Thalaivi Review: Botched By Massive Missteps, Film Is Amma Of All Misfires

Thalaivi: Kangana Ranaut in the film. (courtesy: kanganaranaut)

Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Nassar, Bhagyashree, Samuthikarani, Raj Arjun, Jisshu Sengupta

Director: AL Vijay

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Bollywood biopics, be they hagiographies or hatchet jobs, rarely get their act right. Thalaivi does nothing to change the scenario. It ties itself up in knots in trying to get the hang of six-time Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa’s life and times and craft a coherent tale. It hurtles around aimlessly – and futilely – in search of a plank that can hold its weight.

The Jayalalithaa story, in essence, is that of a strong-willed, irrepressible woman who rose to power in a predominantly man’s world and went on to reign untrammelled over a party and a state for an extended period of time. The drama of her career as an actress, activist and politician is reduced to dreary driblets of information – much of which has been in the public domain for decades – and a series of stilted situations designed to project Kangana Ranaut in the best light.

Thalaivi is indeed a Kangana Ranaut show. Does that help matters? NO. In the first half, she is a giggly, squeaky wannabe movie star smitten by the charismatic MGR (Arvind Swami; he is a rare saving grace in an otherwise steadfastly drab affair) – the film changes the initials of the iconic matinee idol-turned-political supremo to MJR. She does not conceal her feelings for the man, much to the dismay of MGR’s principal image manager, film producer and 24/7 confidant R.M. Veerappan (Raj Arjun).

Not that the young Jayalalithaa’s mentor and co-actor does not reciprocate her romantic ardour. But the film cannot surmount a self-inflicted hurdle. The love story is meant to be the foundation of the film but the articulation of amorous fervour is rendered in strictly chaste, squeaky-clean ways. Reverence for our rulers, dead or alive, is ingrained in our culture. Thalaivi respects the aura of purity around the two towering figures of Tamil Nadu politics. The result is a sanitised, stuffy, inhibited enactment of a famous relationship.

In the second half of Thalaivi, devoted to the transformation of the heroine, Ranaut turns into the assertive “propaganda secretary” of MGR’s party on her way to becoming the state chief minister. Here, the actress goes to the other extreme, assuming the persona of a blustery, bombastic gender-asserting crusader who sets tongues wagging in a political party dominated by men who never stop plotting to cut Jaya down to size.

Thalaivi has been directed by a man, A.L. Vijay, and also scripted by men (K.V. Vijayendra Prasad and Rajat Arora). Therein lies the catch. The film does a far better job of exploring the dynamics between MGR and ally-turned-foe Karunanidhi (Nassar, who deserved far greater play as much for the power of his presence as for the value that the character brings to the cinematic account of an important period) than of spotlighting Jayalalithaa’s trials and tribulations.

Kangana Ranaut, a self-proclaimed rebel in real life against a male-propelled star system, plays a woman who, in the course of her eventful career, demolished gender barriers to hold her ground long enough to be able to take the reins of a state government and become an unquestioned leader of her people.

Kangana Ranaut might be a great fit for the role, but she mars the exercise by opting to mimic an Akshay Kumar-like stride towards the camera to close a money scene or crown a punchline. She does this a few times in the course of the film accompanied by ear-splitting, high-pitched music, the kind that is supposed to denote triumph and finality. If you have raised the banner of revolt against Bollywood’s gender disparity, you must first do away with the means and methods of machismo-fuelled movies. Thalaivi does nothing of that sort.

In real life, Jayalalithaa played the political game by her own rules once she emerged from MGR’s shadow and ensured that all the men in her party, in a complete reversal of the gender exclusion she suffered, would genuflect to her as long as she lived.

The woman-against-patriarchy theme is a crucial part of the Thalaivi script but this, too, is undermined by a lack of consistency. In the opening moments of the film, Jayalalithaa is heckled and manhandled in the state Assembly by ruling party MLAs. She likens her humiliation to the disrobing of Draupadi by the evil Kauravas and vows to return to the House only when she has political power in her hands.

If you feel the stage has been set for a fiery, gripping confrontation between her and the men who control the levers of power in the state, you are in for a surprise. Thailavi beats about the bush from here on, meandering from one episode to another in the hope of convincing us that what it is showing us is the full picture. It isn’t. It delivers a splotchy view that, even at its brightest, does not exactly catch the eye. And when it is not at its best, the film wallows in vacuity.

Jayalalithaa’s reliance on MGR is total as she makes her way up the movie industry ladder. There is even a dance immediately after the interval that has the heroine ‘grovel’ musically before the chief minister. So beholden is she to the man that she wants him all for herself. But, in one earlier scene, he intones grandly: “Bhagwan kisi ek ka nahi ho sakta (God cannot belong to just one individual).”

A few of the performances are of a high quality. Especially good is Arvind Swami, who absolutely nails the MGR impersonation. Raj Arjun in the role of the man who cannot stand Jayalalithaa’s proximity to his leader etches out a believable character. Madhoo (as MGR’s wife), Bhagyashree (as Jaya’s mother) and Poorna (as Jaya’s aide Sasikala) are wasted. When Kangana Ranaut is the heroine, who needs the women in the rest of the cast?

With the screenplay all over the place – it is especially so when the spotlight isn’t on the principal star and is visibly itching to return to its focal point – Thalaivi flounders. Kangana Ranaut is, as always, as earnest as a new recruit going to war, but is let down by the length of the film and the leaden-footed nature of the storytelling. The meandering plot fails to deliver insights that could help the audience truly understand Jayalalithaa’s mind. As a result, we leave the hall none the wiser.

Botched by massive missteps, Thalaivi is the Amma of all misfires.

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