Readers Write In #539: ‘Thunivu’ movie review: Screenwriting problems, star power solutions

Posted on January 12, 2023

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By S Srivatsan, freelance critic

Isn’t Ajith Kumar the obvious choice to play Panjurli, the character Rishabh Shetty played in Kantara, if ever Boney Kapoor decides to remake and produce it in Tamil? I was thinking about the roar of Kantara. There is one thing Ajith is really good at: roaring, which he thinks rhymes with good acting. He roars at least thrice in Thunivu. He roared in Valimai. Before that, in Viswasam. And much before that in Vivegam. Even before that in Yennai Arindhal. Not to sound disrespectful or anything, there is another thing Ajith is good at: shouting, which echoes 10x if you watch it in 7.1 audio. “THIS HEIST IS MINE,” he shouts, at one point in Thunivu that instantly remind you of a similar cry out in Mankatha, wherein he says, “THIS IS MY FUCKING GAME.”

Every time the character Ajith plays is put in a dire situation or has to deal with a personal loss, the best acting comes in the form of shouting and roaring. Somehow Ajith gets away every single time: it isn’t rocket science truly. Fans want to take home the charmer in him. They don’t want a “movie” from him, not even a traditional “actor”.

That made me think: doesn’t Ajith have the most arresting screen presence in Tamil cinema? I don’t think anyone, sometimes not even Rajinikanth, can match up to his (I’m thinking about the polite fuck you-look he gives in Aarambam). But then, isn’t Ajith also the most boring Superstar in Tamil cinema? All of them across the board hit a stagnation, where they either reinvent themselves (Vijay in Master) or rediscover (Rajinikanth in Kabali) themselves. Ajith has firmly remained content at being safe and unambitious; his filmography reeks of binary — he is either a completely good guy (Valimai) or a completely bad guy (Billa and Mankatha). There is no in-between. Even the movies that had him in grey (Gautham Menon’s Yennai Arindhaal in which Ajith was terrific. Absolutely terrific. Viswasam that most people liked, I didn’t) were a handful.

Ajith Kumar plays an evil kingpin. If that information is enough, then this review serves no purpose. The star gets into a space that once felt natural to watch him do in Mankatha, where he played a ruthless villain from start to finish, with no emotional, political or psychological baggage. This time, though, there are quite a few enjoyable moments but not enough to sustain a whole movie.

In his third collaboration with H Vinoth, Ajith takes up a badass role yet again. And when I say ‘badass’, I urge you to imagine Ajith firing 10,000 bullets, wearing a pair of cool sunglasses. The movie we get is Thunivu. But I’d argue that Valimai was 10,000 bullets better than ThunivuBilla 2 was 20,000 bullets better. In their previous collaboration, one could at least see Vinoth’s vision. Alright, vision may not be the right word…he at least had interesting tricks — like those hair-raising mid-air bike stunts — to mask the dent in the screenplay. Valimai, for me, was thrilling for the most part except, of course, the horribly put together amma scenes. I thought the action was brilliantly choreographed and in fact, called Vinoth as the best Indian filmmaker to remake Mad Max: Fury Road in my review of Valimai for The Hindu. With Thunivu, Vinoth comes across as someone who has lost the sense of purpose and ambition.

Thunivu is all about guts; the guts to prove a point that a Superstar like Ajith can do an evil character at this stage of his career, guts to make the character likeable, guts to ask for a bigger paycheck; to dream of grander action pieces, guts to do away with romance or sentiment. Yet, there is no glory. Quite literally, zero pay-off.

The premise of this movie is quite basic: someone wants to rob a private bank that has over Rs 500cr unaccounted money in the vault. The person plotting this heist is a police officer and his name is not Vinayak Mahadev (Ajith in Mankatha) but Ramachandran (Ajay). When Ramachandran’s team lands up inside the bank, they find themselves trapped in someone else’s plan. And that someone is a nameless person, played by Ajith Kumar. Sooner, we will find out that both these parties are part of a larger design that we will come to later.

Thunivu begins with a massive action scene. Quite massive in its scale and the number of bullets fired that it is usually the showdown reserved for the climax. But then, how does Vinoth top this? And he doesn’t. What was thrilling in Valimai feels like a cheap mash of ideas from Grand Theft Auto in Thunivu. That is, however, not the issue though.

Let’s take ‘heist’ as a broader category. The construction of events becomes vital in the proceedings and therefore, even in writing, one has to construct the heist. There are two ways to do that, and the two good examples are Venkat Prabhu’s Mankatha and Chakri Toleti’s Unnai Pol Oruvan, a remake of the Bollywood movie A Wednesday. The former, despite falling in the broader category of the heist genre, is a great example of how to construct the robbery. Therefore, you are only invested in the act. Unnai Pol Oruvan, on the other hand, is a solid example of the ‘heist’ being done on the audience, wherein you are fully immersed in the construction of events. Vinoth in Thunivu seems confused over which route to take. For, he focuses only on the construction that happens outside the heist. I’ll explain. Right from the start, the movie just thrusts information upon information on us: someone is arrested somewhere, someone is plotting a heist, something is brewing in the share market. When a movie does this in the first 10 minutes, it could mean only one thing: lazy screenwriting. This is not even screenwriting…it’s just a Facebook post trying so hard to draw parallels between news clippings.

The second worrying part about the construction is, Vinoth only cares about the repercussions such a robbery would cause in society among people and in politics among politicians. We often get “reaction” scenes from people and politicians. Popular memes and video reels are thrown at us thinking that these are good screenwriting elements. They are all reacting to the heist. But what happened to the movie? 

Let’s take the example of Unnai Pol Oruvan. An unnamed man over a phone wants to bomb Chennai. This is, therefore, the ‘heist’. And the entire screenplay is written around it that makes you take note of the how. Of course, the movie had twin powerhouse performers in Mohanlal and Kamal Haasan. In Thunivu, the construction itself feels horribly done with no sense of taste or flavour. It therefore focuses on the peripheries and not the actual heist.

There is a bigger problem in Vinoth’s writing. If you are anyway going for a quick fix in the manner of a “flashback” episode in the second half, why are you wasting my time? This is perhaps the oldest screenwriting technique in Indian cinema. Yet, the purpose of a masala movie is to turn the technique on its head. I am not saying that you shouldn’t use flashbacks as a device. But do something with it, no? At least do what an Atlee would do: stick to the basics. If you anyway have the plans to make your hero — a daredevil gangster — end up as a Robin Hood, why waste our time?

Thunivu is edited by Vijay Velukutty. It somehow wants to give you the K.G.F feel by employing fast cuts. In doing so, scenes and plot points don’t register. The dialogues are bland. The acting is bad. The casting is worse. And Ghibran’s hammering background score doesn’t even let us breathe for a second.

Vinoth doesn’t have a distinctive style as a filmmaker. He does really good action. But even those are pretty basic here. There is a 360-degree action scene we get that shows the power of Nirav Shah but that is just it. Manju Warrier gets a Tomb Raider moment. And that is all. She has no reason to be part of this movie.

At one point, the entire theatre felt a collective high looking at Ajith doing a performative dance that borderline mimicked Joaquin Phoenix from JokerThunivu is a movie that feels like Ajith is delivering an opera for Parthasarathy Swami Sabha audience.