'Thalaivi' Fails To Meet Expectations, With Or Without Comparisons To Mani Ratnam's 'Iruvar'

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Oct 30, 2021 04:39 PM +05:30 IST
'Thalaivi' Fails To Meet Expectations, With Or Without Comparisons To Mani Ratnam's 'Iruvar'A scene from the film
  • If you're expecting a dramatic biography of Jayalalithaa, this is not the movie for you. It delivers an amateur caricature instead.

Selvi J Jayalalithaa (1948-2016) was an enigmatic figure in the Dravidian movement. The movement was male-dominated and has an axiomatic anti-Brahminical memetic component. Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin and a woman. Yet, she became the toughest leader of one of the two largest Dravidianist parties.

To tell the story of how she accomplished it would be any movie maker’s greatest dream and also a nightmare.

So Thalaivi is a movie full of possibilities. Possibilities to showcase excellence and turn those challenges into cinematic achievements. That is also why the movie is a pathetic failure.

It almost seems that the director reckoned it was accomplishment enough to make Arvind Swamy look like MGR through prosthetics and make Kangana Ranaut look like a thinner version of Jayalalithaa. The only person who appears to have done some sense of justice to his character was Nasser, playing the role of ‘Karuna’.

Naturally, one has to compare this movie with Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997). That film also tells the story of the Dravidian movement, although on a larger canvas of history. It concentrated on the history of two characters who closely resembled MGR (Anandan played by Mohanlal) and Karunanidhi (Tamizhchelvan played by Prakash Raj). The character which combined both EVR and Anna was played by Nasser and Aishwarya Rai played the role of Jayalalithaa.

In the movie at one point, Anandan (the MGR-likeness) tells Tamizhchelvan that if the former’s action-movies and the latter’s enchanting Tamil dialogues combine, they could easily fool the people.

At another point, when an excited crowd gathers to see Anandan, Tamizhchelvan (Karunanidhi-likeness) says to him that this was the power Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin desired to have. Those were the bold statements which exposed the underbelly of Dravidianist politics.

Come to Thalaivi. There are no such provocative aspects. The characterisation is flat and lifeless. Jaya course-corrects ‘MJR’ by exposing the systemic corruption in his mid-day meals scheme. This was, to say the least, fictional, if not nonsensical, not to mention melodramatic in its enactment.

The movie does not do justice to Jayalalithaa or MGR or even Rajiv Gandhi — the actor seems more suitable for Mr. Bean than for Gandhi. Arvind Swamy as ‘MJR’ does not sync with the character, even with all the makeup. The dynamic of the relation between ‘MJR’ and ‘Jaya’, personal, professional and political, is pitiable.

One can only compare it to the way Mani Ratnam brought out the same dynamic between ‘Anandan’ and ‘Kalpana’ (the fictitious equivalent of J).

That relationship did not occupy much of the running time of Iruvar. The general belief at the time was that with defeat in the Assembly election of 1996, the political career of Jayalalithaa was over. The movie had Kalpana killed in a road accident.

Yet, even though it wasn't the main plotline of the film, the way the romance between the MGR and the Jaya-likeness was shown, the way the Jayalalithaa character was shown with all its personality traits, is impressive even today. Even though the makers of Thalaivi had a longer period of Jayalalithaa's life to study and analyse, the movie fails in depicting it in any effective manner.

Many scenes in the film vie with each other for the worst cinematography award.

My personal choice for the worst would be the scene where a pathetic, Mark Anthony-like speech is to be delivered by ‘Jaya’.

On 26 November 1980, C. Subramanian Pillai, a temple verification officer known for his honesty, was found hanging under mysterious circumstances. The temple trustees, most of them AIADMK men, alleged that he was caught stealing money and hence committed suicide.

This happened in the famous temple town of Thiruchendur. But the public who knew him, clearly found the claim insultingly and criminally ridiculous. MGR was forced to appoint an inquiry commission under Justice C.J.R. Paul.

The Commission submitted the report but the government delayed making it public. M. Karunanidhi, who was the leader of opposition and also a journalist, got a copy of the commission report and brought it out.

The commission had stated that the death of Sri. Pillai was caused by 'homicidal violence.' This threatened the Hindu Religious Charities and Endowment Board minister, R.M. Veerapan who was considered then as the right hand of MGR.

Karunanidhi, the ace politician, made full use of this chilling scandal and led a 'Patha Yatra' from Thiruchendur demanding justice. This was one of the low points in the political career of MGR. The whole incident happened in 1980. Jayalalithaa joined the AIADMK in 1982.

Yet, the movie alludes to this incident and makes ‘Jaya’ make a speech to a mob agitated about the missing ‘Vel’ or the holy spear of Murugan in a temple.

‘Jaya’ goes to the agitated mob and endures stones thrown at her. Then she strategically joins them by shouting ‘MGR down! down!

After this, she makes a speech in which she says that she also joins them in condemning MGR, who, instead of searching for the ‘Vel’, is only engrossed in creating schemes for ‘Velai’ — jobs for the youth. With this Tamil pun on ‘Vel’ and ‘Velai’, she wins over the mob who start hailing MGR.

Pathetic would be too mild and a gentle term to describe this scene. Apart from the utterly amateurish way in which the scene has been created, what is even more insulting to the intelligence of the viewers is the way a murderous scandal related to the HR&CE had been normalised.

All said, the movie will remain a classic for posterity, but not for the right reasons.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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