Review: Sivaji

Posted on June 17, 2007


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All those crores… and they couldn’t buy themselves a script.

JUNE 17, 2007 – ONE OF THE EARLIEST Tamil lessons I had in school was this story titled Naagan Seidha Narcheyal. It was about this boy, Naagan, who was walking home from school one evening, past a bridge, when he noticed that the railway tracks were broken. Worse, a train was barreling down his way in the distance. He thought for a minute, then took his red shirt off and waved it in the air. The engine driver saw the flag and stopped the train. All was well, and Naagan was celebrated as a local hero. All these years, this story had slipped from my mind, and it came rushing back while I was watching Sivaji – for the film features a similar chain of events, except that Naagan is now Thamizhchelvi (Shreya), and the shirt is now a red dhavani. But that isn’t half as interesting as what the disaster entails. This isn’t about everyman passengers plunging down to their deaths from a bridge; it’s about the Super Star himself (as Sivaji), who’s gotten a foot stuck between the tracks, and is facing sure death – till Thamizhchelvi saves him with her quick thinking. You see what I’m getting at, don’t you? When I heard about Shankar and Rajinikanth coming together, I expected all kinds of never-before surprises, but not for a second did I think I’d see the day when the biggest hero of our times would need to be rescued by his heroine.

This is Rajini, for crying out loud! We’d happily buy the scene with cheers and wolf-whistles even if he merely held out a hand with an upturned palm, and the train slowed down in meek submission – so what is this business about him needing to be saved? Where’s the “heroismâ€? – that all-important consideration of Kollywood – in this? Yes, this is probably the most logical way out of the situation, having her stop the train, but whoever looks for logic in a masala movie? All we care is that within the universe of the movie, a certain logic prevails, which is why we don’t bat an eyelid in a Rajini movie when he sends fifteen goons into orbit with a single thrust of a fist. When we, the audience, are more than willing to suspend our disbelief, why bind yourself down with could-this-really-happen scenarios? And yet, there’s an alarming lack of logic in places it’s really needed, when Sivaji turns to addressing social issues like black money. (The hero is an NRI who wants to do good for the poor. The rich and the corrupt won’t let him. So he becomes a vigilante to achieve his ambition. End of functional story.) These are usually the strongest parts of a Shankar film, but here they are horribly written and the execution is worse. Is it because they thought the average Rajini fan wouldn’t be able to comprehend a more involved plot? If so, that’s a terribly condescending view of masala movie viewers, who’ve made hits out of tightly-scripted masalas like Ghilli and Dhol. (There’s something to be said for the fact that the films that sprang instantly to my mind are both by Dharani.) Even in the case of Rajini’s own movies, no one can accuse Baasha or Padayappa (my favourite from the post-Annamalai Rajini oeuvre) of least-common-denominator pandering. These films combined a strong sense of the star’s style with a stronger narrative that gripped you regardless of whether you were seated in the balcony or the front row.

It’s one thing to have no story – that’s no crime. But it’s quite another to have no idea of where your screenplay is going – and Sivaji simply lumbers and lurches from one incident to the next. Too messagey to be an all-out Rajini entertainer, and too worshipful of its leading man to be an effective Shankar potboiler, the film just hangs there, throwing at us various things in the hope that at least something will stick – an action-sequence equivalent of the Chandralekha drum dance, a couple of seriously sexy leading ladies (including the newly slim item-girl Nayantara), a completely random bit with mimicry artists (though Chinni Jayanth cracked me up), the references to religion that no Shankar movie is complete without (here it’s something to do with a horoscope and a saint whose predictions always come true because he has moles on his tongue; don’t ask), nods to Rajini’s bus-conductor past, the undeniably entertaining flashes of Rajini style… At some point, I began to feel that scenes were written in just so that the film could be padded out to a certain length, and after writing these scenes, they had no room to flesh out, for instance, the villain (played by Suman, a top candidate for the most ineffectual antagonist in living memory). As a result, there’s no weight to anything that Sivaji does. (Even a Rama needed a Ravana on the opposite team!) When Sivaji knifes someone, we’re told that the blade has entered the body without rupturing any major organ, and besides, there’s a doctor waiting on the spot to take care of the wound. Shankar had no qualms making Kamal Hassan a murderer in Indian, but with Rajinikanth, he’s too scared to take chances. But when you think about it, Kamal gets away scot-free in the end of that movie and still manages to retain audience sympathy, so why did Shankar not fashion a character with a similar heft for Rajini?

In the first half, especially, Rajini has very little to do that’s worthwhile. It’s excruciating, this portion – and only Vivek, as the Super Star’s sidekick, manages to break through the tedium. He has a superb scene where he punctures this whole punch-dialogue business, and I think pretty much everyone collapsed when he let loose this gem: Six-ukku apparam seven da, Sivaji-kku apparam yevan da! Unfortunately, he is shoved aside frequently to make room for Sivaji and Thamizhchelvi – and this has got to be one of the worst-written romantic tracks ever. I felt a near-physical pain watching Rajini slather his face with bleaching products to woo this girl, or seeing him run to the bathroom with a case of the loosies after wolfing down a plateful of red chillies at her house. Is this how he wants to be remembered in what are surely his last few films? In another movie, I’d have whined at the suddenness with which the song breaks appear, but here I was almost grateful – especially as these are staged with Shankar’s trademark lavishness. (The pick of the lot are Vaaji vaaji, which unfolds in a grandiose Thotta Tharani set that looks like a colosseum crossed with a greenhouse pierced by shafts of light – it’s superbly shot by KV Anand – and AR Rahman’s smashing Athiradee, which comes across like the most explosive music video that Robert Rodriguez never made.)

At the end of it all, the impression you get is that the film was used merely to build up an image – a political image. Sivaji has barely landed in India, when he sees a beggar on the streets and gives her money, commenting that many things may have changed in our country but this hasn’t. He’s shown to be from a farmer family, which means he is – very literally – a son of the soil. He wants to marry a Tamil girl (even if this girl – loftily named Thamizhchelvi, a “daughter of Tamilâ€? no less – is constantly mouthing something completely different from what we hear from her dubbing artist; it’s disgusting how no one seems to care about this even during the close-ups). He constantly speaks of doing good for the people. (There’s a terrific stretch of conversation early on, when Sivaji is in prison and the prisoner in the neighbouring cell enquires why he’s there. He asks if it was murder. Sivaji says no. He asks if it was fraud. Sivaji says no. He asks if it was pornography. Sivaji says no. He asks what, then, got him arrested. And Sivaji replies with a smile, “Makkalukku nalladhu pannen.â€? This is masala-movie dialogue-writing at its punchy best: feint, feint, feint, and… JAB!) And late in the movie, when Rajini finally comes into his own and proves (with a smashingly cool get-up) why he’s a style icon to beat all style icons, the name he adopts acronyms to… well, I won’t say, but this is the most directly political statement in Sivaji. It’s all very well if someone uses his films as a springboard for a political career – and Tamil Nadu does have a longstanding tradition of stars-turned-politicians – but I hope the next time Rajini picks a script, he thinks also about the legacy he’s going to leave behind as an actor. As for Shankar, I hope the next time he writes a script, he doesn’t go after yet another aspect of corruption in our country. It would be too tragic if – spinning minor variations on all-too-familiar major issues – he ended up the Madhur Bhandarkar of Tamil cinema.

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil