Thalaivii: Political pantomime
The film is more gimmickry than realpolitik
The very first scene in Thalaivii—amusing as it is to hear of phone tapping in the times of J. Jayalalithaa (Kangana Ranaut) and M. Karunanidhi (Nassar) what with Pegasus looming large now—sets the tone for one crucial aspect of Jayalalithaa’s life that the film seeks to focus on, i.e., the gender discrimination, rather abuse and toxicity, she had to face, both in filmdom and politics. Something that should, ideally, strike a big chord.
Unfortunately, the scene also illustrates what happens to be a major problem with the film. The highly dramatic and over the top narrative complete with loud background score and dialoguebaazi (invoking Draupadi’s cheer-haran in Mahabharata), makes you cringe and reduces the rise of Jayalalithaa to the position of chief minister of Tamil Nadu as some sort of a revenge drama orchestrated by a woman spurned than a display of canny political stratagem on her part.
Much the same happens in recreating the Kollywood of the 60s. In approximating the outer kitsch and colour—the huge studios, gaudy sets, the song-n-dance sequences, the hairstyles, makeup, and clothes right down to the pointy bras—the inner dynamic gets a short shrift. The film might give due play to the significant historical markers—midday meal scheme to Cauvery water issue—but in the presentation it lapses into parody than offer any depths and nuances to the audience about a period of major churn in both cinema and politics. In keeping with this masala aesthetic approach, the acting too—across the board—feels more mimetic than method. Though directed by A.L. Vijay it has an outsider’s gaze than an insider’s understanding and perspective.
Despite a protagonist who has been such a compelling presence, the film keeps one curiously disconnected and distanced. No scene, no moment, nothing reaches out. Nothing seems to come together and hold your interest. This, although, in the manner of all Indian biopics, it glorifies its protagonist as some kind of messiah of the masses. It does give glimpses of her manipulativeness—medu vada and Shivaji Ganeshan anyone—aggression and other chinks in the armour. But even the faults and flaws eventually turn noble. In having her loom large, other dramatis personae get a short shrift, including M.G. Ramachandran (Arvind Swami). In bringing one woman to the centerstage, others get sidestepped. V.K. Sasikala is a token presence. Janaki amma (Madhu), the wife of MGR remains largely missing in action. She appears at the very end after the initial bits where we find her exhorting MGR to act with young girls to appear young himself. Ironically, more than Jayalalithaa’s relationship with MGR, it’s her rivalry with RMV aka RM Veerappan (Raj Arjun) that’s got the real and only spark here.
There’s a line in the film where Jayalalithaa talks about her opponents turning campaigning and politics into nautanki (theatrics). Ironically, the film itself does just that—reduce realpolitik to gimmickry.