Director: Magizh Thirumeni
Cast: Udhayanidhi Stalin, Nidhhi Agerwal, Aarav
In a mammoth twenty-minute sequence right before the interval of Kalaga Thalaivan, writer-director Magizh Thirumeni gets into a space only he can call home. He uses multiple timelines, an army of characters, a major reveal within the film’s biggest conflict, all colliding against each other within a small time frame inside the Tiruchi railway station. A secret package needs to be delivered to a secret messenger and it feels like the whole world is watching. A hundred things go wrong for the good guys and the bad and the complexity of this sequence is only increasing. As this one-note film shifts gears to enter into this thrilling zone, you could sense how the scenes before were building up to this very moment. With the tension building and with time running out, Kalaga Thalaivan finally stops talking and begins to walk the talk.
It comes as great relief after an hour into a generic thriller about corporate espionage. Unlike Magizh’s taut and precise Thadam (2019), this is also a sequence that reminds you of his older film Meaghamann (2014) with characters literally operating like chess pieces. Even the director’s quirks return with each chapter being headlined with terms like ‘The Premise’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘The Siege’ and more. Yes despite all the flab from the romantic angle and the elaborate set-up, this sequence make it feel worth it. It makes you want to take a look the blueprint to understand how the writer’s mind works as it assembles many different moving parts to create one well-oiled machine.
But a lack of clever writing is seldom the issue with most of his films. Kalaga Thalaivan too always keeps you at a distance from its characters, never letting you feel like their problems are your own. Thiru (a sincere Udhayanidhi Stalin) comes across early on a computer genius, working his way up a secret network to bring down an evil corporate company with questionable intentions. He appears to be lonely with his own tragic past, yet we feel like we should maintain social distancing the moment he starts narrating backstories of several women just by observing the kind of handbags they carry. This particular scene has been placed there for two reasons. It has to first work as part of a meet-cute during his first real interaction with the film’s heroine. It also has to establish his intelligence as an astute observer capable of pulling off the giant stakes the film’s setting up for. But when he deviates and starts talking about a book he read about what handbags say about the people carrying them, I kind of sorta don’t want to be in his shoes anymore.
And it’s not just the script’s inability to create people who feel real that’s making you keep this distance. The filmmaking too contributes in parts to this overall flatness. There’s just one too many Dutch angles that stick out and even the film’s grading patterns keep the colours to a minimum. None of these are accidental and are by design and one wonders how even these parts would have played out had Magizh gained access to a set of even more talented actors.
Personally, a major reason why the film felt lopsided was due to the performance of its main villain. At least in terms of writing, this deranged corporate assassin (played by Arav) should have left you with the feeling of a character like Mr.Wolf from Pulp Fiction, a man you call up to clean any kind of mess. The character itself is written with a lot of intelligence and he’s not simply powering through his opposition. But with his constant flexing and his one-note expressions, he appears to be a villain from at least 10 years ago.
All of this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t spring back up occasionally. Like how an ordinary first half ended with a killer sequence, we also get a solid climax where the film creates its own set of rules, a certain mood and a video game-like atmosphere we enjoy being a part of. This again comes from a place where the makers are better at creating great set pieces than they are at seamlessly bringing all of them together. Even a point it makes about running away from fights, sort of works in a film that isn’t about muscle power at all. But when these individual sparks are otherwise hiding behind an overall dullness, they feel like hit YouTube clips from movies you can no longer remember.