A big surprise that the film throws at the audience is that it never once suggests the superstar is preparing himself for a political leap.
The easiest thing to think up in the Tamil film industry is perhaps a Rajinikanth movie.
For, three-fourths of the movie makes itself with patented Rajinisms that his legion of fans throng the theatres for.
On the other hand, the toughest thing to make in the Tamil film industry is probably a Rajinikanth starrer.
For, it has to be a 'new' film even while dishing out many 'old' things.
This peculiar paradox, it is evident from Darbar, seems to have puzzled director A R Murugadoss a great deal. He has put into the dish all the right Rajini masala ingredients, but when it comes to adding his own touch and taste to it, the director seems to have faltered.
In the event, what you have is a slightly undercooked stuff that, thanks to Rajini's earnestness and enthusiasm, offers something to sink your teeth into.
Take for instance the scene where the heroine's cousin asks Aaditya Arunasalam (Rajinikanth), a widower with a daughter of marriageable age, how he (Arunasalam) would feel if a man of his age followed his daughter.
Arunasalam sits through this with a frontal smile as Lily's (Nayanthara's) cousin quietly wades into him and his 'oldness'. Rajini underplays the occasion superbly, whereas a lesser, unsure hero would not have such a scene. After all, nobody tells a massy hero to keep off from the heroine on grounds that he is practically geriatric.
It can also be extrapolated to mean Rajini is self-aware enough to understand the general criticism on him about romancing on screen heroines young enough to be his daughters. It also actually answers some of the ageist comments on him in the social media circuit.
Rajini as the cool dad to Valli (an assured Nivetha Thomas) hits all the right notes. There is both fun and emotional heft to these portions. Though the jokes are not memorable zingers, Rajini's natural flair for comedy as well his own humility to take a few jokes on himself from his sidekick (Yogi Babu) make the situation work.
But the portions that should crackle with energy and pulsation, the trigger happy police commissioner's run-ins with the caboodle of villains and drug lords, are a letdown. They are written so generically that you suspect that some bots were at work as opposed to a creative team of associate directors.
The main villain Hari Chopra (Suniel Shetty) could as well have sent his cardboard cutout to the shoot and it wouldn't have made any difference.
The cat and mouse exchanges between the hero and villain that are the staple of massy masala entertainers never get going here. The villains in bespoke suits and chiseled beards look less menacing but seem more like they are auditioning for the role of quiet dads in Raymond ads.
Murugadoss, who last helmed Vijay's Sarkar, which was even more half-boiled, seems to have lost his touch for his type of agreeably pulpy entertainment.
The music, the camerawork are all adequate without being outstanding. In the event, it will be easy to say whatever works in Darbar is thanks in the main to the one-man-masala-machine Rajinikanth.
The biggest surprise of Darbar though is what is not in it: Politics. With a grandiose title, you would have expected the film to have a few pointed punchlines that would be in sync with the expected political plunge of Rajinikanth.
Save for an occasional nod or two at politics in general (a throwaway line about a prisoner who is said to be allowed to go out and come is a long-shot veiled jab at Sasikala) the film aseptically stays off from politics.
A happy-go-lucky but honest cop who shoots and then thinks, one would have thought, would be the ideal one to mouth a few lines to bolster what Rajini himself had said in real life after the police shoot-out in Thoothukudi.
Rajini could also have, if he had wanted, taken a few broadsides at the dime-a-dozen protests where the police is, in a facile fashion, painted as villains. But Rajini here is a servant of the film's script.
The film never once suggests that the hero of the film is preparing himself for a political leap. Contrast this with the most famous matinee idol-turned-politician in Tamil Nadu, M G Ramachandran.
Much of the early rise of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) could be attributed to his politically aware films in the 1960s. And ahead of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK's) launch in 1972, MGR went for the jugular as his films assiduously projected him as an unfailing saviour of the masses.
Though everyone is drawing parallels for Rajini with MGR, the former seems less keen to use his movies to further his political ends. Even in Kabali and Kaala — two of his recent movies that had a lot of politics in them — Rajini voiced the lines of the character (which were also in line with the politics of the director Pa Ranjith) rather than use them as his own surrogate political stage.
Darbar also proves that Rajini, once he commits to a film, places himself completely at the disposal of the director.
But you cannot help think that Darbar would have been better served if Rajini had also thought about his impending political career.
(As a general aside, many of the tweets and posts on Darbar clearly reflect the jitters and unease among the DMK campers about Rajini's political arrival as they seem to be more keen to pull the film down. But going by what this reviewer saw at the Chennai theatres, Rajini fans seem to be lapping it up.)