“Thuppakki”… Bullets over Bombay

Big-budget, hero-worshipping Tamil cinema is usually such an unmitigated horror show – you only have to look back at Thaandavam and Maattrraan, this year – that Thuppakki instantly slots itself as some kind of minor classic in the genre. What it sets out to do, it does reasonably well. The trick is probably that there’s no high-concept gimmick – echolocation, joined-at-the-hip siblings – that needs dumbing down for the great unwashed masses. Thuppakki is a straightforward action movie that, impressively, refuses to dumb itself down. The story unfolds in Mumbai, but the hero and his cohorts aren’t the usual rubes who flail about in an alienating “North India.”  They speak Hindi and English when needed, like how people who’ve made their homes elsewhere do – and even the deific name of Vijay’s character, Jagdish, isn’t derived from a Dravidian deity. For this lack of pandering alone, for refusing to box this film into the tired tropes of an exalted “Tamil” culture, for disregarding the “distributor’s logic” of “B- and C-centre storytelling,” for entrusting into the hero’s hand a Rubik’s cube, the director AR Murugadoss deserves some kind of bravery award.

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In his previous feature, the mostly risible 7-aum Arivu, Murugadoss struggled to find a balance between the demands of the story and the desire to enshrine his hero – but in Thuppakki, he locates the magical mean. So on the one hand we follow the sober tale of a soldier in the Indian Army (namely, the Character) who wipes out a significant threat from a terrorist organisation’s sleeper cells, and on the other, we bask in thrills from a hero (namely, the Archetype) who swaggers through this mission in style. The narration is clean, uninterrupted by comedy (at least the intentional kind), and Murugadoss keeps guessing us throughout about Jagdish’s motives and methods. The only serious flaw is the mood-dampening track with Nisha (Kajal Agarwal). We often hear from disgruntled viewers about how our filmmakers need screenplay-writing classes. More urgent may be a seminar along these lines: How to Integrate the Heroine into a Hero-oriented Blockbuster without Making Her Look Like a Loosu Ponnu. It’s painful every time we leave the story for a romantic interlude, and Jayaram, as a portly army officer who’s Jagdish’s rival for Nisha’s affections, adds to the agony.

None of the supporting characters, in fact, make any kind of impression. Jagdish’s family is outlined in quick strokes – a mother who comments on his kutti dhaadi, a sister who screams at him for using her as bait. We don’t know these people, and when danger befalls them we don’t pray anxiously for their rescue – they are as anonymous to us as the children on the school bus that’s bombed, simply a statistic to raise the stakes. This is true of the bad guys too. When a terrorist is killed and his face appears on TV, Murugadoss cuts to a cherubic little boy pointing to the image and recognising his father. This is filmmaking on the assumption that the mere sight of innocents is enough to wring tears from us, that they don’t have to be developed into characters we come to care about. But the villain (Vidyut Jamwal, a refreshingly icy presence), thankfully, is shaped with care. His deductive processes are as painstakingly laid out as the hero’s, even if they’re sometimes downright laughable.

Taken as “just a Tamil film,” however dismissive that sounds, Thuppakki is a welcome surprise. And yet, what does it say that even a B-grade… no, make that C-grade Hollywood action entry like Simon West’s Stolen has more organic storytelling, character integration, and comedy and stunt-sequence segues? Let’s not go there now – but it’s impossible not to mention the look of this ambitious film. The opening credits appear over evocatively rendered graphics of Mumbai, featuring cut-outs of dabbawallahs, throngs in trains, those definitive buildings – and that’s about the extent of real atmosphere. The rest of the time, we hear names of places – Powai, Matunga – but this could be Anycity, India. The shockingly impersonal nature of Santosh Sivan’s camerawork is in tune with our rather generic hero. Jagdish is a vigilante. He takes out a toolkit and snaps off fingers of terrorists, and with others, he engineers deaths that resemble suicides. Where, you may wonder, is his edge? The part needed to be played by Mel Gibson at his maddest, careening between contempt for his own life and contempt for the lives of others. We get, instead, a nonchalant Vijay, whose every line reading suggests that he’s too cool to get worked up over this stuff. At least, he works his fans into a frenzy.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

60 thoughts on ““Thuppakki”… Bullets over Bombay

  1. It turned out to be much better than I had expected. I think it’s a good comeback if I can call that, from ARM. And Vijay’s choice of movies since last year have been interesting – Nanban and now this, both sans the “image” that he has built for himself since Gilli while Sivakumarin Siruvargal seem to be losing the plot.

    A trimmed down movie without the love track and songs(this is the worst ever album from Harris IMO) say for a 2 hour runtime would have been a very engaging fare!

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  2. I guess as usual I need to give this Vijay movie a miss too. I’d rather have the memories of the previous movie – Pizza, unspoilt. It’s a relief to read that Murugadoss has made a brave yet feeble attempt here. I somehow don’t see Vijay’s movies changing much over the years. In spite of his talent (and he has got it) he is happy doing mass thrillers. May be he is a smart actor, if not a passionate actor.

    But well written, as usual. A pleasure reading :)

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  3. I enjoyed this and a big thumbs up for calling Kajal aggarwal loosu ponnu… For eye candy material the damsel can’t even shake a leg gracefully and seems tipsy all the time. Why dint people trash her more in maattrraan?

    Right till the end I thought you were mostly impressed with the movie then I get confused. Were you? Or you expected more and it fell short?

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  4. A little digression here: B, how did you like Pizza? It totally did not work for me. It was mostly bad, wannabe hitchcockian, partly new age hollywood twisht shtory with a concomitant over-the-top sappy romance. But if you hold a gun to my head, maybe i’d give it to the paaye bungalow sequence, but even that seemed too longish, so much that it ceased to perform any of the phantasmal functions only to drift our concentration more and more on the popcorn.
    Btw, is it only me or did anyone else have a feeling that it was more like an extended nalaya iyakkunar short film material than a feature?

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  5. i dont think murugadass needs a screenplay class. As a matter off fact no film maker needs it. Whats wrong if Sudden mood changes every 15 mnts? Do we have the same mood the whole day? I am a different person in work and when i come home i am another.I enjoyed. Let us give credit to the film makers liberty. As long it is engaging to view I can watch a maniratnam movie and a ramanarayanan movie back to back.

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  6. meera: It’s not just Kajal here. Actually, in this film, she’s somewhat bearable. I’m talking about all these girls in general — with these wild gesticulations, the widening eyes as a signifier for every single emotion… they really look a bit off :-) To be fair to them, they don’t know the language and they do what the director asks them to do, but it’s still very annoying to watch.

    Sonofgun: I had a strange experience with “Pizza.” I decided, after seeing the trailer, that I would not watch the film, as it looked like a pei padam, and I just don’t do pei padam-s. Then a friend convinced me and said “it’s not a pei padam, it’s a Hitchcockian thriller” and all, and I said, “what the fa” and decided to see it. And the first half was all I could take. After screwing my eyes shit through the portions before the interval, I left. I screamed at my friend and said this was a pei padam, and what did he mean Hitchcockian thriller and shit. And he laughed and said I should have stuck on because apparently the second half is very different. :-) Anyway, haven’t mustered the enthu to see it again and see for myself what the second half is all about. But I love the soundtrack. “Raathiriyil” is a strong contender for Song of the Year for me.

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  7. Baradwaj,

    Hope you wrote that Rubik’s Cube line in a sarcastic sense? And, I don’t get this Thuppakki > Maattrraan > Mugamoodi > Thaandavam and so, it is good logic. How does decent-enough become good? Like you say, when even a Stolen feels better then we are surely giving this flick a berth as wide as the Atlantic. I’m reminded of the time when Vallarasu became a ‘good film’. Interestingly, that one too was about terrorism.

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  8. Maybe the second half was different but it sure as hell was no better. It was not even half as creepy as a decent horror flick anyway. But our tamil audiences being not as familiar with the twisht stories as to deem it bland or boring, i think it is a good reason for them to think highly of the second half. And there were two such twists in the last 20 minutes or so :D

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  9. Dont be too harsh on the girls man. I dont mind having them in the corner of the screen waiting for the hero to take them away to some obscure european landscape to do the romance as long as they are hawt and not as annoying as asin/jyothika.

    And talking about the soundtrack, why are our music directors(or directors?) suddenly obsessed with classical pieces. There was the four seasons in Aaranyakaandam, the bach violin concerto in Mangatha and now Moonlight Sonata here in Pizza. What, are they fucking Stanley Kubrick or something?

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  10. “Where, you may wonder, is his edge? The part needed to be played by Mel Gibson at his maddest, careening between contempt for his own life and contempt for the lives of others. We get, instead, a nonchalant Vijay, whose every line reading suggests that he’s too cool to get worked up over this stuff”

    Well said! You’ve summed up what has ALWAYS put me off the Ilaya Whatever. This need to put on a nonchalant air even during scenes that call for some freaking out. Not in the traditional Shivaji Ganesen style, but more like what a Mel Gibson or Nicholas Cage can do so effortlessly. For that, I still think Vikram’s the closest we have to an actor who can really pull this off.

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  11. This was my first Vijay film in a theatre and I am surprised I liked it. Glad he didn’t play the usual porukki. He surprised me further with Hindi and English!

    Wish Santosh Sivan had left a stamp :)

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  12. “with these wild gesticulations, the widening eyes as a signifier for every single emotion”

    spot-on !! I have always wondered if these north Indian imports are over-compensating for their lack of acting skills or because they don’t understand the language. You generally tend to see a better performance from an Anjali or a Sneha, not that they are supremely talented but still way better than their fairer counterparts ….

    Now that you are pleasantly surprised with Thupakki, I might actually look forward to watching this Vijay movie :)

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  13. Suganth: No. See, there are two types of heroes, class and mass, and the former is “intelligent” (with problem-solving skills) while the latter is designed to be “street smart” but not overly “intelligent” (he may be someone who scoffs at the heroine who solves a Rubik’s cube). And for Vijay to do this is seriously a major step — not in terms of cinema, certainly, but in terms of how a director making a “mass hero” has decided to showcase his hero, using laptops and stuff. I can tell you hair-raising tales of how filmmakers usually have to bend before an imagined “distributor idea” of what the masses will accept and what they won’t.

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  14. We call this the Indian hope, be it film making or governance, we lower our expectations so much that even a Thupakki comes across as a masterpiece …..

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  15. “I can tell you hair-raising tales of how filmmakers usually have to bend before an imagined “distributor idea” of what the masses will accept and what they won’t.

    Are the Kajal agarwals and Tamannahs of the world also these distributors idea(“anne, appadiye hyderabad, bombay NRI marketayum gavanicha maari irukkum. Vijay padam vera,heroine aavadhu sevappu tholoda iruka venaama “)? Shankar has been mostly miserable with his choice of heroines and Murugados and KV Anand seem like Shankar-wannabes to me and they have latched onto this trait, even if they miss out on other better ones.

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  16. ” And for Vijay to do this is seriously a major step — not in terms of cinema, ”

    Vijay played a real character this time around (also Nanban) and not a version of himself.

    Due credit to Murugadoss. It takes a director of his stature to convince Vijay to play a character far from the guy next door.

    Even directors like Selvaraghavan cast actors like Dhanush doing ‘high-class’ things like photography but make sure that he is ‘local’ enough by giving him the usual anti-Peter and misogynistic traits.

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  17. vijay: Commercial stature. We may snicker all we want while looking at films through the lens of “cinema” and “art,” but there is certainly a commercial angle to the medium, and when a huge director like Murugadoss and a huge star like Vijay do a “mass” film without pandering, it is definitely a big thing.

    Mambazha Manidhan: “Even directors like Selvaraghavan cast actors like Dhanush doing ‘high-class’ things like photography but make sure that he is ‘local’ enough by giving him the usual anti-Peter and misogynistic traits.”

    Excellent observation — ‘fess up; you really want to be a critic, don’t you? :-) — and it adds to what I was saying earlier. People here are so paranoid about alienating the B- and C-centre folks that something like this is surely worth a pat on the back.

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  18. I agree that Vijay was given more to do than he usually does, and I see how that represents progress. Trouble is, it’s done clumsily. There are moments when the result of his thinking is shown, such as when he uncovers a serial bombing plot or when he finds a bunch of terrorists — so many things could’ve gone wrong with his plans there. A line or two of expository dialogue, or a slightly different construction, would’ve helped clarify why he chose to do things a certain way. And honestly, I don’t see how it would’ve hurt the B and C centre collections if Murugadoss had done that. As it stands, the hero looks like he ought to run a psychic hotline. That’s just lazy writing.

    Actually, Murugadoss has managed to integrate his heroines into the plot reasonably well in the past. 7am Arivu, for instance, hinged on what the heroine was doing, even if the science seemed a little dodgy. In this one, she has absolutely nothing to do — it’s as if she exists so that he would have something to do while waiting for the villain’s next move. As distractions go, she’s cute enough, but that’s essentially what she is — a distraction.

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  19. “Commercial stature.”

    Right, only that. And even that is debatable somewhat as to what kind of commercial stature he exactly has.
    His last film 7am arivu wasnt exactly a blockbuster and before that Ghajni in Tamil was released 7 years back. Atleast he doesnt have the commercial stature of a Shankar yet(who actually made Vijay do his first non-Vijay role in “Nanban”, an even bigger risk casting-wise as an intelligent college student), not even in the same league. I would put him alongside KS Ravikumar or Prabhu Deva(who successfully remade his Tamil masala film in Hindi like ARM).
    So, It is a bit difficult for me to buy that Vijay changed his routine for the first time in his life only because it was the great ARM who convinced him to do so. Vijay has worked with directors of similar or even bigger commercial stature before.
    More likely possibility is that starting with Nanban Vijay had consciously decided to do different kind of roles with big-name directors and trusting their vision a bit, but within the commercial format, and then Murugadoss just happened to come up to him with a script that interested him along the way. Remember even our friend Gautam Menon who is as anti-Vijay a director in style as they come had briefly considered Vijay for Yohan :-).

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  20. “And yet, what does it say that even a B-grade… no, make that C-grade Hollywood action entry like Simon West’s Stolen has more organic storytelling, character integration, and comedy and stunt-sequence segues? ”

    It says that you might not be making a fair comparison here or might be looking at exceptions. Because even in Hollywood there are plenty of examples of higher the profile of the actors and bigger the budget the more haywire the writing and the execution is. Recent example is the universally panned Taken-2 (21% in rottentomatoes). I watched another borefest recently called “Unstoppable” about a breakaway train, involving every cliche in the book seen from the days of Speed, with no less than Denzel in it. If only they also had the same commercial constraints imposed on them like songs and so on, I wonder how much worse their movies could get. They have much less commercial “specs” imposed on them and still make borefests with alarming regularity. Iam not in favor of these kind of comparisons,but just to make a point.
    Have you seen “Score” that had De Niro, Brando and Ed Norton in it, released quite a while back? A clear case in point.

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  21. Vijay>> I have mixed feelings regarding The Score. I suspect that they started out with the idea of doing the nearly-silent certerpiece heist sequence a la Le Cercle Rouge, and then wrote a plot around it. As a result, the heist sequence works a lot better than the rest of the film (which is not at all deserving of that kind of star cast).

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  22. vijay: No one’s saying that Murgadoss was the one who “changed” Vijay – simply that he deserves some credit for moulding a mass hero this way. “Nanban”, as you rightly point out, is a far more radical departure for Vijay, but to take a “mass” subject like this (and a hero-as-cop, at that) and to render the character in a slightly sophisticated fashion is no small achievement.

    Also, I don’t think anyone’s saying that Hollywood movies are always good. Though, like Gradwolf, I had a great time with “Unstoppable.” Filled with cliches? Of course. But done so well. And I enjoyed “Taken 2″ as well. But I didn’t care so much for “Stolen.” The point isn’t whether the films succeed overall or not — there, as here, some do and some don’t — but that an attempt is made to make the characters and situation and the humour and the romantic angle more “organic” to the story.

    And I disagree that songs are the culprit. There are a lot of action films where songs and romantic angles have been folded in very well. The problem, I suspect, is that most of these movies are thought of in terms of “set pieces” rather than a seamless piece of writing. So the “organic” feel is not there. That’s what I was driving at.

    “Unstoppable” may be filled with cliches, but the writing is seamless. Situations dovetail into each other. Characters (however stock) have an arc, a progression. The big set pieces are built up to. It may be a machine (as opposed to a work of art), but it’s still a very well-oiled (and “organic”) machine.

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  23. You *enjoyed* Taken 2? How? Taken was an absolute delight to watch, but did you just not get bored watching Taken 2?

    Did you do a review of Taken 2?

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  24. Padawan: Well, it certainly was nowhere as good as the first one. But the action was nice and the characters I’d taken to. General time-pass type fun it was, at least for me. And no, I was never bored. It got over too quickly for that :-)

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  25. I liked Unstoppable as well, thought it was quite nicely done.

    As for Vijay’s radical departure in Nanban, I’d argue that it wasn’t as big a risk as we are discussing here. It’s a Shankar film and as safe as it can get.

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  26. Brangan, sometimes, is really, easily pleased. And with no Rameshram to prick his ego, or challenge him to raise his level, it’s all going “south”. Thuppakki? Give me Anjaana Anjaani please!

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  27. FWIW , Nanban actually lost money for its distributors – this makes Vijay’s move even more “courageous”.

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  28. Unstoppable was great popcorn fare, the live action choreography was a welcome change from the CG porn we have been deluged with in recent times …. , I was a little disappointed with Taken 2, it was a bit like watching Hangover 2 …. the novelty is gone …

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  29. Like I said Hollywood has much less commercial specs imposed on them and it is unfair to attempt direct broad comparisons with the movies done here. Totally different worlds. For every one Stolen or Unstoppable(since you liked it but i got bored) I can cite a dozen cases of A-list Hollywood films going horribly wrong with all the money and resources that they have at their disposal.

    “The problem, I suspect, is that most of these movies are thought of in terms of “set pieces” rather than a seamless piece of writing. So the “organic” feel is not there. ‘

    Thats because of the specs they are supposed to meet.
    how do you organically build duets or comedy tracks into masala Tamil films? Especially when it is in an action thriller genre(and a tight one at that) with a big star like Vijay.You dont.
    These are willing compromises. Any song in a tight action thriller is inorganic.
    Name 5 very good masala Tamil movies you enjoyed in the last 10 years and I can rip them to shreds all day long for disjointed comedy tracks and forced-in songs that were some sort of setpieces themselves. Even In Mudhalvan, a film both of us have admitted to like, the “Mudhalvane” song doesnt work for me at all. It comes at a time when the narrative is picking up steam and then the ridiculous graphics taken it south even further. But you have to live with it.

    Iam more irked with a “September maadham” inserted in Aalaipaayudhe than an item number in a Vijay movie. Because the amibitons of the former movie are supposedly higher, even if it is within the commercial format.

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  30. Considering the talent that was invoilved, it was adisaster. And Ed Norton trying to pull that demented schtik was as bad as Ajith doing it in KSR’s Villian. I was laughing hard to even take the movie seriously.

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  31. “Unstoppable” may be filled with cliches, but the writing is seamless. ”

    to what end? It was still predictable and boring and the action wasnt anything that was’nt already seen either. And this is what you can do with an A-list star like Denzel?

    It is like the perfect rendition of a boring Harris Jayaraj tune, like the recent SPB song in 7am arivu. You can say “Look the chords are all in the right place, the singer sings in shruthi” and all that..but then where is the creativity?

    I would much rather have Vikram bashing villians in the closing moments of Dhool with a rousing ” hey singam pola nadandhu vaaran”, a great masala moment. Atleast it gets the adrenaline flowing which is what masalas are meant to do.

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  32. “As for Vijay’s radical departure in Nanban, I’d argue that it wasn’t as big a risk as we are discussing here. It’s a Shankar film and as safe as it can get.

    Huh,,Shankar has had his flops too like Boys when he tried to do something different from his vigilante themes. With pressure to deliver a hit with Vijay coming off of Endhiran he had his task cut out trying to sell Vijay as an intelligent college student where he doesnt get to bash up villians in the end like in Thupakki and also share screen space with 2 other actors who are heroes themselves.Expectations are higher with a guy like Shankar than with ARM.

    The risk is proportionately smaller for ARM with Thupakki, especially if his commercial stature is really as big as it is claimed to be.

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  33. Also, not to belabour on this point, but just go back and watch another Tony Scott-Denzel collaboration from just a few years back, Deja Vu. It wasnt spoken about much. But thats a movie I enjoyed a lot more than Unstoppable. Maybe its just me. But that had a very nice romance sub-plot happening as a result of time-travel paradox, in what was essentially an action thriller. You really cared for the characters and wished they survived it all, in the end.

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  34. Dear Raj, have observed the following typos in the statement above. Have amended accordingly,

    And with no Rameshram, A prick WITH AN EGO, TO challenge him to raise his level, it’s all going “south”

    You’re welcome:-)

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  35. Vijay: True that – it was the biggest hit of the year but it was sold at a very high cost – which made it non-profitable for the distributors – which is what i said. And in TN, where distributors have been known to ask for “money back” from failed films – this was a risky move.

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  36. Thats one of the best things about Tony Scott’s films – the action is “more” live than CG and to me at least it makes a difference.

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  37. That thought did cross my mind with respect to Boys and Jeans. However, what we have here are not fresh faced heroes like Siddharth or Prasanth. It’s Vijay, a certified masala, mass hero. Plus the economics have changed as well, with the carpet bombing of prints. So you take a big director and a mass hero and put them in a project, the producer is going to see the money. That’s why I said, it was safe. Also 3 Idiots was a certified hit, so the remake was a safe proposition.

    That said, to me, Nanban was a huge disappointment. Possibly due to remake contractual obligations, but Shankar brought nothing to the table. It was enough for one of his assistants to ghost direct it, given how much it was a frame by frame remake. Even the songs were filmed in tried and tested formula. One song’s concept was very similar to Oru Koodai sunlight (colored hair, glinting buildings etc) while another had the usual painted background etc. Terrible!!

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  38. Guys, seriously, ARM doesnt deserve so much discussion. Thuppaki is just that odd masala flick that tries (and fails) to be classy/extravagant at the same time. And thats about it.

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  39. “The part needed to be played by Mel Gibson at his maddest, careening between contempt for his own life and contempt for the lives of others.”

    Haha, true. Did you get to see Get the Gringo? From the makers of Apocalypto, starring Gibson. It’s American masala, lol. Anyway, it’s the most fun I’ve had with a film this year. I highly recommend it.

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  40. About Thuppakki, I found it embarrassingly funny. It put me through a loop of Lol-this-is-stupid. It wasn’t long before I felt guilty for giving in to this extremely silly flick. But I couldn’t dismiss it.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think Murugadoss deserves any kind of bravery award. That guy’s probably moneyed as hell now.

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  41. Baddy, I watched Pizza. It was okay….Darna Mana Hai kind. This is a short story stretched to a full film. The twist was good but the final ending seemed forced. Again, I’m not a pei padam guy so I watched the first half partially……partially closed eyes!! :-)

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  42. The movie was made assuming audience are not idiots watching..
    In an era where most of movies defy logic…a movie like thuppaki..will definitely stand out..

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  43. So nice to see Vijay in a refreshing role. Humor and actions are his forte and Muragadoss has made use of these talents in a stylish way.

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  44. @BR: though this is a dead thread (i came here after reading your Holiday review), I wonder why you or anyone here give @Vijay Agni Natchatiram as “the commercial film with songs and dance”?

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