Saturday 11 September 2021

"Thalaivii" (The Guardian 06/09/21)

Dir: A.L. Vijay. With: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swamy, Nassar, Bhagyashree. 152 mins (Hindi version)/148 mins (Tamil version). Cert: 12A

The recipient of 2021’s second highest-profile Twitter ban, Kangana Ranaut has channelled her newfound spare time towards a biopic of J. Jayalalithaa, Tamil cinema sweetheart turned regional political powerhouse. (Think The Iron Lady, if Margaret Thatcher had enrolled at the Rank charm school.) It’s a hodgepodge of a film, haphazardly passing a long, storied life through the multiplex cookie-cutter. Yet it’s also semi-fascinating as a project only India’s robustly forgiving star system could now initiate. Its true subject often seems to be Ranaut herself – like Jayalalithaa, a woman whose steely ambition provokes both devotion and ire. “Who the heck are you?” barks an opposition MP before a Congress debate descends into a literal pile-on. A movie like this affords one means of self-definition, now social media’s a no-go.

The trajectory certainly mirrors Ranaut’s own: effort is made to court movielovers, then things get fractious. Director A.L. Vijay lays on a fun recreation of the 1960s Tamil film biz, with its wet sari numbers and clunky-cute courtships. Throwback scenes have become a staple, but Vijay stages his with appreciable craft and detail: the songs are strong, and somebody’s sourced those period undergarments that moulded the female torso into comically unnatural shapes. We’re reminded of Ranaut’s onscreen flexibility: adroitly segueing from gamine to stateswoman, she gets a laugh in passing just from answering her dressing-room door in a blonde wig. Yet the script approaches politics as a similar, stage-managed dress-up, where you don a sober sari, and sit back to receive the plaudits.

Regular rallies – hundreds of extras, clapping to suggest Something of Import is being conveyed – propose few of the policies that would make Thalaivii enlightening. In their place, we get would-be crowdpleasing stunts. Whether ladling gruel on a Chief Minister’s desk or hauling herself from a wheelchair to flash peace signs on a balcony, our heroine seems to want a standing ovation for everything. While more nuanced than many of its star’s recent statements – it could hardly be otherwise – the film still feels like a passive-aggressive idea of doubling down. This Jayalalithaa gets elevated to high office, leaving roomfuls of sycophants bowing to her will, and Ranaut looking like she’s exactly where she wants to be. I was only stopped from cheering by the chill descending my spine. 

Thalaivii is now screening in cinemas nationwide.

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