thandhiram, as lines of Illaiyaraaja's 'Kalyana Maalai' bounce off the streets of London, you sense that it's finally time for these filmmakers to reclaim the streets where their style was born. Or maybe even attempt the opposite by supplanting the sickle and vetti world of Madurai crime onto a posh and pretty London setting with flying Tata Sumos and handlebar moustaches. In plain English, it's like flooding the Thames with water from the Thamirabharani. That's smashing, innit?
But when this thought experiment plays out before us, it doesn't become the film you think it would. The style becomes too in-your-face, paving way for comparisons revealing the real swagger of films like Snatch and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Without the help of the much-admired Karthik Subbaraj aesthetic, we are left with the tough task of focusing on the performances, writing and the politics to keep the film alive.
To start with, there's a reason why the films of Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens cannot accommodate giant emotional flashbacks dealing with loaded world issues. The pitch itself is hyper-stylised, with the treatment floating above reality, so there's only so smoothly a film can accommodate both a loud and likeable leading man and a drastic changeover that requires him to get serious and also silly. What this means is that there's a big chunk right at the centre of Jagame Thandhiram that's devoid of the charisma of Dhanush's performance and the treatment of Karthik Subbaraj.
This righteous self-importance just does not fit into the world this film tries to build for itself. It is, after all, a film that begins with a London-based IT employee randomly talking about his closeness to a Madurai gangster during his appraisal meeting. This gangster, Suruli (Dhanush), is the kind of guy who is out for a hit job the day he is getting engaged. He hides bombs in his barotta shop and he stops a train to kill a person. How seriously should we take him when he shifts from reckless villain to responsible 'brown' saviour?
This shift is too much of a task to manoeuver, even for the ablest of storytellers. Even in a film like Master, where we begin with a similarly reckless protagonist, we see a clear arc in the way he changes to become someone else after a meaningful incident. In Jagame Thandhiram too, the hero gets a similar moment of enlightenment after he realises the folly of his ways. But his change of heart is neither internal nor external. The issue the film speaks about is so sensitive that there's really no clear way it can go back to the irreverent fun it was at the start. This is true with Suruli's personality as well. Without the flamboyance, he isn't the same and neither is the film. So when the movie takes a U-turn to bring back its original flavour towards the end, you are also questioning the sincerity with which it addressed those heavy-duty issues.
Allegorically, the film is even more ambitious. Through Suruli, the film paints the picture of an opportunist, apolitical Indian whose silence during the Sri Lankan civil war may also be read as a kind of betrayal. Pointing out the roles developed countries played in this collective silence, the film even hints at how we misjudged a Tamil-speaking leader and his seemingly violent ways.
Playing out as a wish-fulfilment fantasy of what could have happened if Indians truly got involved, Jagame Thandhiram takes the skeleton of Kannathil Muthamittal to cover it up with a glossy, but hollow body.
The Subbaraj flourishes are strewn all through the film and his fans have now become experts at spotting everything, right from the (literal) writing on the walls, to the now predictable 'twist'. The Raaja songs, the Rajini homages, the perfect sync of pop culture and screen action…they are all there in plenty. But something's amiss and the delight isn't the same as what it was seven or eight years ago.
It reaches such a point that a British racist in the film, actually has both Ku Klu Klux clan robe and the Nazi eagle (the Reichsadler) in his home office. Caught between taking the film too seriously and not seriously enough, we're stuck in foreign waters, holding on to a life jacket in the form of Dhanush's balls-out performance. Sadly, Jagame Thandhiram faces the same identity crisis affecting the many refugees it talks about.