One question we ask of most Rajinikanth movies, as we exit them, is this: Why aren’t they better? As a star, he occupies a universe of his own, so budgetary issues can’t be the problem – you could ask for the moon and get it. With him on board, there’s going to be little trouble getting the best supporting actors, the best technicians – heck, you can hire the wizards who choreograph the stunts for the Bond movies. And his films have become biennial events, if that – Lingaa marks his return to the screen four years after Enthiran (the animated Kochadaiiyaan doesn’t really count). Isn’t that enough time to write a rock-solid script that does his stature justice while also satisfying his fans? Why, then, do these outings come off less like movies than a hastily put-together dispensing mechanism for a Rajini fix? Take a puff during the opening weekend. The effects will last two years.
But consider, also, the director KS Ravikumar’s plight. It’s hard enough making a movie with any big star, with all the calculations that go into what the star’s on-screen character can be allowed to do. Imagine, then, accommodating all the must-haves of a Rajinikanth movie. You have to pay tribute to the past (here we have lyrics from Baasha, a snatch of the title song from Billa). You have to look forward to the future, which involves the inevitable speculation about a political career. (This film’s plot is about a dam that will irrigate the drought-stricken lands of Tamil Nadu’s farmers, and there’s a reference to a Supreme Court ruling. We’re told that Rajinikanth has behind him “makkal sakthi,” people’s power. We’re also told he can become governor, or end up in the Parliament.) You have to try and work in socially relevant issues as well. (This film, in one stretch, tackles the issue of caste.)
You have to think up punch dialogues that will outlive the movie. (It’s unlikely the ones here will last. Sample: “Vaazhkayile edhuvume easy ille. Muyarchi panna edhuvume kashtam ille.”) You have to accommodate the actor’s interest in spirituality, which means weaving in lines that refer to God. (Yes, fans, there’s apparently someone Rajinikanth himself considers a higher power.) You have to have scenes where the Rajinikanth character gets emotional and ends up making great sacrifices for the well-being of the other characters, and, alongside, you have to have scenes where the other characters burst into tears and remark how great the Rajinikanth character is. And you also need a heroine or two. (Two, in this case – Anushka Shetty and Sonakshi Sinha.) No, this isn’t about Rajinikanth’s age. After all, if an ageing Sean Connery could play Bond in Never Say Never Again, there’s no reason to get worked up about Rajinikanth romancing much-younger actresses. But there’s the pesky problem about his image, which will not let him strike any real sparks with these heroines – he has to keep them at an arm’s length. And this does the romantic tracks no favours.
With all this, it’s a small miracle that the person summoned to make a “Rajini movie” doesn’t turn chalk-white with fear and flee to a foreign country under an assumed name. But that cannot excuse the films. Lingaa is talky and overlong (nearly three hours), plagued with pacing issues, and – worse – it tells a story that lays no claims to our emotions. Rajinikanth plays two roles. In the present-day portions, he’s a thief, and a lot of time is wasted on this character’s doings (one of them a heist involving a tennis ball, balloons, and sticker pottu) till we get to a British-era flashback that’s this film’s reason for being. Here, Rajinikanth plays a munificent king who’s also a Cambridge-educated civil engineer (weren’t they all?) – he decides to build that dam.
Of course, there are people who don’t want that dam built, and the chief villain is a Brit whose name I never caught. That’s another problem. Rajinikanth’s films work best when he’s butting horns with a strong adversary – the deranged Neelambari in Padayappa, or Rajinikanth himself, playing a robotic terror in Enthiran. The villain here is unintentionally hilarious (just watch him wrap his tongue around words like “nayavanjagam”). With the preordained outcome, the stakes are negligible.
It’s easy to overlook the inaccuracies (though with a production this big, you’d think they’d do more research) – at a palace ball, we hear symphonic music when the musicians on stage are playing guitars and drums; in the flashback, set in 1939, we see repeated references to Josephs Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which wasn’t published until a decade later. But it’s harder to forgive the near-complete lack of entertainment, save for a late-in-the-day action sequence where Rajinikanth jumps on a motorbike and does what we pay to see Rajinikanth do. The theatre erupted at this point – out of sheer relief, it seemed to me, at finally having something worth cheering about.
Oh, there was one other scene that ushered in much excitement. It’s when we learn it’s the birthday of the Rajinikanth character in the flashback. A cake is wheeled out. People sing the birthday song. Fans watching Lingaa on its day of release, December 12 (Rajinikanth’s birthday), will enjoy being in the superstar’s vicinity as he cuts his birthday cake. But that’s just a temporary high. Next time, how about a film that leaves us with happy memories on other days as well?
* Enthiran = see here
* lyrics from Baasha = see here
* the title song from Billa = see here
* “Vaazhkayile edhuvume easy ille. Muyarchi panna edhuvume kashtam ille.” = Nothing’s easy in life. But if you try, nothing’s difficult.
* Never Say Never Again = see here
* pottu = bindi; or this
* nayavanjagam = deceit; treachery
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