Instead of heading South on the Chennai Express, I was lucky enough to travel up to Mumbai with Thalaivaa! I say “lucky” because the film has been facing some heat in Tamil Nadu--including mysterious bomb threats against theaters--and the Government has held back the release in the film’s major market until August
15th 23rd. The reasons behind this delay are murky and I’ve been unable to find anything in English that explains it clearly, though it may have something to do with a suit filed against the film’s makers by a man claiming Vijay’s character is based on his father. However, I suspect the delay has more to do with the fact that Vijay’s character wields a bloody sword against corrupt politicos and businessmen out to screw the common people.
Still, it’s not my place to comment on Tamil Nadu’s politics but I sincerely hope that all the masala lovers out there get a chance to see Thalaivaa because it is a fantastic film!
Before I get into my review, let’s all just agree that it takes some serious balls open a film with a montage of famous political and revolutionary leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X (!), Che Guevera (!!), and the Dalai Lama. Setting the bar for success at “Nelson Mandela” leaves absolutely no room for “brainless timepass.”*
Because I know many, many people haven’t had the opportunity to see this yet, I’ll try to keep spoilers at an absolute minimum.
Thalaivaa begins in 1988 in a Tamil of Dharavi in Mumbai. The old gang boss of the neighborhood has died and nativist Maharashtrians have taken the opportunity to torch the homes of the immigrant Tamilians living there. It’s gang warfare cloaked in communal violence. In the midst of the chaos, Ramadurai (Sathyaraj) hands his young son Vishwa over to Naseer and tells him to raise him abroad, that he doesn’t want his son to grow up having this violent life.
Fast forward to 2013 and Ramu’s wish has come true. That young son has grown up to be Vijay, a suave dance team captain and bottled water manufactuor living in Sydney, Australia. And he has no concept of the life his father leads.
The first half of the film is packed full of NRI romance-comedy shennenigans. Vishwa’s best friend is played by Santhanam, which should give you an idea of the level of comedy we’re dealing with. The pair of them have fallen for beautiful Meera (Amala Paul) and in between gags, Meera and Vishwa practice for their upcoming dance competition. The first half has a really nice, light comedic touch and Santhanam nails every scene. I won’t ruin all the gags, but I have to mention a good-natured cameo from Sam Anderson. It could have easily been written as a mean spirited gag at Sam’s expense but the joke has us laughing with him, rather than at him--a subtle shading from Vijay that I really appreciated.
When the action transitions to Mumbai, things get a lot more serious. Vishwa discovers the identity of his father and circumstances force him into following in his footsteps.
The montage featuring Malcom X tips us off that this is is a not a film addressing the concerns of the wealthy and privileged but the first half set in NRI fantasy land lulls the audience into complacency. Going from a setting where Vishwa is the kind of guy with truckloads of bottled water--that eco-unfriendly indulgence--to a setting where women squat in the alley to clean their plates with water from who knows where is shocking. But, gradually, both the audience and Vishwa meet the people of Dharavi and come to empathize with them and their concerns, all of which seem to be drawn from real life--whether it’s a big shot actor raping his housemaid or the redevelopment 0f Dharavi.
Vishwa, as the thalaivaa becomes the equalizer. The powerful have the law, the police, the thugs, and the money; the regular people have Vijay--and Vijay is not afraid of a little vigilante violence. There are some truly gruesome scenes of violence in Thalaivaa and if you are squeamish about such things, this might not be the film for you but it’s important to remember that Thalaivaa is a masala film and, therefore, allegorical in nature. Is Vijay actually advocating that people go after rapist actors with knives? No, but he is acting as a conduit for the frustration people have at seeing rapist actors go free.
And as long as we’re on the topic, the spice blend in Thalaivaa’s masala is so perfectly balanced that--this literally happened--just as I was thinking that a somber scene in the second half could use some of Santhanam’s comedy, Santhanam shows up in Mumbai, direct from Sydney! In fact, the film itself is so well executed, that I only have one extremely minor niggle: when there is a scene in a dance bar late in the second half of a masala film, I expect an item, especially in the middle of a tense chase scene.
As for the cast, the real standouts were Santhanam (the man is a comic genius), as Vishwa’s best friend, and Sathyaraj, who played Vishwa’s father. Sathyaraj as “Anna” was just mindblowing. His power clearly lies in his authority but he has the physical strength to back up his threats if necessary. And let me tell you that at 59, Sathyaraj is a stone cold silver fox.
Abhimanyu Singh (who seems to have moved to the Southern industries) played the main villain, a thug named Bhima, and did a fine job at being an utterly unlikable dick. (Because, come on! Who could hate Vishwa? The thalaivaa who defends the poor and brings people of all sorts together with a speech about how we’re--not me, specifically, but “we” the audience--are all Indians!)
Thalaivaa isn’t going to win any Feminist of the Year awards but it treats it’s two (!) female leads well. Amala Paul, as Meera, is given a depth that goes far beyond her initial introduction as a butterfly chasing dip. (And if that sequence was a tip of the hat to Love Story 2050, I will fly over to Chennai and personally shake Vijay’s hand). The secondary heroine is a Mumbaikaar played by soap heroine Ragini Nandwani. As Gowri, Ragini’s role is mostly comedic but she also gets some nice action in. It’s worth mentioning that both the ladies get to rescue the hero from death at different points in the film. They may be more traditional women but neither is a helpless pushover.
All in all, Thalaivaa might just be my favorite masala film of the year so far. Everything from the editing to the sound effects to the Sam Anderson cameo to Vijay’s commitment to sincerity was perfect.
Now let’s all pay attention to where the real residents of Dharavi and the battle that’s happening right now over the “renovation” of the area. Thalaivaa? Where are you?
*Unlike setting the bar at “Jackky Bhagani” or something.