'Thalaivii' movie review: Good writing makes this a fairly enjoyable, even if unsurprising, biopic

Another example is the choice of that infamous parliament abuse incident as a pre-title scene to anchor this story on.
Still of Kangana Ranaut in and as 'Thalaivii'
Still of Kangana Ranaut in and as 'Thalaivii'

Thalaivii is full of enjoyable echoes—some straightforward, some not so much. One of my favourite moments in the film comes just after Jaya (Kangana Ranaut, who’s good as always) uses cunning to rescue herself from a tight spot. Having executed her plan, she showboats by crossing her legs on a chair in the centre of the room. Her posture is one of regalness, like she were the owner of any world she chose to inhabit. This scene acts as an echo for that final scene that makes such a fulfilling end. It’s a film with such tasteful writing touches.

Another example is the choice of that infamous parliament abuse incident as a pre-title scene to anchor this story on. Writer Vijayendra Prasad has shown through Baahubali that he likes his mythological flourishes. You see this when Jaya, hair dishevelled and self-respect in tatters, takes an oath—like Draupadi does in Mahabharata. This isn’t the only connection to an old, popular story. There’s a running comparison with Caesar and Cleopatra, who, as we know, were in love with each other, and with power. Somewhere in the beginning, you are shown Jaya reading a book about them.

Later, in a passing shot of Jaya dancing to ‘Ninaithen Vandhaai’ (one of many songs that this film provides homage to), you see her resemblance to the Egyptian queen. Most effectively, in an important scene when she puts herself in the line of fire by speaking to a hostile crowd, she channels the Marc Antony in her by attacking MJR (this film’s version of MGR) and repeating a line over and over again for effect, much like Marc did in his famous funeral speech.

While on myths, the story of the rise of Jayalalithaa fits perfectly into the stages of the hero’s journey (Joseph Campbell)—here, I suppose, we must call it the heroine’s journey. Cinema is her ‘ordinary world’, and MJR brings her the ‘call to adventure’ when he asks her to join his party. There’s a ‘refusal of the call’, ‘a meeting with the mentor’… I could go on and on. It’s a time-tested way to tell a story, and it helps that the underdog who triumphs in this film is a scorned woman, surrounded by power-hungry, sexist men. As we know, Jayalalithaa went from being ridiculed for being an actress to a deified, motherly figure. It’s a transformation against all odds, and one worthy of romanticisation if only for the value it must surely offer your average oppressed woman. And Thalaivii milks these moments really well for effect. 

The story itself is unsurprising, familiar as we are with the crests and troughs of Jaya’s life—and of course, having already seen many parts of it in the form of a film, Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, and a web-series, Gautham Menon’s Queen. Here too, a large part of the enjoyment emerges from what we already know about these powerful people. For instance, when Jaya breaks down at the sheer tedium of having to sign a few papers to enable some transfers, you don’t forget the irony inherent in this woman going on to become a Chief Minister multiple times and no doubt, being asked to sign countless documents. The familiarity of Thalaivii’s story is also a problem though.

There are few surprises in its story. There’s not a lot of time for dramatic nuance either, as it has the unenviable task of covering almost 25 years of the character’s eventful life. The film does this by dropping in and out of the highlights of these years—or if you will, the many paragraphs of her Wiki page. The MR Radha shooting incident, for instance, gets all but a passing scene as setup. My own enjoyment of this film was mainly in the portions that sought to capture the complex relationship between MJR (Arvind Swami) and Jaya, and of course, the high points of the latter’s rise to party supremo status—which it does with the able assistance of GV Prakash’s grand score that constantly tries to draw attention to the ‘epic’ nature of what’s going on.

There’s also often a tendency for melodrama in this film, like with the ‘saththunavu thittam’ portions, or that scene in which an impoverished sibling duo speaks to Jaya through a car window. Some scenes, like the transformation of a hostile crowd, feel a bit too convenient as well, almost like the resolutions in the film are far too easy than they likely were. There’s also another problem, a familiar one with films that have multilingual aspirations: the dreaded lip-sync issue. This becomes particularly irksome because the real woman that this biopic is based on, was admired for her eloquence not just in English but in Tamil as well.

Among the pleasures of this film is its quick commentary on the nature of power and politics. There’s the suggestion that politics ruins the pleasures of a normal life. In fact, there’s quite a bit of incisive dialogue writing in this film. MJR, for instance, makes a wise remark about political success: “Nee makkala virumbinaa, avanga unna virumbuvaanga.” I liked that a ‘meesai vechai aambalai’ taunt results in the victory of a woman instead. Or how about a passing conversation at a hospital when someone expresses gratitude to god for saving MJR’s life, and Karuna (Nasser), ever the rationalist, quips, “God? Let’s thank science and doctors instead.”

You also see a refusal to villainise individuals in this film. The big villain, as Vijayendra Prasad astutely notes, is the system itself that seems hostile to authoritative women. In this film that centres on MJR and Jaya, it’s to its credit that it’s careful about its portrayal of Karuna. At one point, MJR speaks of his respect for Karuna and how he’s quite happy to have the latter lead and run affairs. For the longest time, I suspected whether this film would vilify RM Veerappan (RN Veerappan in this film). Admirably though, it doesn’t bite, even if it shows that he, like Jaya herself, isn’t one to be easily dissuaded from achieving his objectives. I enjoyed that the film seems to like his character, and this is also largely due to the wonderfully restrained performance from Samuthirakani. 

While on performances, Arvind Swami bears uncanny resemblance to MGR in this film and it’s a pleasure to watch him glow in the vast time he’s given. In fact, I dare say that this film is as much about MJR as it is about Jaya. I suppose it’s impossible to say the latter’s story without expanding on the former. I liked how Arvind Swami plays this character in such a way that you never see him lose a sense of self-assurance, even when he radiates vulnerability in the presence of Jaya—even if he won’t put his feelings in words. That’s why at one point, Jaya says a beautiful line: “If you want to speak in silence, we can do that.”

For all its clever writing and the mass moments inherent in the story Thalaivii chooses to tell, I still can’t shake off the discomfort of being privy, yet again, to only the positives of a public personality who also faced quite a bit of criticism in her life. It’s like the love stories that end with the couple getting married, without caring that the real problems likely begin after it. In the case of Jayalalithaa, it might be fascinating to learn so much more: the seeming dependency on a coterie, that lavish wedding, a supposed tendency to believe in superstition, her own brushes with the court cases, and her resurgence, of course… 

Perhaps now that we have seen this phase of her life get romanticised quite a few times, someone just might come along to show us the individual behind the leader, the woman behind the queen. Knowing the limitations often enforced on art in our society though—and the largely risk-free approach of our cinema— I’ll not be waiting on the edge of my seat. I suspect that instead, we might get a few more iterations of this same story. I’m told that at least one more is on the way.

Director: Vijay
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Nasser, Samuthirakani

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