Thalaivaa (2013)


Thalaivaa is the latest release for Vijay, and although it’s not as instantly entertaining as his last film Thuppakki, it’s still a mostly enjoyable watch.  Vijay is excellent (although he doesn’t tread any new ground), and impressive performances by Santhanam and Amala Paul add to the overall impact, but it’s really Sathyaraj who steals the show as the reluctant saviour of the people.  Thalaivaa is also the latest film to release here in Melbourne with English subtitles, and I can only hope that this trend will continue.  Thanks to the Powers That Be in Chennai who have finally started to distribute subtitled films to locations outside of the US and UK – please can you start on the smaller releases now too?

A.L. Vijay’s Thalaivaa is really a story of two halves.  It starts off with some political shenanigans in Mumbai which sets up the story for the rest of the film.  Ratnam (Nasser) is a political leader who is targeted by his opponents during a riot.  However he is saved, along with his young son by Ramadurai (Sathyaraj), who pays for his brief foray into politics when he himself is later ambushed and his wife killed.  Ramadurai hands his son over to Ratnam in the hope that he will have a better and safer life overseas, while Ramadurai stays and fights for the rights of the underprivileged Tamil people in Mumbai.  After such a serious and well-constructed beginning, the film suddenly changes direction completely as we move to Sydney where Viswa (Vijay) and his ‘brother’ Logu (Santhanam) are running a water bottling company.

ThalaivaaVijay and Santhanam

Although Viswa seems to be doing incredibly well with his small company given his expensive apartment with views of the bridge and waterfront, he also has ambitions to make the big time as a dancer.  The first half is light-hearted and there is plenty of humour as Viswa and Logu compete for the affections of Meera (Amala Paul), the daughter of one of their bottled water customers (Ponvannan).  Sydney provides a picturesque backdrop for the songs, although the entire dance competition storyline is very contrived and unrealistic, not that there is anything unusual in that. However the really dumb entrance by Meera chasing a CGI butterfly is offset by her feisty and assured character who even gets to show off her dancing skills and proves to be just as good as the guys.  Amala Paul is excellent as Meera and manages to create a believable personality with just a few scenes.  Sadly she has much less screen-time in the second half and her character becomes even more clichéd, but she does a good job with her limited material, and she looks stunning too.


Inevitably Meera and Viswa fall in love, but Meera’s father insists on meeting Ramadurai before the wedding can go ahead.  However Ramadurai is now Anna, an underworld figure who rules the slum areas of Mumbai and ensures his own brand of justice for his people.  As such, he’s wanted by the police, and Viswa’s arrival into Mumbai is a major headache for his father and his loyal followers.


There is an unexpected plot twist after Viswa lands in Mumbai and the film changes tack again into a more typical mass-style thriller with the expected chase sequences through back alleyways and eventual, rather predictable final showdown fight scene.  Viswa ends up taking over his father role and his transition from carefree dancer and small businessman to serious leader of the people isn’t well developed and seems rather too abrupt.   Abhimanyu Singh plays Viswa’s main rival Bhima and his character is also majorly underdeveloped despite a good starting premise.  I’d like to see Abhimanyu Singh do more than just flex and grimace at the camera as he seems to have done in his last few films, since he has played more nuanced characters in the past, and played them well too.  However, we don’t get any real depth from his character here and it makes absolutely no sense that the political power brokers decide to back such a demented thug with his wholesale plans of indiscriminate violence.  But back him they do, and despite a few unexpected twists, the story winds its way through the standard formula of good guy looking out for the welfare of the people vs. uncaring thug, only interested in power.


The second half drags in places as we tick off each point on the ‘standard Tamil thriller storyboard’, although there are some excellent scenes amid all the clichés which liven up proceeding again.  But its uneven and even the best efforts of Vijay, Santhanam and Sathyaraj can’t stop the feeling that we’ve seen all this before.


Still, the film is well shot by experienced cinematographer Nirav Shah with good use of the cityscape in Sydney, and equally good cinematography in the dock and slum areas of Mumbai.  The choreography is well suited to Vijay and Amala who share good chemistry together.  The songs by G. V. Prakash Kumar are generally catchy, apart from a more political song in the second half which could have been shorter.  Ragini Nandwani also puts in a good performance as a second love interest, and the rest of the cast provide able support to the main leads.ThalaivaaThalaivaa

Overall Thalaivaa is rather less than the sum of its parts, but there are enough individually good scenes along with polished and assured performances to make it mostly entertaining.  The story really needs to be sharper to offset the stereotypical characterisations but I still came away feeling that Thalaivaa is worth seeing on the big screen.  Watch for Sathyaraj, Vijay and those dance scenes around Darling Harbour and Circular Quay which really are excellent.


I picked up Madrasapattinam with a little trepidation; after all Indian historical films featuring a cast heavy on English actors don’t usually bode well. But I was pleasantly surprised as, although there are tinges of Lagaan and a few cringe-worthy moments, overall Madrasapattinam fares somewhat better than expected. There is still the issue of almost uniformly ‘evil English’ and ‘good Indian’ characters, meaning most of the supporting cast are very one-dimensional. However the leads give good enough performances that apart from one notable exception, I could ignore the clichés and just enjoy how beautiful the film looks.

The film begins with the elderly Amy Wilkinson determined to return to India and find a man she last saw some 60 years previously. Ostensibly she wants to return a Thali necklace given to her as she feels it does not belong to her. As she is also quite seriously ill she travels with her increasingly whiney and irritatingly useless granddaughter Catherine who is supposed to be looking after her. To aid her search Amy has a photograph she took in 1945 but little else other than a name.

When they arrive in Chennai Amy starts to relive her time in India, when she was the young daughter of the Governor, and this is when the film really comes alive.  The young Amy is picked up at the station by the Commissioner of Police, Robert Ellis (Alexx O’Nell), and straight away he’s my biggest problem with this film. Why does every English bad guy have to be the most evil and despicable person on screen? It’s very obvious from the first time we meet him that this is a man with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever and it’s difficult to keep watching and not just skip his scenes. In my opinion he could have been made much more interesting if he was just thoughtless and greedy rather than consistently evil, but sadly he’s just vile and repulsive and it’s very obvious from the very beginning how he is going to behave throughout the film.

On the trip to the Governor’s residence Amy meets Parithi (Arya) in classic ‘meet the hero’ style since she sees him running to save a donkey from the path of her runaway car. Parithi works as a dhobi and in his spare time he wrestles with local trainer Ayyakanu; a man with an impressive moustache who isn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the ring himself. Added to Partithi’s ability to run, wrestle and save animals is his most perfect feature – he can iron. Naturally Amy falls in love with her ‘brave man’ as he fights against the English plans to build a golf course on the area where the villagers work and live. It becomes a personal vendetta between evil Robert and Parithi as they are both also competing for Amy’s attention and since they are playing by different rules you know that it’s not going to end well.

Amy and Parithi meet each other in secret, and there are some lovely scenes as they struggle to overcome their language barrier. They have an ingenious if somewhat laborious method of communication, as Amy draws pictures on her clothes of where and when they will meet which Parithi then has to launder off. Amy spends much of her time in the village with her camera, and the villagers seem to love her just as much as she loves them. However when Indian Independence finally arrives it means the end of her romance unless she can escape with Parithi. Their plans are naturally foiled by evil Robert who chases them through the Independence celebrations determined that if he can’t marry Amy then no-one will.

The romance between Amy and Parithi is the best part of the film. Amy Jackson is stunningly beautiful and is convincing as a young English girl in the post-war period. She is nicely restrained in her scenes with Parithi, but charmingly natural with Parithi’s sister Selvi and the village children. Arya is excellent as the strong and mostly silent Parithi who is determined not to back down in the face of the English oppression.

There are many genuinely funny scenes which are well integrated into the narrative, and these help the film from getting too bogged down in all the drama of the fight for the village and the seemingly doomed romance. Tension is well build up in the chase scenes although these could have been cut a little without losing too much of the suspense. Cochin Hanifa as the translator Nambi and Nassar as Ayyakanu are the best of the supporting actors but the story revolves around Amy and Partithi and no-one else has an awful lot to do.

The film does look beautiful with well constructed sets which seem to be representative of 1940’s Madras, particularly to someone like me who’s only ever seen the modern version from 1990 onwards. There are one or two instances of rather dodgy CGI but these are fleeting and don’t really disrupt the story so they are ignorable. The end credits feature old pictures of Madras landmarks followed by their current appearance which really was fascinating. One anachronism for me was one of the actors had an apparent artificial eye. While this was possible from the time period, I don’t really think it’s all that likely that a dhobi would have had access to this especially post WWII where prosthesis were a luxury. But that’s just my obsession and I’ll just see how many people spot him.

The modern day scenes are somewhat hampered by an incredibly wooden performance from Lisa Lazarus as Amy’s granddaughter although Carole Trungmar is rather better as the elderly Amy and her periods of abstraction fit her character well. The story is compelling and the final scenes in the present day give a satisfying conclusion. While the soundtrack by G. V. Prakash Kumar is perfectly adequate it doesn’t stand out as particularly memorable. The first song is set in the dhobi village by the river and I’m sure intentionally, is very reminiscent of Ghanana Ghanana Ghir from Lagaan, although in this case they are asking the rain not to come. The rest of the songs have less dancing than I would have preferred but we do get the opportunity to see Arya in an outfit that looks as if he has just escaped from a totally different period film as consolation.

While evil Robert and the standard ‘English opression’ storyline did annoy me in this film, the romance is quite charming and I think the two leads manage to carry the story well. The parts of this film that I like, I really do like very much but the parts that I don’t like, I really do dislike very much. Which means a lot of fast forwarding when rewatching. As far as historical romances go it’s certainly not the worst I’ve seen and I give it 3 stars, although one of those is for a hero who can iron!

Temple says: I don’t have the same issue with evil Robert that Heather does. He shouts, snarls, twitches, bullies his underlings, has a pit full of decomposing bodies in his backyard and constructs overly elaborate revenge plans. In short, he’s like almost every other filmi villain. I do have an issue with the atrocious acting by the guy who plays Amy’s father. Distractingly bad. Given to long….pauses. For no reason. And delivered other lines. Like this. Staccato. Caroline Trungmar was not impressive as the older Amy as she seemed catatonic for most of the film but her Titanic inspired role was mostly to sit and look like she was remembering so I may be a bit harsh in my judgement. The tradition of really bad acting by white extras seems to be alive and well and was embraced by many in this cast.  As they were mostly caricatures rather than fully developed characters I don’t know that a more nuanced performance would have been much help. The Indian supporting cast were all pretty good, and Cochin Hanifa is lots of fun as are Parithi’s friends.

I was more distracted by the indeterminate historical period of the costumes and dialogues. As the film starts in 1945, the European costumes are often very wrong indeed and the dialogue sounds as though some of it was lifted from Dickens rather than a comparatively modern family. And the Europeans’ manners at the dance…well.

But the film is really about Parithi and Amy and if you can enjoy their developing love story, then it is a pleasant enough timepass. Arya is excellent as the strong silent type, prone to flexing and ironing. Who could ask for more? Ok well, if you want more, he also wrestles.  Amy Jackson looked more like a footballer’s girlfriend than a 1940s heroine but I think she is one of the least embarrassing gori love interests in an Indian historical film that I have seen. Their interactions are simple and often Amy follows Parithi about as he works, allowing us to observe the villagers life and see the diverse supporting characters in play. They have a nice rapport, and the scenes with Selvi (Parithi’s sister) are genuinely touching.

The look of old Madrasapattinam is very picturesque and the olden days scenes are pretty and dominated by sepia tones that help keep the mood of past times. The modern city of Chennai is a contrast in grey and blue, cold and confusing. This feels very much like a pastiche of Lagaan and Titanic with a dash of Kisna and it is entertaining rather than informative.

I give this 3 stars – for a good looking film, with good looking stars and a positive message that men who iron are heroes.