Thalaivi movie review: An awkward Kangana Ranaut in a convenient Jayalalithaa biopic
Thalaivi exaggerates events for dramatic effect so much so that if we made two-three more biopics like this, we would end up giving Jayalalithaa sainthood.
castKangana Ranaut, Aravind Swamy, Nasser, Samuthirakani, Thambi Ramaiah
The life of J Jayalalithaa makes for a good story. A misfit in an unforgiving industry who turned into an iron-fisted politician, Jayalalithaa’s life come pre-punctuated by dramatic highs and personal lows. So it should be no surprise that a spate of biopics was announced following her death in 2016. Of all of them, director AL Vijay’s Thalaivi has regularly made news, in part because of Kangana Ranaut, who plays the late politician, keeping the buzz alive.
After watching Thalaivi, though, I wonder if she spent more energy promoting the film than performing. For starters, it is clear that she speaks nearly no Tamil at all. The lip sync is grating, the words we hear almost disembodied from the person mouthing them on screen. This is even more jarring in song sequences. The only scene where the lip-sync matches is when she speaks English dialogue. Perhaps Vijay settled for Ranaut chewing gum during the shoot, which he hoped to fix in the dubbing studio. I do not know if that is the intention, but I can confirm that nothing got fixed in dubbing.
It might not all be Ranaut’s fault. Writer-Director Vijay does absolutely nothing for the film. Much of the first half plays like a mad ads skit with MJR (Aravind Swamy in a role modelled on former actor and Tamil Nadhu Chief Minister MGR) and Jaya (Ranaut) sporting retro costumes and dancing around trees. These costumes are beautiful, recreating the past, without making them look funny. The set design too is captivating — the cars, houses, open spaces tingling nostalgia. Thank God the first look video of Kangana dancing did not make it to the movie. But a large part of the first act serves only to remind us that these are two public figures we know much about.
Madhan Karky’s dialogues are vacuous. At the end of a sequence where she is violently attacked, her sari torn, and thrown out of the parliament, the entire opposition party stands stunned, listening to her spout inane dialogue. “Mahaabhaaradhathukku innoru per irukku (Mahabharata has another name),” she bites her teeth, before suggesting it is “Jaya."
Every scene is bookended by a punch dialogue. In most cases, this does not even work. For instance, there is a scene where Jaya returns from Delhi to have RN Veerappan tell her that she has been ousted from the party. She begins her punch dialogue, to which he says “sari” in a nonchalant dismissive sort of way, only for her to walk away in slow motion. This ends up being almost comical, like someone not realising that they have been owned.
Not just dialogue, the screenwriting itself feels laboured. It treats chronological incidents in the protagonist’s life as the story itself. It exaggerates real events for dramatic effect. It uses date-cards to show us the timeline, one slide helpfully explaining us to that 1989 is a ‘few years after’ 1967.
It overuses montages, often using them as a crutch to rush through timelines. It jumps from scene to scene, trying to pack 20 years of Jayalalithaa’s life in 153 minutes.
It hopes that barely camouflaged names like RN Veerappan (for real-life politician RM Veerappan), Karuna (for ex-Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi), and Sasi (for Sasikala) will nudge the audience to fill the gaping holes of the film from memory.
In fact, if there is the slightest saving grace, it is the casting. Samuthirakani, as RN Veerappan, delivers an understated antagonist — we never see emotion in his face, but he always carries a good dose of seething misogyny. From this mass introduction to the scenes where he speaks in English to Rajiv Gandhi, he makes the character rooted and natural, something that Ranaut struggles to achieve.
Thambi Ramaiah, as Jaya’s caretaker, brings warmth to the otherwise synthetic film, but he can also only help so much. Aravind Swamy tries to mimic MGR’s style and manner, which mostly works in the montage scenes but falls flat otherwise. His romance with Jaya plays out like a relationship between awkward teens who do not know what is the post-date protocol.
Nasser plays Mu Karuna with cunning in both manner and voice. Of all the problems in the film, Karuna’s character is perhaps the worst. It is written with plain disrespect. In the third act, he is supposed to emerge as the primary antagonist, but the character is written with so much disdain that he amounts to little. I understand that the character is not written fairly because Vijay makes no bones that this film squarely aligns itself to Jaya’s point of view. What I cannot fathom is an antagonist written shoddily.
If I must describe Thalaivi in one word, I would say 'convenient.' The film begins and ends where it is convenient for the filmmaker not to indulge in political complexities. It stays true to real events, doing little work by way of writing. It does little to explore the inner journey of any of its characters. It exaggerates events for dramatic effect so much so that if we made two-three more biopics like this, we would end up giving Jayalalithaa sainthood.
If Jayalalithaa’s life were even marginally less eventful, Vijay’s lack of imagination would be all over the screen for us to see.
Thalaivi is available in Indian cinemas in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi.
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