Director: Nelson Dilipkumar
Cast: Rajinikanth, Ramya Krishnan, Vinayakan, Vasanth Ravi, Yogi Babu, Jackie Shroff, Mohanlal, Shivarajkumar
Duration: 168 Minutes
Available in: Theatres
One of the best sequences in Nelson’s Jailer is served during interval. Rajinikanth’s Tiger Muthuvel Pandian sits across his wife (Ramya Krishnan) and daughter-in-law — both of whom are jolted from their sleep as hoodlums sneak into their house — flaunting his greys and smiles at the dinner table. As devout mass film viewers would predict, a spectacle is expected and a spectacle is what we get. But as we know, the how of it all is what has come to matter in high-voltage entertainers. What happens next is one of the most subtly-constructed action sequences in a Rajini film I can think of. Blood is shed, bones are broken and the 72-year-old action star we love is established with pomp, but with the smartest nod to his age. It is in moments like these that we get a glimpse of what Jailer was intended to be — a reinvention of Rajinisms for the new age. But at this point, a question begs itself to be answered. Is there a place for Nelson’s edge to shine in a film like this?
It’s always interesting to see what legacy stars become in the molds of young directors. Lokesh Kanagaraj took Kamal Haasan and made him a forceful yet silent protector with Vikram (2022). Nelson, on the other hand, takes Rajinikanth’s legacy, and squeezes it to make a realistic life-sized version. This is apparent in the smallest of details that register his age in every form. “Thatha dhaan ella padathaliyum first sethupovaru (It is the grandfather who dies first in every film),” Vinayakan’s Varma spews at him over the phone with a grating laugh. “There is no respect for a retired man,” Muthuvel himself says at one point, feeling insufficient at the family dinner table. In fact, the first time we see Muthuvel is of him at leisure, a grandpa who gives into the whims of a cloyingly annoying five-year-old. But as we all know a tiger (or in this case dinosaur, as he is called in perhaps yet another delightful dig) is asleep and it’s only time before he wakes up.
Muthuvel Pandian lives a pretty domestic life. When he is not spending his time locked inside the prayer room, he diligently records YouTube videos with his grandson, runs the usual vegetable market errand and shines his son (Vasanth Ravi) Arjun’s police shoes with a sparkle, proud to have transferred his innate sense of virtuousness into his successor. Even if theirs is a bond that isn’t dwelled on, Nelson just needs one moving dialogue to inform us of a father’s love — Muthuvel always carries something that reminds him of his son. Arjun goes missing, fishily enough, days after being on the trail of an idol heist. And Muthuvel’s ‘tiger’ is forced to come out from hiding.
And this tiger looks good in Nelson’s hands. Rajinikanth is in raging form in Jailer, who embraces the machismo with grace. One of the wittiest things about Jailer is the irreverence with which it treats the star film action template. In Jailer, Rajinikanth kicks ass, but he’s so powerful (and also let’s face it, he is an aging macho man) most of the heavy lifting is done for him. Even if Shiva Rajkumar, Mohanlal and Jackie Shroff make token appearances and quite predictably manage a line or two in the film before disappearing, the way Nelson uses these characters is still excellent. Everyone comes to Tiger’s aid and in absolute style (Mohanlal’s Mathew, in particular, could demand a separate film about his ninja skills for always thinking 10 steps ahead than any of his enemies).
But the pitfalls of working with an incandescent star such as Rajinikanth himself looms large over the film. Nelson is among the crop of modern Tamil directors who has managed to register an indelible voice for himself. His voice is his edge. So, in his films, even in a story about a cocaine smuggling woman (Kolamaavu Kokila), we still remember the massage-obsessed wife of a policeman (played by Aranthangi Nisha and Saravanan, whose roles are brilliantly reversed in Jailer). In a story of a doctor with a saviour complex (Doctor), we remember the smart-mouthed Killi (Shiva Arvind) who is always a step ahead of his lovestruck boss. Nelson’s strength lies in his knack for bringing together a motley gang of misfits. The filmmaker’s distinctive take on the age-old tradition of the “comedy track” in a commercial film, too, is something to be noted even in a film like Beast. In Jailer, none of the characters (it’s unfortunate to see Redin Kingsley and Yogi Babu wasted) register their presence.
It’s especially underwhelming to see the formidable Ramya Krishnan being reduced to a clueless wife clutching tufts of tissues to wipe the blood off her face and just witness the chaos. It is in the writing of truly warped people and situations that Nelson’s craft becomes visible. Take Vinayakan’s Varma for instance. Far more than being merely a dummy villain that combusts at the hero’s punch, Varma is a complicated god-fearing idol thief. When Muthuvel questions his morals on stealing an auspicious temple idol, he rebuffs him for his sentimentality. But when his idol is actually in the process of being stolen, he lets out a quick prayer to the same god he is looting from. Similarly, when a middle-class household has been turned into a murder scene, Nelson is more interested in showing us who is scrubbing the house clean off blood.
But the most exciting part about Jailer is its exploration of how far Muthuvel will go to preserve his sense of justice. We wish this wistful side of Rajinikanth — that comes quite late and fleetingly— could’ve been explored with some more time. But that’s not the film Jailer wants to be. It is the kind of film that quite happily declares to us that whatever type of dinosaur Rajinikanth may be, he is never the type to get extinct.