After Theri and Mersal, nobody imagined that Atlee and Vijay’s third collaboration could be anything other than further mass-ification of the star. This is why I was intrigued by the film being dedicated to women. Could this director-star collaboration potentially allot sizeable screentime to the women in it? Could they be anything other than the hero’s props, used only to make him seem heroic or loveable? The trailer came as a warning.
The all-male posters didn’t help matters either. Even then, you wondered if they had perhaps saved all the Singappenney portions for the film. Well, having seen the film, it’s now clear that Bigil is a fitting follow-up to Theri and Mersal, at least in terms of what it hopes to achieve: expand the halo of the star. In this film dedicated to women and ostensibly about their success, an hour into the film, I was still waiting for a strong female character, for one strong moment, one memorable line... anything.
Michael (Vijay) is a local don, a saviour. This gets established barely minutes into the film when students protesting against the demolition of their college (an elaborate idea for a simple mass moment) go to you-know-who for protection. Someone says it’s “CM’s area”—Captain Michael, they explain. Michael refers to himself as “vaathiyaar”. He pretends to be talking about a teacher but we know what’s going on. Vijay even does with his character what Rajinikanth has been doing for decades now: threaten political entry. There’s a photo of MGR somewhere. The elderly don and father of Michael, Rayappan (Vijay again), is listening to the MGR song, Ennadhaan nadakkum nadakkattume. The emphasis on Thalaivan irukkiraan mayangaadhe is hard to miss.
There are odes to previous films of his. There was a Kadhalukku Mariyadhai reference in the trailer but I didn’t catch that in the film. You do see that he repeats the whole arms-crossed-behind-the-head gesture he popularised in Mersal. He also repeats the double-chewing-gum-popping gesture from Theri. As Michael/Bigil is playing football, someone’s holding a banner in the stadium that reads, Aalaporaan Thamizhan. Director Atlee treats Vijay, the star, with great reverence — to the extent that when Michael makes a pass at Angel (Nayanthara), another character tries to manipulate us into believing that it was actually Angel who pursued him (they use that ugly ushaar panradhu phrase).
Vijay responds to all this reverence by allowing himself unrestricted freedom in performance. He’s goofy and playful, and laces his dialogues with much affectation. Atlee’s even got him playing an old man, which I didn’t quite mind at all, even if I didn’t care for the character’s stutter — a technique likely added to make Rayappan seem like a ‘difficult character’. There’s an attempt at the beginning to speak the Madras baashai, with even Nayanthara’s character giving it a shot, but slowly, it fizzles out. In one dialogue, Angel says, “Kannaalam.” In another, she says, “Kalyanam.” But Vijay himself has a sprightly presence and if this film is said to be entertaining at all, it would be on account of how sold he seems about the whole idea. I didn’t even mind him in the football portions, but…
The football portions themselves seem choreographed by someone who’s only seen the sport in video game trailers and YouTube channels of freestyle exponents. In the only match you see Bigil playing, he scores a hattrick. All his three goals have him not just dribbling past several players, but also performing rainbow flicks and scoring with bicycle kicks. What the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo do in a career spanning more than a decade, Bigil does in a single match. No wonder then that a boy when asked to pick between Messi and Ronaldo, picks Bigil instead.
The portions featuring the female footballers are marginally better, but I wish the makers had perhaps channeled some realistic in-game issues. A bigger problem is how the film never truly takes you by surprise. Almost every football game shown in this film ends 2-0 at halftime so there can be a comeback in the second half. You expect that this sort of film will be about corrupt selection administration. It is. You expect that during a crucial match, Bigil will not be around to guide them. He isn’t. It’s a formula so familiar.
Finally, I come to the whole female empowerment angle in this film. I address it this late and as a final topic because well, that’s how it is in the film. In a film about a women’s football team, you gain precious little insight into the lives and characters of these women, except for fleeting snapshots of their modest everyday lives. Even when director Atlee tries to add description, it’s generic and designed to draw sympathy. The dark-complexioned girl with weight issues.
The acid attack survivor (I quite liked how she gets back at the perpetrator). The girl suppressed by her marriage into a conservative Brahmin family. It is no coincidence that almost all of these issues are resolved by a Michael monologue. The film’s justification of his involvement is to add a twist to a popular adage and say, “Behind every successful woman, there is a man.” Even when a film is about women, it isn’t.
Ironically, this is a film that mocks a girl for giving out her phone number ‘too easily’. This is a film that tries to pass off humiliation of an overweight girl — by having the protagonist call her ‘Gundamma’ — as inspiration. When this girl steps on to a football ground with rage, the earth is shown to be shaking. This is also a film that suggests that the pinnacle of a woman’s strength is child-bearing and rearing. “Football is nothing in comparison.” This idea gets reinforced in a line from AR Rahman’s Singappenney as well. Nayanthara’s Angel, save for a contrived scene with a Brahmin man (who cites ‘kutti drawer’ as the reason for not sending his wife to play football), does precious little apart from tagging along with Michael. It’s again superficial character depth.
Beneath all the star pandering, all the female empowerment posturing, there’s an interesting seed of a story: The tragic story of a don who had to sacrifice football aspirations. However, save for advertisement-like imagery — a football stained with blood — Bigil spends little of its gargantuan runtime on such matters. Its interest is in shooting songs with endless extras, in holier-than-thou monologues, in duets, in uninventive combat choreography… and above all, in turning Vijay into a demi-god figure. That’s why its women can’t fight their own battles — even the minor ones — without his intervention. That’s why it’s a sports film in theory but a mass film in execution. That’s why in this film about respecting women, Michael and co are shown to ride their motorbikes into an all-women classroom to iron out a disagreement.
Towards the end, this film, that is ostensibly about women empowerment and dedicated to women no less, exposes its true intentions when it suggests that the eleven women on the football ground are like 11 versions of Bigil. In this film coldly, cunningly designed to offer guilty entertainment to forgiving admirers of the star, this is probably its most honest moment.
Rating: 2.5 stars