Arvind Swami (MGR) with Jayalalithaa (Kangana Ranaut)
  • Release Date: 10/09/2021
  • Platform: Netflix
  • Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Nassar
  • Director: A.L Vijay

Is Thalaivii being panned because of Kangana’s inclinations and political views ?

— Ambar Chatterjee

Thalaivii chronicles the journey of J. Jayalalithaa from her humble beginnings as a naïve but strong-willed heroine in the Tamil Film Industry to acquiring the post of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. While it may seem like just another rag to riches story that we have seen 1000 times before, J. Jayalalithaa’s life had enough material in terms of story, drama, romance, and thrills to propel at least a couple of films. The tale of her rise to power in a landscape dominated by men who were looked upon as demigods were complex, layered, powerful, and was peppered with numerous incidents and twists that were perfect for a dramatic cinematic retelling. The only question that plagued me was whether the makers of the film had it in them to tell the story efficiently and would it be possible for someone like Kangana Ranaut to shun her pride and deconstruct herself to be the character of J. Jayalalithaa more than the self-proclaimed firebrand torchbearer of women empowerment that she has metamorphed into over the last few years.   

Thalaivii does a lot of things right. The film takes a detailed look at J. Jayalalithaa’s rise through the ranks. We see minute details of her fledgling romance with MGR and how she came to his notice. We see her go through lean patches in her career and even agreeing to do dance performances. We see her face ridicule and even physical violence from men who find her closeness to a married MGR repulsive. The same people feel that her proximity to their demigod leader is not only toxic to their leader’s popularity and hero-worship but also belittles the man and pulls him down from the pedestal of the godlike being that his fans hold him up to. 

Some of the best dramatic moments of the film happen when Jayalalithaa is questioned about her relationship with MGR. The dialogs are aesthetically written, and the sequences are envisioned with a lot of intelligence to avoid any controversies. These two aspects of the sequences raise these potentially scandalous bits to a realm of rich and deeply affecting romanticism.  

Kangana Ranaut is in her element here. She has always had the panache to play firebrand characters like Jayalalithaa and here she lets her performance do the talking. To her advantage, the character gives her a wide range of emotions and situations to work with. She uses this aspect of the film and the character to showcase her entire range and leaving a telling impact in scenes where her forte of calling out the men and society for their bigotry is let loose. 

The only thing that doesn’t work in her favor is the atrocious prosthetics and makeup that are used to bulk her up and make her resemble Jayalalithaa in certain parts. These are the portions that restrict the character’s emotional impact and make her rendering look unconvincing. It would have served the character well had Kangana bulked up like many heroes do these days (Aamir Khan in Dangal being the best example). However, that could be asking too much from someone like Kangana who finished the film in a jiffy. A film like this should have taken longer to make to iron out many lingering issues that plague it from time to time.

Arvind Swami as MGR is fantastic. I believe he did a better job than Kangana in rendering a particular character and keeping it as close to the real deal as possible. He ages believably through the film and by the time we reach the end of the film, his character comes across a full circle. I loved his chemistry with Kangana and the way he plays off her is wonderful to watch. He changes gears organically between being a romantic to Kangana and stern with his political rival M. Karunanidhi (Nassar). The resemblance to the actual MGR is an added advantage that facilitates his act. 

I was mighty surprised by the utter lack of controversy for Thalaivii. I was sure that going by the kind of material that the film deals with, it would generate a lot of controversies and there would be places where they would even call for a ban on the film. However, when I watched the film, I understood why no one had any issues with it. This aspect of the film is also its most underwhelming.

The makers of Thalaivii play it utterly safe. There isn’t anything in the film that would remotely resemble someone pointing a finger at someone else. The relationship between MGR and Jayalalithaa has been fodder for controversies and name-calling for decades. Interestingly, the relationship is sanctified here to such an extent that it leaves no room for anyone to raise any objection. With that, the film also loses its humanity and shock value and the characters suddenly start feeling too good to be true and made up. 

Jayalalithaa was once publicly humiliated by the DMK members and her saree was pulled to the extent that she was nearly stripped. This incident is shown in the film but later, we see M. Karunanidhi talk about it with his party members and express his displeasure at what had happened and saying that it would be remembered by history. By doing this, the makers gave a clean chit to the DMK members and supporters by making it clear to the audiences that it was just a few miscreants among the DMK that committed the dastardly act and that the party ideology and leadership was not on the same page with what happened to her.

Another issue that I felt plagued the film was the fact that the last 3rd of the film felt hurried and pushed. The speed with which the circumstances develop and the large amount of history that is condensed to put forth a lot of points in a short duration of time did affect the overall impact of the film. A lot of the initial sequences involving Jayalalithaa and her time in the Tamil film industry could have been cut short. The same can be said about certain other sequences involving different actors.

Thus, I can conclude that Thalaivii might be flawed but it is in no way as bad as its rating or box office numbers are suggesting. Then what is it that is spoiling the film’s reach and success? To a large extent, I feel that the critics — who are largely left-leaning in this country —absolutely hate Kangana and they made it a point to bury this film. Certain aspects of the film helped their endeavors and the rest was completed by their utter disdain for her that made them even ignore some stellar performances in the film from actors like Arvind Swami, Nassar, and Raj Arjun.

Another reason for the film’s failure was its muddled marketing campaign and presentation. It was released in Hindi and other South Indian Languages. It had players from Bollywood and the South Indian film industry. But it proved to be neither a complete south Indian film nor a fully realized Bollywood film. This made it difficult for the people to understand what it was and make up their minds.  

I had a good time with Thalaivii, and I refuse to bash it just because its leading lady has a crass and harsh mouth. I refuse to put it down because it is somewhat muddled in its presentation. I refuse to hate it because it plays it totally safe. There is a lot to appreciate in this film for anyone who agrees to watch it with an open mind.

Rating: 3 out of 5.


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