At first, Tughlaq Durbar seems to follow the template of a familiar moral drama: a ground-level political worker, Singam (a superb Vijay Sethupathi) faces tests of conscience as he tries to climb the political ladder. Will he remain a scheming politician or will he find a way to be a good human being too? But on top of this, there’s an entertaining layer straight out of Amaidhi Padai — Singam has to double-cross a senior in his party, Rayappan (Parthiban), to get ahead. Both these threads are engagingly held together until the end by both Balaji Tharaneetharan’s writing and Vijay Sethupathi’s performance.
The best part about the writing is how it externalizes Singam’s battle with his conscience through situations instead of dialogues. Singam is conflicted about whether should be a Robin Hood to his people or look out for himself — whether he should remain a political nobody or get elected the councillor of JK Nagar (a hat-tip to RK Nagar in Chennai). This internal conflict finds room to breathe in the external world of politics: Singam lands up in situations that test his moral strength and resourcefulness. Without any exposition, we see his inner conflict reflected through his circumstances.
We are intuitively introduced to the mechanics of his transformation from Good Singam to Bad Singam. Early on, at an election rally speech he launches into an invective against Rayappan who is also on the dais — this is the Good Singam who speaks truth even if it will earn him political enemies. He suddenly switches to Bad Singam (and this happens randomly). Quickly, he finds a hilarious way to right the awkward situation by quoting a vague maxim about birds breaking each others’ eggs. Unlike Anniyan, Singam knows right from the outset that he has two personalities and actively tries to set one off against the other in often ridiculously funny and desperate ways. And at first, it’s Bad Singam who’s trying to get rid of Good Singam.
For most of the film, both Singam and the audience identify with Bad Singam. In fact, though his introduction scene features a kabaddi match, Singam isn’t trying to be a hero who wins the match for his team. Instead, he’s busy bringing water to a thirsty Rayappan. Singam plays only for himself and his political career. He’s also mean and indifferent to his sister. He has no problems using his friend Vasu (Karunakaran). But Sethupathi plays Singam as a person who’s not at all self-conscious about morality. He doesn’t feel like a character with gray shades or appear any more selfish than the people we encounter everyday.
Sethupathi is especially superb in the scene where he beseeches the man in the mirror to let him remain a bad guy. In a short, emotional rant to himself, he says that a good man has no place in the world — stories about how good triumphs are just that, stories. He also gets us to root for Bad Singam in scenes like the one where — in one of his Good Singam days — he becomes an approver against Rayappan in an income tax case. His perfectly wide-eyed and innocent explanations to Rayappan right after he beomes Bad Singam are a riot. It becomes impossible to not root for the bad guy because he’s so much like the rest of us, and more entertaining than Good Singam.
But after he permanently becomes Good Singam, we immediately switch our allegiances too. That’s less because of the writing which gets sketchier — and somewhat over-optimistic — near the end, and more because of Sethupathi’s performance. The breakup scene with Kamatchi (Raashi Khanna) where he sweetly asks her to see him as just a friend, and the one where he asks for forgiveness from his sister Manimegalai (Manjima Mohan) get us to automatically identify with Good Singam. Again, because this side of Singam too feels so much like the rest of us too.
Towards the end the plot gets predictable and the film begins to rely entirely on Sethupathi as the once-conflicted-now-reformed Singam. If Tughlaq Durbar was merely a political satire, it would have ended with Singam becoming the Chief Minister. Instead, the film has a poignant but muted ending around Singam’s reformation where he explains to his friend (and to us) how the real fight in politics is inside us and not outside.
But as if to end on a more satirical note, we get a contrived final scene with Singam, Rayappan and the Chief Minister (Sathyaraj). It’s rife with references from the actors’ earlier films: Baahubali, Vikram Vedha, Amaidhi Padai, Pudhiya Paadhai. The satire doesn’t feel as sharp without the conflict inside Singam. But Tughlaq Durbar works because of how a simple moral dilemma and a standard political satire are mined together for comedy. It’s a film with a solid, conventional moral about conscience in politics — without any of the easy moralization.