Rajathanthiram is a curiously old-fashioned title that suggests Machiavellian – or closer home, Chanakyan – deviousness in matters of statecraft, and it’s perhaps the only false note in this very twisty, modern-day thriller. Arjun (Veera) is a small-time conman and, at least initially, he’s content lording over his teensy-weensy empire of crime, with equally small-time lieutenants Austin (Darbuka Siva) and Deva (Ajai Prasath). They think in terms of tens of thousands. But something bigger lies in wait. Think about those names for an instant. Arjun. Deva. Then there’s a criminal mastermind who goes by Madhavan Iyer (Ilavarasu), a name that brings to mind Krishna, that most blithely Machiavellian of gods. And the events in the film unfold around the public shaming of a businessman named… Dharma (Naren). Not to stretch a slender thread too far, but at some level, the director AG Amid appears to be straining for an epic. Maybe the title isn’t such a mistake after all.
Despite the all-pervading lawlessness, Rajathanthiram is a very moral movie. It quotes a line from the Bible about the wages of sin. It is about the righting of grievous wrongs – and the battleground is a major jewelry store. (I’m pulling at that slender thread again, but it’s called Sathyaa Jewellers.) The warring clans are thieves. We are in a heist movie, but with a difference. Everyone knows about the heist – the ones doing the planning, naturally, but also Azhagappan (a superb Pattiyal K. Shekar), the owner of the jewelry store that’s the target of the heist. Even the cops are in on it. Imagine someone who’s planning a surprise birthday party when the person whose birthday it is knows about it, not just that it’s going to happen but where and the number of guests and who they are and what presents they’re bringing along. How do you still maintain the element of surprise? That’s the task AG Amid takes on, and he throws one hell of a bash.
One way to make these movies is to think like an engineer – oil the gears and set in motion a giant entertainment machine, whose pleasures come from the breathtaking slickness of it all. But Amid likes the messiness of life. He likes friction. Consider the marvelous stretch where Arjun and his cohorts set out to steal a bag filled with cash. Things keep going wrong. In some heist movies, we see what happens when things work out the way they’re meant to – we hear the hum of efficiency. Here, we see what happens when those plans fail, and you have to think up a Plan B, on the spot. The beauty of the Plan B here is that it’s a mess. It unwittingly ropes in a bystander. A security guard joins the fray. It’s chaos. And that’s how it should be, because if Arjun was capable of dreaming up a watertight Plan B, then he wouldn’t be here. He’d be alongside George Clooney and Brad Pitt in one of the Ocean’s Eleven movies, casing a Las Vegas casino.
Rajathanthiram references Soodhu Kavvum in a scene where a television set is playing the song Kaasu, panam… The immediate takeaway is that this, too, is a film about a bunch of crooks after, well, kaasu, panam… But the similarities don’t end there. Like Soodhu Kavvum, this is a film that assumes that there is an audience out there for smartly packaged entertainment. It is a film made for the love of cinema and not from fear of the box office. It’s evocatively shot (SR Kadhir), has a super-stylish background score (Sandeep Chowta), and the writing is unafraid to take its time. This results in some pacing issues, especially in the second half, but that’s a minor trade-off. What’s important is that the scenes breathe, and the characters register strongly.
Arjun falls for Michelle (Regina Cassandra), who works for an Amway-type outfit. She’s as defined by her job, by her need for money, as Arjun is – and she even gets a line about what it is to be a working girl in the midst of swarms of leering men. I felt she could have been given more to do, but even this much is more than what most of our heroines end up doing. Even minor characters end up doing interesting things, like the hotel manager who – thanks to the scanner at the entrance – has seen what’s inside the bag that’s been stolen from the room of a guest. And the people Arjun has conned keep reappearing around him, which, again, feels right. This isn’t that big a city, after all. Veera had a very strange role in the ill-conceived Nadunisi Naaigal and we couldn’t really make out what he could or couldn’t do, but here he comes across as a relaxed screen presence. He blends effortlessly into the ensemble.
Darbuka Siva, though, walks off with the film in his pocket. He has a great face for the movies (he may remind you of Dominique Pinon), and at a time comedy has been reduced to tired one-liners, it’s a pleasure to be reminded of wit and timing. But his success is also a function of how organic everything in the film is. There’s no comedy track as such, but the laughs are artfully woven in. And you have to laugh, also, at the shamelessness of the film’s sole duet. There’s no romantic track, really, but Amid knows you have to have a song between hero and heroine, so he gives us a number where there appears to be some intimacy when it’s all just in Arjun’s head. This sort of filmmaking is its own kind of heist, tunneling into the bowels of Kollywood, to the vault that houses all the cherished staples, and escaping with your dignity intact.
- Rajathanthiram = diplomacy; but in this case, something bigger, more Machiavellian
- kaasu, panam = money, moolah
- Nadunisi Naaigal = see here
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