Vijay’s Thalaivi, starring Kangana Ranaut and Arvind Swami, is finally out in theatres after a very, very long time. And I must say that the film deserves the large screen. One reason I say this is because the film’s got scope, it’s got scale and it’s got grand production design. It looks fantastic on screen and another reason I say that is because it has an overall ‘epicness’ to it. Jayalalitha was a larger-than-life woman and this is a deliberately-made larger-than-life movie told in an almost mythical masala mode.
The very first scene itself is the ‘Panchali Sabadham’ scene, where Draupadi vows to avenge the humiliation at the Kaurava court after the game of dice. But even beyond this, the way they have constructed the story itself is mythical. For instance, there’s a beloved king and his courtiers are keeping a close eye on him. This beloved king, despite being married, falls in love with a young beautiful princess and she falls for him too after initial resistance.
After the king dies, the evil courtiers decide to get rid of the princess, but she does not back down. She thwarts their plans and she finally becomes queen. The emotional beats in this story are so strong and it is not surprising to see this because the writer of this film is KV Vijayendra Prasad (Baahubali, Mersal).
No one in the Indian film industry knows as much about the emotional beats — I mean masala beats — as much as people in the Telugu Film Industry. Here, I want to take a little pause to talk about what I mean when I say masala. It is the larger-than-life style of storytelling that is the DNA of the Indian film Industry. I’m not talking about mass films, where a hero comes out and fights and they deliberately construct scenes where the audience and fans can come out and whistle. This is genuine masala storytelling.
You see this masalaness in the way a producer fires an actress from an underproduction film. You see this in the way Madhavan (a trusted aide of the Jayalalitha character, played by Thambi Ramaiah) tells through a speech the troubles her mother has undergone to get her to this stage — that essentially changes her feelings towards her mother.
You see this masalaness in the way a crucial courtier refers to himself as MGR’s shield and this very word ‘shield’, comes back later as an echo — and as we know echoes are a big part of masala filmmaking. And you see this emotional masalaness in the way the MGR character becomes, essentially, at first a mother-figure to Jayalalitha, especially during a song sequence and he then subsequently takes over her life.
Now it is inevitable that we talk about Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, so let’s get that out of the way. That was a fictional story, in the sense that he took two public characters and he then constructed a series of events around them that could have been imagined. I mean, the events have actually happened, but could they have happened that particular way? We will never know.
So Mani Ratnam took a lot of creative liberty by changing the name of every character in the movie, including the Jayalalitha character, who is a bit of a person on the sidelines. In Thalaivi, there’s an interesting mix of real and fiction happening. For instance, MGR is called MJR, RM Veerappan is called RN Veerappan, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is called Tamil Makkal Kazhagam and yet Jayalalitha is called Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi is called Karunanidhi.
Karunanidhi is played by Nassar in a character that’s a bit of a caricature but he does it very well. Perhaps, only a few real names are used for some legal reasons. The biggest surprise is how well Arvind Swami gets into the spirit of MGR. He even looks like the guy and I swear I have never ever seen Arvind Swami and thought he looks like MGR. The prosthetic, plus the way he embodies the spirit of the character is amazing and it’s one of the best things Arvind Swamy has ever done.
Another brilliant touch of the film is how it shows Jayalalitha having shades of grey right from the beginning. She had a little bit of cunning. There is a scene where it is a film shoot and there are two chairs kept there, one for Jayalalitha and one for MGR. They are sitting side by side. RM Veerappan, after seeing this, orders for one of them to be removed. But Jayalalitha slyly finds her way to sit in that chair, leaving MGR standing.
In another scene, after she’s expelled from MGR’s camp, she immediately calls up a press meeting and she starts singing Sivaji Ganesan’s praises for two reasons. 1) She wants to act with Sivaji and 2) she wants to irritate MGR. So we always get the sense that there was a small, budding politician inside her, that if things didn’t happen to her one way, she would find another way to go around it. Yet, she’s always an outsider.
Take the scene where MGR is gunned down by MR Radha (Radha Ravi, nice touch). We cut to the hospital where MGR is surrounded by all his people. There’s also a nice touch here because Madhoo plays Arvind Swami’s wife, taking me back Roja. But the main thing is how Karunanidhi sees Jayalalitha standing there and then he comes to her and says, “she should not be here. She should be in the studio” because she does not belong next to MGR. This is the sentiment that is felt by all the courtiers in MGR’s party.
Later, when Jayalalitha gets MGR’s ear and wants to complain about Karunanidhi even though she knows that they are close friends, is she doing it out of revenge, or is she genuinely feeling that this friendship is not going to help MGR? That’s the doubt that’s planted in our minds.
And the way all this is staged to dialogue is helped fantastically by Karky’s lines. He has written the dialogue and he sometimes plays with movies and references. For example, when someone calls Jayalalitha ‘Adimai Penn’, she replies that she has an ‘Arasa Kattalai’. Dialogues themselves seem to belong to that era and they don’t feel fake because of the masala flavour.
But scene after scene, I think the achievement of the film is how there’s always something new that keeps your eyes riveted, even though you already know these stories. At least I was riveted, especially when scenes between MGR and Jayalalitha are staged in front of mirrors. There’s always an element of real and reflection even between these two. And every scene has a bit of drama and isn’t that the core of masala?
After MGR introduced the mid-day meals scheme — free, healthy food for school going kids — Jayalalitha discovers that spoiled food is being served to children. Now look at the dramatic way in which she wants to prove to MGR that this is the food being served to these children. She packs a lunch box full of that food and she takes it to him. He is eagerly waiting to see what she has brought for him and this is what she brings. I don’t know if this actually happened, but this again is one hell of a dramatic way to kind of establish what really happened. I swear this is only possible with Telugu writers, they are geniuses with this stuff.
As for flaws, I think I like the first half better than the second, which is a little too packed with incidents. I would have liked it if this part was allowed to breathe a little more. Also, some of the lines you know are inevitable but they still feel corny. Like when a little girl calls her Jayalalitha ‘akka’ and she’s told that she’s not ‘akka’ but that she’s ‘amma’.
But I think the real problem that many people are going to have with Thalaivi is that it does not address the latter-day Jayalalitha. It is only till she kind of fulfils her ‘Panchali shabadam’ and sits on the throne of CM. That’s where the film stops. So if you’re looking for scenes about Sudhakaran’s wedding or those involving Sasikala (who plays a very minor part), you will not find them.
But there’s one line Sasikala gets that made me smile. She says, ‘Inimae ellam naan pathukuren’. Which, when you look back, sounds more like a threat than a promise. But there’s very little about the allegations against her, though I have to give the writer credit for the very last scene, in a wonderful dramatic way, how she made slaves of the courtiers, who formerly wanted her out. Or even how she encouraged this sycophantic culture during her reign. We also get the sense that we’re merely witnessing the beginning of the latter day.
You can probably think of this as the part of her life where she had to claw her way up through patriarchy. Maybe she was so damaged by this and she became what she became. I do not know. All this remains a big mystery. But these flaws pale in comparison to what it gives us. For example, I have never seen another movie where they explore the depth of the love story between Jayalalitha and MGR. His brain as a politician kept asking him to avoid her but his heart kept pushing him back to her. You see how complex and complicated this relationship was.
The film is filled with very good performances. Both Nasser and Thambi Ramaiah play their parts wonderfully but this is a more MJR-Jayalalitha story with RN Veerappan at the other end of the triangle. RNV is played wonderfully by Samuthirakani, though I wish the middle portions of this role had been stronger, besides its beginning and the end. Kangana’s also terrific because she does not try to channel or mimic Jayalalitha.
Instead she channels and mimics the lack of power, the frustrations, the disappointments and the fact of what it meant to be a woman in politics back then. She is someone who could not get her man and she was also someone who was not tolerated by the other men of the party. And Kangana puts all of this across beautifully.
Now how much of all this is true? One might expect everything in a biopic to be true but I don’t believe in that philosophy. I don’t think you can really know anybody and what we get as biopics are essentially, the public events presented to us. The personal event are things only they will know. So I don’t expect truth in biopics. All I want is a semblance of what really happened. That I got and I was reasonably happy about it. In fact, you don’t even have to see it as a biopic — you can see it as any story about a woman who had to fight patriarchy. There’s a line that asks “how long will women have to take Agni pariksha?” and you kind of feel that this is true even today.