Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jilla: I think the critics are the brainless ones...

For the life of me, I never understand when critics (and others) call masala films as a genre “stupid.” Hero-giri might not be your cup of tea but that doesn’t mean it’s stupid, it just means you don’t like it. Let me flip the narrative on you. How about thinking of a 3 hour film that can a) hold the attention of somebody who can’t understand the dialogues, b) enable that person to follow the twists and turns of the plot with little trouble, and c) manage to transmit all the emotional and meta-narrative points without the use of words as “smart” filmmaking?

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been going to my local Indian theater for enough years now that they didn’t even bother to warn me that Jilla had no subtitles and even if they had I would have watched it anyways. While I definitely missed out on some banter and comedy, the main thrust of the film came through clear as a bell. The actors faces and voices, the music, the direction, as well as my experience with the language of masala filmmaking, were more than enough to satisfactorily guide me through the film but I do feel it’s important to be honest about these things, especially as a non-Indian, and especially writing about regional film.

Read on if you want to hear what I have to say but do keep in mind that I only understood a handful of dialogues.

At its heart, Jilla is the story of Shakti (Vijay) and his relationship with his adopted father Sivan (Mohanlal), a fixer and construction baron from Madurai. Through the course of the film Shakti moves from worshiping his father to condemning him and, finally, accepting him. And intertwined with this track is Shakti’s relationship to the police. A tragic event in Shakti’s youth led him to hate the police and worship Sivan, who operates well outside the law, but when Shakti is forced to join the police, his ideas of right and wrong begin to shift. The cocky, pampered son sees something of the troubles faced by ordinary citizens who don’t have money and power to act as a buffer and his heart begins to open to them… and to Shanti (Kajal Agarwal) a tough, young policewoman on his team.

Even without understanding the dialogues, there was a lot to enjoy in Jilla. First of all, Vijay is on point. Shakti was a great role for him. Nobody plays ‘cocky’ quite as charmingly as Vijay and it was fun to see that cockiness transform into something more adult as Shakti grows up.

Vijay also shared nice chemistry with the two other leads, Mohanlal and Kajal. He’s a very physical actor and it was nice to see him able to put that to good use with both of them, showing us Shakti’s closeness to Sivan through physical affection and his attraction to Shanti. Mohanlal seemed to be having fun playing a somewhat grey character--my favorite scene had him tromping around his house with a lit cigar clenched between his teeth--and Kajal was just delightful as the tough girl.

These types of films often get accused of being too male-centric but I think Jilla deserves credit for showing women out in society being competent. Not only does Kajal get to bust some bad guys, but she doesn’t once need rescuing and she grabs herself a nice piece of Vijay ass. And can you blame her? Those are some cute buns! Vijay, as Shakti, also has a scene with some trainee lady cops that has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with showing women doing self-defense moves against an attacker. And there is an adorable little girl who gets top grades and wants to be a doctor.

I can’t help remembering myself at a young age and how excited I would have been to see a girl praised for being smart and to see a lady I could look up to for having a cool job and not taking shit from anybody and she gets the hunky hero at the end. I think these things matter. Some might disagree with me but I do think it matters that Shanti gets treated like real cop and not a ‘lady cop.’ Maybe the critic or fanboy will disagree with me but the opinion that matters to me on this point is from the little girls watching with their families.

Shakti’s sister (Niveda Thomas) was also a strong, and very welcome, presence.

But the theme I found most interesting in Jilla was the idea that it’s not people who are bad, it’s their deeds. Shakti has to wrestle with this throughout the second half of the film, as he tries to fit his love for his outlaw father into his black-and-white morality. How can somebody who showed him such love be bad? And what about his brother, who is essentially doing everything that Shakti did before he joined the police force? There but for the grace of God…

The real villain here isn’t Sivan but “revenge.” A soul twisted through revenge into performing some very bad deeds. Will Shakti fall into the same trap? Will he sacrifice his relationships for some idea of pure justice?

That these questions are explored in between the fun parts of fart jokes and love songs does not make them less meaningful. At least not to me. Life includes fart jokes, love songs, and existential angst--why should cinema provide any less?

Song picturizations are always a strong suit in a Vijay film and Jilla continues the winning streak. Every single one knocked it out of the park. My personal favorites was the gorgeous Japan-set romance of “Kandaangi Kandaani” and the clever staging of “Verasa Pogayile” in a city street. “Verasa Pogayile” goes from fantasy to reality to stage setting and back around again. Very masterfully done. There are also a handful of high-energy numbers that were a blast and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised to see Scarlett Wilson. She is one white girl who could teach alleged Bollywood ‘item girls’ a thing or two and more power to her.

Jilla isn’t going to be submitted for the Oscars but who says that every film has to fit that mold? Jilla is a well-crafted masala film with a good moral message, great performances, great music, Kajal Agarwal being a badass, a fart joke, and possibly some good dialogues.

What more can you ask for, really?

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