Tughlaq Durbar

With cinemas still closed here in Melbourne. I’ve just got round to watching Tughlaq Durbar online. Advertised as a political satire, the film is based on a good initial idea but the story fails to capitalise on this as well as expected. There is plenty of comedy that works well and Vijay Sethupathi is his usual charismatic self, but overall the film fails to engage especially in the second half. 

Singaravelan (Vijay Sethupathi) aka Singam is a fanatical follower of local politician Rayappan (Parthiban) and has been since birth. In fact, he was born during one of Rayappan’s political rallies, and this seems to have imbued the young Singam with a devotion to his leader that surpasses all other ties. Singam’s mother died shortly after giving birth to his sister, Manimegalai (Manjima Mohan) and after their father also dies, the pair are brought up by the local community. However, Singam’s fanaticism causes him to be cruel and unfeeling to his sister, and as a result she stops speaking to him – although it’s not clear if Singam even notices. The worst thing to note about Singam is that he also hates dogs, something that ensures that to me his character appears as black and evil as possible for a small-time political wannabe. 

Despite the best efforts of the party faithful, who have no time for the young upstart, Singam manages to ingratiate himself with Rayappan. After various shenanigans mainly manipulating Rayappan’s right hand man Managalam (Bhagavathi Perumal), Singam manages to be nominated as the candidate for his home area. However, an argument with Managalam at a party celebration results in Singam being hit on the head, with a rather unusual result. 

Somehow the head injury brings about a split personality with a ‘good’ Singam who loves his sister, likes dogs (already he’s won me over!) and is concerned about  the community, and the ‘normal’ Singam who is only interested in keeping Rayappan happy. I loved how this is shown on screen with Singam’s shadow gradually splitting as he walks down an alley way underneath flickering overhead lights. It makes it really clear what is happening, just as Singam’s sudden appreciation of dogs makes it clear that this is a completely different personality. I also appreciated that Singam develops a left eye blepharospasm when his personality shifts, and his best mate Vasu (Karunakaran) finds this a helpful indication of just when Singam is going to do something unexpected.

Having set the scene with a great idea and a couple of excellent segments where ‘good’ Singam takes over to thwart ‘normal’ Singam’s plans, writer/director Delhi Prasad Deenadayalan seems to run out of steam. Once Singam is nominated to run on the party ticket, the film turns into a rather plodding tale of stolen money and the usual corruption associated with politicians. I couldn’t decide if Deenadayalan was trying to make a statement with some of the rambling dialogues or if he just thought that every film based on politicians should make some mention of corruption. Some of the dialogue is brilliant such as that around Rayappan’s need for an unthinking fanatical follower who will do whatever is needed, or Singam’s response to his sister being abused at her workplace. But outside of the comedy, much of the rest is rote and repetitive. 

Particularly disappointing is the sidelining of Manimegalai, especially since she is apparently one of the reasons behind ‘good’ Singam’s plans for the area and a catalyst for change. There was so much more that could have been achieved using the relationship between the brother and sister but after a good start Manimegalai becomes nothing more than the symbol of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘normal’ Singam.

There is also a rather shaky romance with Kamatchi (Raashi Khanna), the daughter of a local money lender that Singam kidnaps for ransom. It’s mostly one-sided with Kamatchi falling for Singam except for 1 song which feels rather out of place with the switch to Singam mooning after Kamatchi. As the standard love interest, the character of Kamatchi is nothing more than a reason for a fight scene, or a way for Singam to get the money he needs.  Overall, it’s the comedy that works best in the film, with the story seemingly taking second place to the set-up of these comedic skits. Vijay Sethupathi, Parathiban and Karunakaran are excellent comedic actors, and all deliver good performances but the lack of a good story means that the film drags once the set up is done. However, Govind Vasantha’s songs and background score are good, especially the more upbeat political rallying number although none are particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and the lightening in particular is superb in many of the sequences adding to the distinction between the two versions of Singam. 

This should have been a much better film, with a good cast, novel idea and good comedic dialogue. But there is no emotional heart to the film, and without a good follow-up plot, good performances aren’t enough to make this anymore than a one-time watch. It’s not terrible, but the most disappointing part is that Tughlaq Durbar could have been so much more. 2.5 stars.

Jagame Thandhiram (2021)

I’ve been a fan of Karthik Subbaraj’s previous films, even his venture with Rajini, but he seems to miss the mark this time. Despite an excellent cast and some good ideas, Jagame Thandhiram fails to engage as it should, mainly due to its over 2 ½ hour run time. But there is also a clash of themes, with the first half of the film being a typically violent gangster film with flashes of comedy that doesn’t mix well with the political ideology and humanitarian motif in the second. The supposed redemption of the lead character is also problematic, but at least Dhanush has enough charm to induce a whiff of plausibility to the change.

The film sets the scene with a violent murder in the streets of London before moving back to Tamil Nadu and introducing a local rowdy Suruli (Dhanush). Suruli’s reputation is such that his bride prefers to leave him immediately after the ceremony rather than go through with the marriage, but when a London gang is looking for a murderer for hire, they decide that Suruli would be the ideal fit. Lured away from his parotta restaurant by the promise of vast sums of money, Suruli finds himself working for a white supremacist by the name of Peter (James Cosmo) while his childhood friend Vicky (Sharath Ravi) translates Peter’s demands. This actually works well as a device to show that we tend to hear what we want to hear and not what is actually being said. However, with so much else going on, the translation issue tends to get pushed to the background.

Peter’s target is a Tamil gangster Sivadoss (Joju George) who was behind the murder of one of Peter’s men in the opening scenes. Sivadoss is a smuggler, primarily trading in guns for gold, but he also is involved in assisting refugees to settle in the UK. As a bigoted anti-immigrant, Peter is violently opposed to immigration and decides to use a brown man, Suruli, to solve a brown man problem – Sivadoss. So far so good, with Peter’s over the top posturing not too unrealistic given similar behaviour has actually occurred far too frequently in real life recently. But just when everything seems to be settling in for a nicely violent gangster film, Karthik Subbaraj decides to introduce a secondary theme that ultimately derails the film.

On one of his outings with Vicky, Suruli spots Attilla (Aishwarya Lekshmi) who is singing in a bar. There follows the usual tired and very outdated love at first sight trope that really needs to be allowed to rest in peace, but at least Attilla does push back – at first anyway. The whole romance feels like a bad fit with the rest of the film, and more like a nod to appeal to a mass audience rather than a genuine attempt to add something different to the screenplay. But in the second half, Attilla shares her past which moves the story in a different direction although unfortunately, none of this proceeds in a way that fits with the previous storyline or is even slightly believable. Added to that, both leads look uncomfortable with each other, which ensures the romance never takes off either and makes the final point of using Attilla as Surali’s redemption a step too far that misses by a mile.

Although the story fails to deliver to Karthik Subbaraj’s usual standard, the cast mostly fit well into their roles. It’s just a shame they are all acting in a different film to each other. Dhanush has played this type of gangster film many times before and perhaps that’s why he seems less than thrilled with some of the scenes. The action sequences are great, but he seems as bemused by the romance as I was, and it’s really only the scenes where he is double-crossing anyone and everyone that genuinely come alive. Joju George and James Cosmo are both very good in their roles but of the two, Joju has the better role. The character of Peter is one-dimensional to a point that makes him almost a cartoon figure, while at least Sivadoss has more shades and better dialogue. The various other gang members are mostly interchangeable and superfluous with even Vicky being relegated to the background as the violence heats up. Aishwarya Lekshmi is totally wasted in a role that probably looked good on paper, but doesn’t work at all within the context of the rest of the film. 

What does work well are the action sequences which are beautifully choreographed and flow easily into the storyline. The music from Santhosh Narayanan is also good and the songs also fit well into the film. It was also good to see parts of London on screen and the usual chilly British weather ensuring everyone (apart from James Cosmo) looked suitably frozen in any outdoor scene. James Cosmo benefited from a rather warm looking coat and cashmere scarf and so looked much more comfortable, but then as a Scot is probably more used to the cold anyway! And if you’ve ever wondered how Scottish dancing would look with Tamil music, wonder no more.

Jagame Thandhiram could have been a really good gangster film, or a really good refugee film, but it can’t be both. The combination storyline makes for an overly long running time and the two halves never gel together. As a result Suruli’s character is also problematic, having made too many bad decisions in the first half for any of the events in the second to ring true. There are lots of good ideas, but for once Karthik Subbaraj fails to bring them all together and the usual deliciously wicked humour is totally missing. Perhaps if it had been a 4 episode web series it might have had the space required to fully develop the story, but even with two and a half hours, there just isn’t enough time to make it work here. 2½ stars.

Mandela (2021)

Madonne Ashwin’s political satire takes an election in a small village in Tamil Nadu as the backdrop for issues of caste, corruption and electoral rights. It’s mostly framed as a comedy, but there is plenty of emotional drama in the final scenes, and for all the jokes, the issues still come across as serious problems for society. Yogi Babu shines in the lead role, playing a low caste barber with easy humility and plenty of charm. G.M.Sundar and Kanna Ravi get to snarl at each other across the village divide, while Sheena Rajkumar is excellent as the level headed postmaster adding sanity to the proceedings.

The story is based around the fact that the village of Soorangudi is divided in two with a fierce rivalry between those who live in the north and those who live in the south. The rivalry is caste based and to try and keep the peace, the village leader has two wives, one from each faction in the village. But Devi, from the north, wants her husband to favour her son Rathinam (G.M. Sundar) while southern Valli stands up for her son Mathi (Kanna Ravi). As a result, while the arrangement may be to try and create peace in the village it has the opposite effect for the leader’s household. All the president’s attempts to improve the village founder at the feet of the village rivalry and there is no peace for anyone in the village while Rathinam and Mathi each try to make their mark.

The film starts with the kidnap of a man heading out into the woods for his morning ritual dump. His presence is needed at the unveiling of a new toilet in the village to ensure that the northerners enforce their ownership and block any southerners from trying to use the new facility. But the southerners also turn up in force, and in the ensuing chaos the toilet is smashed, ensuring no-one, north or south, is able to use the hygienic solution to public defecation. The scene sums up the problem in a microcosm. There is the leader, trying to forge a centralist path, but harangued on either side by his two wives. The women of the village look on in horror as the men once again destroy something that would have made their lives much easier, while the village barber Smile (Yogi Babu) is humiliated and belittled for no other reason than his lower caste status. It’s perfectly done and an excellent introduction to the various characters and their place in the village hierarchy.

When the village president suffers a stroke, his two sons each vow to stand in the election, pitting north against south in a race to win precedence. The votes are equally split between the two brothers until Smile, with his new name Nelson Mandela, is the recipient of a brand new voter card. Suddenly Mandela has the deciding vote in the election and no expense can be spared to buy his favour.

The basic idea here is excellent, and for the most part the film lives up to the introduction, poking fun at numerous societal issues within the village which afflict the greater population on a more general scale. Having been in Tamil Nadu a few years ago while local elections were being held, I well remember the mania that seemed to ensue, and writer director Madonne Ashwin captures the hysteria around the election perfectly. At the same time, each scene references a political issue. Whether it be caste, the lack of local education, poor roads and public defecation, all are brought to light as the brothers focus on what their (male) supporters want and ignore the needs of the village completely.

What works well is how Mandela reacts when Rathinam and Mathi each try to buy his vote with favours. It’s very natural that he accepts everything he is offered and tries to get as much as he can out of the two warring brothers. As the situation escalates and the bribes become threats, Mandela’s bafflement with the way he is treated is clearly depicted although there is still the same resigned acceptance that this is just his lot in the world. Mandela’s attitude is contrasted with that of his apprentice, Sideburn, who quickly sees that nothing has really changed, and the villagers still don’t respect Mandela or what he does for them. It takes an act of violence for Mandela to understand he is still at the very bottom of the village hierarchy, and realise that he will be discarded just as soon as the election is over.

Another excellent piece of writing sees Mandela get his name from the postmistress Thenmozhi (Sheena Rajkumar), who arranges an account for him along with an ID and voter card. Thenmozhi is a person who gets things done. She fixes the broken door to the post office herself and extends a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Her character is the breath of fresh air that the village needs, but refuses to take, while she is the only person who seems to show Mandela any respect. It’s always refreshing when there isn’t a female romantic lead, and in fact Thenmozhi is the absolute opposite. She’s from another village so doesn’t buy into the north/south divide and has no prejudice to overcome. I loved her firm, no nonsense attitude and Sheena Rajkumar does an excellent job with her character.

Mandela is a clever look at the political system that pokes fun at the leaders, their followers and even the issues that fuel political debates. It’s funny and charming at the same time, mainly thanks to Yogi Babu, but there is a serious message that still gets across despite all the laughs. Definitely one to watch and an excellent addition to the genre. 4 stars.