Sardar Is A Superbly Staged, Though Uncomfortably Sepia Toned Thriller

Directed by PS Mithran, the film stars Karthi, Rashi Khanna, Chunky Pandey, Laila, and Rajisha Vijayan
Sardar Is A Superbly Staged, Though Uncomfortably Sepia Toned Thriller

Director: P.S. Mithran

Writers: P.S. Mithran, Rohit Nandakumar (screenplay)

Cast: Karthi, Raashi Khanna, Rajisha Vijayan, Laila

A masterclass of staging, the world of Sardar is established with style, dramatic intensity, and when needed, that silly comedic charm. The imagination of its maker — PS Mithran — bends just as easily towards silliness as it does towards style, such are the gruelling demands from a mass film director. In the first half there are two sweaty fight sequences. One is corny, the kind where the sound of a bell is heard when the balls of a goon are smashed. The other is all oiled-up swagger, the pre-interval blast that pulsates with both anticipation and excitement. Both are performed by Karthi in a double role, and Mithran stages both, making ample use of the space it is set in — the stacked, empty, noisy cans of a water factory in the former that reflect and refract light beautifully, and the tight walled-in corridor of a jail in the latter.

We are introduced to Inspector R Vijayaprakash, an effective, efficient police officer who hungers for internet fame. He is muscling through Chennai, making the police trend on Twitter — for good reasons, mind you. Soon we realise this isn’t a character quirk as much as it is an overcompensation. Vijayaprakash has been told that his father, the R&AW spy Sardar, betrayed the country and that his entire family collectively died by suicide because of this blot on their reputation. When he applies to be part of the police force, he needs to sign a certificate renouncing his father and his legacy. So, to distract from his past, he pursues a present so colourful and loud, you cannot look past it. The silliness and humour that I mentioned above is as much a genre demand as it is a character demand, both blending seamlessly.

The film tracks his journey uncovering the truth about how Sardar was framed with the help of his friend, a lawyer with a deep activist conscience that he is smitten by, Shalini (Rashi Khanna). This isn’t love that is charming or evolving. It is a stagnant pool, which the film sheds interest in after a while. We are told they have known each other for years, and that is that.

The moral puzzle at the centre of the film is regarding water. How corporations are bottling this water, a public good, and selling it to us at exorbitant rates in plastic that leaks its toxicity into the water, killing children. Like any eat-the-rich, self-respecting Tamil film, Sardar links this to the broader cultural phenomena, with clips from Bolivia and Philippines, where the water wars have shed civilian blood. This cobbling together of country names is affecting, not just because water wars are imminent but because of how the film frames this moral monologue. There is that silly, verbal tic, where it has to explain everything. But that these monologues come from an activist (Laila) whose politics is personal, adds to the heft of a scene; her emotionally intelligent son (Rithvik) is dying because of the toxins ingested from plastic bottled water.

The villain, the man who wants to build a pan-Indian pipeline to control all the water is Rathore — a name and an actor, Chunky Pandey, pulled from the North, because such is South Indian villainy. He is an advisor to the government, and with the help of Chinese moles within the administration, has convinced everyone that this is a good idea — even the International Court of Justice, at the Hague. There is something meaty here, the idea of a corporate entity so monopolising, so powerful, so close to political power, that it subverts justice in favour of profits. Sounds familiar?

We are told Sardar — with a stitched white beard and sagging skin that can only be described as prosthetic — has 8 passports, and speaks 24 languages, a fact that is flung at us without needing any additional scene expressing this, showing us that, indeed, this is a man of many tongues. We are told that he was trained by Rathore, and even this is a fact we must forcefully swallow because the film isn’t passing us the, ahem, "water" to make it more palatable. Chunky Pandey’s frame is so lithe, his acting so cartoonishly menacing that it is impossible to see how Rathore imparted either brawn or brain to Sardar. Have we forgotten how to write good villains?

The second half is a quick, almost reckless recap of Sardar’s life, where we are introduced to his wife (Rajisha Vijayan) — but just like with Shalini here, too, is a love that is established already before we lay eyes on it; that the two have known each other for decades. Perhaps Mithran just does not see how their love is essential to this story except to create biological links across generations. That’s fair. This is, afterall, a film that is about a father and son. Why layer it with desire? It also allows Karthi to flex the acting muscles he excels at — self assured bravado — without letting him slip up, as he usually does when it comes to expressing love.

Sardar’s long agitated shots, the dramatic staging of seas and ships, of scale and sweep, of dams and damsels, is so effective, it hurts that Mithran and his cinematographer George C. Williams decided to douse the frames in this designer-dusty sepia grime. The film looks dull, and the world lethargic. This is something both Mithran and Williams pursued from Irumbu Thirai (2018) through Hero (2019) to Sardar. I can only hope they reconsider this aesthetic bulldozing of anything beautiful, tender, or real.

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