About halfway through Thuppakki I began to wonder if A.R. Murugadoss wasn’t just having a huge laugh at the audience’s expense. It was the only logical explanation for how could such an intelligent filmmaker make such an aggressively stupid film. Was he just getting back at us for not fully appreciating last Diwali’s ambitious (and underappreciated) 7aum Arivu by making the most regressive, jingoistic, sociopathic, cockblocking, blatantly pandering film that he could?
But let me rewind a bit. Thuppakki is the story of army officer Jagdish (Vijay), who is a Tamil guy living in Mumbai with his parents and sisters. Jagdish and his best friend Police Inspector Balaji (Sathyan, a breath of fresh air and very welcome presence whenever he was on screen) happen to witness a bomb blast and get swept up into hunting down “sleeper cells” (aka Muslims) full of “terrorists” (aka Muslims with bombs). Vidyut Jammwal, as the terrorists’ leader, shows up occasionally to stand around delivering exposition while looking handsome in a deep v-neck. Meanwhile, Kajal Agarwal as “Boxer” Nisha does her best to keep the audience from falling asleep by wearing fantastic outfits, punching people, and delivering withering glares in Vijay’s direction.
There are a lot of very big problems with this hot mess of a film but first let me say what works. The cast, outside of Vijay, are quite good in their roles; the film looks beautiful with cinematography from Santosh Sivan; the editing is crisp; and the script had moments of delightful meta-awareness. Actually, until the bomb blast, maybe half an hour in, I was really enjoying the film. The first two songs are a lot of fun - the first is a Punjabi-Tamil fusion number and the second is a tribute to sporty girls. And Vijay is very charming when he’s dealing with light comedy and family melodrama. He played well off of both Kajal’s haughty “Boxer” Nisha and Sathyan’s dopey Balaji. The problems begin when the story turns to terrorism.
Terrorism is a tricky subject to handle at the best of times. There are different kinds of terrorists and different kinds of terrorism - the terrorism of an oppressed people trying to free themselves is different from the terrorism of a sociopath acting under a God complex. Though I find violence in any form abhorrent in real life, there can be legitimate political and social grievances motivating the actions of those labeled “terrorists.” I don’t excuse or brush aside the killing of innocent people but I do think that sometimes an oppressed people can develop a sort-of collective PTSD which can erupt into groups like the IRA. And then there are sociopaths and mentally ill terrorists like the guy who shot up a movie theater in Colorado. I’m sure the line bleeds between the two groups - sociopaths taking advantage of desperate people in desperate circumstances to get a power kick - but I think it’s possible to say that terrorism doesn’t exactly spring up out of nowhere.
In Thuppakki, terrorism comes directly from the 24 mold - just some evil freedom-hating Muslims wanting to kill innocent people because they hate us and our freedom and our consumer goods. Once Jaggu has his terrorist huntin’ hat on, the mood of the film becomes positively schizophrenic. He goes from romancing Nisha to torturing a guy he has (*spoiler alert*) tied up in his closet. An older and more talented actor like Vikram might have been able to give Jaggu some shades of grey but Vijay plays it straight, which makes him seem like the sociopath as he transitions from torturer to Romeo in seconds, without a second thought. What emotion am I supposed to have at the farce of Jaggu hiding Nisha AND a terrorist that he has tortured in different sections of his closet? I just felt insulted that A.R. Murugadoss would put it on screen.
And it’s not just the handling of the issue of terrorism, I also found the treatment of women pretty appalling in the film. After a promising start, with Kajal showing the plucky nature of a typical A.R. Murugadoss heroine, she basically disappears from the screen, leaving Jaggu there to barter his sister and other innocent girls as pawns in some big pointless scheme. Nisha doesn’t even really like Jaggu, only agreeing to marry him when her friends tell her to settle because nobody better will come along.
By the time the film began to near the end, I hated Jaggu so much that I wanted nothing more than to see the criminally underused Vidyut Jammwal bust out some martial arts on his ass and toss him into the ocean.
Alas, the film doesn’t end that way.
As I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t help but hold in my mind the double image of Jaggu describing what “they” did to his military buddy - plucking out his eyes, sodomizing him with a beer bottle - and what Jaggu does to the “terrorists” he captures. Is Murugadoss holding the audience in contempt, thinking we won’t get it, or is he trying to show us the hypocrisy of the security state? I’m not sure it’s worth finding out.
Though I would love to know where Kajol’s costume designer gets her clothes.