Had the fuss not erupted around Thalaivaa (directed by Vijay, starring Vijay), its contrivances may have come across as just plot-propelling devices – just another name, just another item of clothing, just another occupation, just another Nayakan-derived narrative rejiggered to suit a performer who’s more star than actor. But now that we’ve been made pointedly aware of the politics in the narrative, things assume entertaining implications. The hero Vishwa (a low-key Vijay) is the son of a beloved leader – a benevolent don in Mumbai– named Anna (Sathyaraj), who’s seen, first, in a red shirt. And he’s in Sydney, where he runs a mineral water business. The reason for this particular profession becomes quickly evident when someone makes a reference to the water problems in our state. “Thamizhnaattukke thanni kondu vara mudiyale. Neenga Australia-kku kondu vandhutteenga.” And yet another mass hero seems to be making a bid to become a hero of the masses.
It isn’t just the local problems. Vijay… sorry, Vishwa takes on national issues too, like the sectarian demand that Mumbai is for Maharashtrians. Vishwa lives in a ghetto that’s a microcosm of the country – it’s populated by people speaking various languages, and following various faiths. This allows him to make “we are all Indians”-type declarations. And this binds them to him – so much so that when one of them betrays him, the act is avenged by one of the betrayer’s own kin. Vishwa even has the police in his pocket. By the end, an ambitious officer opts to quit the force and perform domestic chores for the hero’s household. Thalaivaa is one of those films whose subtext is more fascinating than the actual narrative, which, early on, wastes a lot of time on frivolities.
After a dramatic start, the film – which is about the transformation of a callow youth into, well, a thalaivaa – slows down. There’s a depressingly “poetic” heroine-introduction scene that features a butterfly. (She’s Meera, played by Amala Paul.) There’s some tired comedy involving a lousy cook and a series of overage suitors for Meera. There’s a dance competition and its attendant choreographic interludes. The best development in these early portions is that Santhanam, as Vishwa’s friend, falls for Meera – this gives rise to cheerful one-liners. The biggest joke, for me, however, came during the opening credits, where the names of cast and crew appear over pictures of famous leaders from around the world. We see “Lincon,” Marx, Gandhi, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, who’s referred to, mass-hero style, as “Vietnam Vedi.” But that’s not the joke, which came about when a picture of Churchill flashed on screen. Someone from behind yelled, “Dei, thatha.” So much for the loftiness behind the concept.
But once Vishwa comes to Mumbai, the film takes off. As always, a giant what-if hangs over the proceedings. What if the powerful moments in the script – the twists, the transformations (like Vishwa learning what it’s like to be a killer) – had been staged more dramatically? What if the back-and-forth portions of the narrative, where we go back in time to see what really happened, had been assembled with more inventiveness? What if the villain Bhima (Abhimanyu Singh) had been a more powerful, more menacing presence?
But the director gets a lot of things right. It may sound strange saying this in the context of a film that features Vijay (and therefore is never going to be subjected to much scrutiny even if a drug-dealing Martian made his entrance midway) – but this film has been made with some integrity, with respect for the story being told (and, to some extent, the audience too). After Vishwa’s transformation, he’s rarely shown smiling. Even when Santhanam makes a re-entry, there is no joyous reunion. Even after the heroine is separated from the hero for a while, there are no “dream songs.” (Even the sole instance of his dreaming of her is instigated when he loses grip on reality after glasses of bhang during Shivaratri.) And even the presence of a second heroine isn’t allowed to add too much colour to Vishwa’s life.
These may seem like small things, but they add up – and they make the case that a movie choosing to operate in the masala mode isn’t always banished from the realm of logic (or if that’s too big a word, then just plain good sense). The film’s best stretch centers on one such masala moment, with cross-cut tension around a missing tape that both Vishwa and Bhima are after. Where Nayakan was a hero-versus-the-Establishment saga, epic in scope, Thalaivaa, for the most part, confines itself to a hero-versus-villain template. And this makes it palatable to today’s “Dei, thatha” audience, who seem to squirm at the slightest sign of ambition. Could the film have been shorter? Sure. But let’s be grateful that that’s the only major complaint. At least, we’re not left with a don dancing in the Alps.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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