Writer & Director: Aishwarya Rajinikanth
Cast: Rajinikanth, Vishnu Vishal, Vikranth
Duration: 152 mins
Available in: Theatres
In what's supposed to be an epiphany-like moment in Lal Salaam, Moideen Bhai (Rajinikanth) shows his sharp weapon, covered in blood from all the stabbing, and asks him to differentiate between the blood of Hindus and Muslims. No, you are not watching a scene from CS Amudhan's Tamil Padam 2 (2018). Neither are you watching Anudeep KV's Prince (2022), a farcical comedy that had a strikingly similar scene featuring Sathyaraj making a cut on the palms of two men belonging to different castes and asking them to look at the colour of their blood to make his point: we are all the same. But in Prince, the moment was played for laughs, highlighting the most glaring and obvious thing. Unfortunately in Lal Salaam, the moment is supposed to be sensible and meaningful, one with the potency of triggering a change in a man filled with rage. The moment turns out to be funnier than the scene in Prince because the seriousness of this moment lends it a satire-like quality. In fact, Anudeep KV's movie had far more impactful social commentary, without even verbalising its intentions, compared to Lal Salaam, which is brought down by its seriousness.
The film takes itself seriously to such an extent that you cannot take it seriously, even if awful things are happening and we are supposed to care for the characters. The characters are so shallow that most of them exist either only to cry, feel bad or make others feel bad, with Moideen Bhai, the personification of virtue in a world that's divided into people who prioritise honour and the oppressed.
Hindus and Muslims have been coexisting peacefully for many years now in Murrabad. But in a turn of events fuelled by blind hate and hunger for pride, a clash is incited during a cricket match between the two communities leading to a religious riot that affects the lives of Thiru (Vishnu Vishal) and Samsu (Vikranth), the son of Moideen Bhai who, in turn, is the uyir nanbar of Thiru's late father. This riot is central to the story and the film opens with its glimpses, holding us back from the incident itself, making us privy only to its consequences as Thiru bears the brunt after being released from prison.
Keeping the central event of the film concealed for the most part of the film is an interesting but troubling screenplay choice. When the film starts, Thiru is already in deep trouble and is looking for a restart. A major problem with the film, too, lies in screenplay. By exposing us to Thiru's travails early on, the screenplay quickly becomes redundant and exhausting as the story barely progresses till the actual reveal. And neither is the drama in between strong enough, especially when the focus is on Thiru and his village. It is because even though the honesty and good intentions are evident, these sequences exude a heavy been-there-seen-that vibe. Poor villagers being insulted by the more affluent outsiders, Thiru's mother constantly lamenting about her son's future, a bland love story that contributes to nothing but a forgettable song, and... there's just no end to this. AR Rahman's overscored soundtrack spoonfeeds every little emotion, pushing it into the melodrama territory, and unfortunately, that doesn't uplift the sequences because the drama at the core is simplistic.
You expect Rajini's majestic presence to make a difference. It helps to an extent but cannot salvage the monotony and blandness of the storytelling on display. While his 'mass' sequences fall flat due to the bland treatment, you feel the gravity of his performance in the quieter, dramatic moments. The film really could have used some novelty to work as a whole. More than a novelty in writing, the lack of impact is Lal Salaam's biggest enemy. A character we are supposed to care for dies of a heartbreak, quite literally and we feel nothing. And a character loses their hand in what's supposed to be a life-changing personal loss and we barely flinch. As futile as this comparison may sound, Hari's Thaamirabharani (2007) in which Vishal mistakingly severs the hand of an innocent man captures the pain of the survivor and guilt of the perpetrator in a more impactful way than Lal Salaam does.
Yet another problem with Lal Salaam is that the film prioritises the presence of Moideen Bhai, oftentimes intercutting with him even when a moment is not about him, just to remind us of his importance. For instance, a character has to go through a deeply personal loss but we don't get to see their first reaction to the loss, one that's going to change their life. But what does the film not miss? Moideen Bhai's reaction to the whole incident. Getting such nuances right would have certainly made Lal Salaam a more refined product of storytelling and exalted from its current generic form. It's not a terrible movie, it's just too simplistic. The social message, a call for unity among Hindus and Muslims, is now needed more than ever. But the film is set in a different time, 1993. It truly was a different time. Today is different. And for the present day, Lal Salaam, devoid of any intricacies and depth, feels oversimplified. A long, costly, loud, 152-minute-long extension of what could have been a WhatsApp forward. The social message is important, no doubt about it, but it's also important that the strong message exists in an equally strong film. That's where Lal Salaam misses the mark.