Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Nassar, Raj Arun, Samuthirakani, Jisshu Sengupta
Writers: K.V. Vijayendra Prasad, Rajat Arora, Madhan Karky
Cinematography: Vishal Vittal
Edited by: Ballu Saluja
Streaming on: Netflix
I do not need to know about the history of Tamil politics and Tamil cinema to tell you that Thalaivii is an objectively terrible film. A dramatized take on the rise of six-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa – from professional actress to conflicted lover to ‘mother’ of the masses – the film doesn’t suffer from an identity crisis so much as an all-out quality crisis. Context is irrelevant when a primitive form of storytelling hijacks the guise of masala movie-making. When did masala become so unpalatable? I thought the whole point of entertainment was to adapt and engage, not regress into a time capsule of bland montages, kindergarten-level writing, simplistic staging and meta-awful acting. The Hindi version, now streaming on Netflix, is likely worse because of the obvious cultural dissonance. Sometimes, mediocrity transcends language and taste barriers. For this, I’m eternally grateful to titles like Thalaivii. It makes my job easier.
I don’t expect authenticity from movies about famous and flawed people. It would be unfair to. But I do expect a sense of intellectual honesty and curiosity. It’s the how that matters more than the what. And the ‘how’ of Thalaivii made me ask why rather than why not. (Apologies for the adverb avalanche, but why is this an acceptable mainstream movie?). Thalaivii may not be a biopic, it may not even be a tragic love story or a woman empowerment tale – or it may be all at once – yet it reduces a full journey to a hagiographic mirage of tonally disparate bullet points. Paying homage to an iconic leader is normal, but repeatedly exploiting the integrity of art to do so is offensive. The makers here assume that riffing on real-life images and instances – like Jayalalithaa comparing herself to Draupadi after being manhandled at the Legislative Assembly, her car accident, her Rajya Sabha speech in front of Indira Gandhi, her face at the MGR funeral, and so on – is enough to justify its feature-length loudness. Surely, there has to be more. Surely, there has to be something between heavenly protagonists and hellish villains. Apparently not.
For example, the deification of M.G. Ramachandran (an agelessly inert Arvind Swami) felt like I was being narrated old Sai Baba stories by my grandmother – and not in a nice, nostalgic way. Early on, the halo-sporting legend attends to an injured extra on the set by assuring him that they will shoot the scene when he is fine: “You can be replaced, but when will you get to work with me again?” Naturally, Jaya is watching, and his arrogant modesty wins her over. When it’s suggested that he star opposite a 19-year-old Jaya as a 50-year-old hero, he nobly expresses his reservations about the age-gap at first, before giving in. This is 2021 after all, so what if he is speaking from the 1960s? The campy parts of them acting in movies together – portions that could have been playful and visually quirky – ooze the energy of a broken camera. A song tells us they’re in love. A song tells us she is heartbroken. A song tells us she is grieving. A song tells us she is pining, determined, elated and victorious. Even those typically kitschy Rajat Arora dialogues sound like songs: “politics aur pyaar mein koi antar nahi hai: dikhana aasaan hai aur nibhaana mushkil.”
The final shot looks like the culmination of a supervillain origin story, such is the film’s narrative disintegration of time and space. Years and hours pass with the same ferocity. Through it all, Raj Arjun’s rendition of party rival R.M. Veerappan remains laughably terse – a decent actor on his day, he spends too long trying to ape and look like Piyush Mishra in order to pass off as a real, venomous human being. It doesn’t help that he speaks into the vacuum, to nobody in particular, to express his scheming mind and cult-like devotion – a retro style device that deserves no role in modern storytelling.
Thanks to the greedy myth-building, it’s also hard to distinguish between the lead-up (the in-between scenes, the exposition, the conversations and vivid facial expressions) and the crescendo (the speeches, meltdowns, slow-motion strides). As a result, there are many potentially winsome moments that are marred by bad writing. For instance, Jaya’s entry into politics is constructed through a scene of two hungry village kids who imagine their stale food as tasty dishes, with a violin begging us to be moved by this poverty-porn treatment. These same kids can be seen dancing with joy once she takes charge of the Mid-Day meal scheme and is called ‘Amma’ lovingly by one of them. When she takes the Rajya Sabha by storm and earns the attention of PM Indira Gandhi, the camera fixates on Indira’s emotional face, which in turn leads to a Congress alliance less than a minute later. By the time we realize the magnitude of Jaya’s success, the moment has passed in order to accommodate another one – and another, and another. By the end, the tacky physical transformation is the least of the film’s crimes.
A lot of the film’s problems stem from Kangana Ranaut’s disjointed and screechy performance. The initial portions – of Jaya as an upcoming movie star – are a far cry from her similar turn in Rangoon, instead invoking the early years of the actress’ troubled-mistress on-screen stereotype. Every emotion now looks like a statement, and this in turn has turned the modern-day Kangana Ranaut into more of a symbol than an artist. Her reaction shots are specifically poor here, almost as though we can sense that she is acting only for a bandwidth of a shot and not an entire narrative. It consequently feels like Jayalalithaa is playing Ranaut and not the other way around – especially in scenes where she valiantly defies producers’ attempts to derail her film career, clowns around in the Egyptian costumes from Kaavalkaaran, and vows eternal vengeance on the Karunanidhi-led all-male opposition. I’m not saying Ranaut should resemble the person she’s playing, but precious little about this effort looks in service to a woman. It looks in service to the woman. And her name is not Jayalalithaa. It might never be.