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.
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.
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