Samuthirakani is an interesting actor, who cleverly balances his loud, political films with fun, masala entertainers. He has made such a name for himself with the former that any film carrying a ‘message’ these days is categorised as a ‘Samuthirakani padam’. Good intentions aside, most of these films end up being patience tests for the audience. Thankfully, despite the extremely underwhelming trailers, the longdelayed Sangathalaivan isn’t one of them. The film gets most things right.
It doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. For instance, Sangathalaivan doesn’t try to address national politics or pretend to be a racy thriller. Instead, it is a slow-burn drama that deals with a localised issue and takes its time to set things up. Both the narrative and the characterisation give us the pleasant feeling of reading a novel from the 90s. Sangathalaivan also gets its politics right most of the time. We are introduced first to the village of Ramavaram, its labour union, its working-class people, and their lifestyle. Slowly, it zooms in on its principal characters and their wants.
The baton is passed among these characters and I was impressed with how this linear story stayed engaging sans a conventional hero. The film quickly makes up for the slack in the initial few scenes with some shocking, discomfiting tragedies. The impact created by the factory accident sequence keeps the story going till the midpoint, which is when the protagonist is established. Going by the promotions, one would expect Samuthirakani to be this long-awaited protagonist. But, to our surprise, we see Karunas’ Rangan (Ranganathan) taking over and the film becomes primarily his journey from then.
The effect of this rather interesting choice for a protagonist is, however, hurt by a terribly laidback performance from Karunas. The usually able actor looks uninterested, especially during scenes that heavily rely on him. Though he just about manages to sell Rangan’s innocence in the early portions, he stumbles badly in the latter half when his character rises to leadership. The only interesting thing about having Karunas in the film ends up being the stark contrast between his character and the actor-politician’s own stand on caste. Samuthirakani, on the other hand, shines as Sivalingam.
This is his forte. His previous body of work and off-screen persona add a lot of value to his role and make us easily believe in this headstrong, giving leader. When he stands up to a cop and shouts, “Sudu parkalam!”, it feels apt for the character, without seeming like an exaggeration. I liked how director Manimaran shows how a normal factory strike can create ripples in the finances of everyone in a village. I also liked the gutsy political songs, though their inorganic placement makes them stick out.
The forced humour in the initial half is more egregious. however, and is one of the biggest issues I had with the film. Clumsy trumpets reminding us to laugh, especially right after a tragic scene, is quite a blemish in an otherwise engaging film. The biggest flaw, in my view, is the way the film ends. Several times, Samuthirakani’s Sivalingam says revolution is a fetus that will be born despite all opposition and that all leaders are mere tools passing on the baton.
In the film, this ‘birth’ is triggered by a death. That this revolution ends in a murder feels like a betrayal of the very politics that the film preaches. This might not have been a deal breaker if this were an entertainer that doesn’t take itself seriously. But, the film clearly does, and that makes it hard for us to accept this final act where justice taken for granted. That said, there’s still much to like in Sangathalaivan. It might seem like a propaganda film at first glance. But, the way the heavy politics is incorporated into the simple story of an underdog’s transition into a rebel leader makes the film rise above that characterisation.
Cast: Samuthirakani,Karunas, Sunu Lakshmi