Sarkar (2018)

Sarkar

2018 seems to be the year for political movies, particularly those where the hero is an outsider deciding to run for office. After NOTA and Bharat Ane Nenu, this time it’s Sundar Ramasamy (Vijay) a self-styled ‘corporate criminal’ who decides to take on the corrupt Chief Minister during elections in Tamil Nadu. A.R. Murugadoss has added in some real-life scenarios which help add interest to a plot that otherwise features little more than a routine ‘Vijay saves the world’ storyline. After his recent films supporting education for women and rights for farmers, Sarkar seems to be Vijay’s most overt statement so far that he is considering a career in politics, although I do hope that if he ever does follow through, he has a better campaign manager than Sundar does here.

I’m not sure that being a ‘corporate criminal’, ‘monster’ or ‘the Genghis Khan of the corporate world’ are particularly desirable qualities for the CEO of a company in the USA, but that is how Sundar is described by both his rivals and his colleagues. Sundar himself seems to be more of a wealthy playboy as he runs around Las Vegas with an entourage of women and bodyguards before hopping onto a private jet back to India. Apparently we are to believe that Sundar makes this trip solely to cast a vote in the upcoming elections, which seems fairly extreme and makes him more of an environmental terrorist rather than corporate criminal. However, various CEO’s and company directors are able to breathe a sigh of relief that Sundar isn’t planning a takeover of their company, but is simply a strong believer in exercising his democratic right. Instead, after finding out that someone has already cast his vote due to the corrupt practices of the incumbent political party, Sundar turns his adversarial sights to CM Masilamani (Pala. Karuppiah) and his side-kick Malarvannan (Radha Ravi) aka Rendu.

Vijay is always excellent in these sorts of roles where he has to mix stirring speeches with action and a stern but righteous expression. He still looks incredibly young, but this time sports a salt and pepper beard, which does give him some maturity and suits the more serious situations. However, for the most part his character’s actions are not believable and many of the political issues are dealt with too simplistically to be completely engaging. Still, Vijay has plenty of charisma and is able to carry the film easily.

Sundar gives up his day job to run for office, which doesn’t ring true despite his spirited speech to an antagonist crowd about his lowly origins as a fisherman’s son. However the speech itself is excellent with a well thrown tomato is used as a metaphor for greed and the plight of humble workers. Later, Sundar uses his missed vote as a way to educate everyone about regulation 49-P and to convince his audience that every single vote is important. These are some of the best parts of the film, where Sundar motivates the masses and exposes the corruption at every level of government. When Vijay is in full speechifying mode he is very impressive but when it comes back to individual dialogue the unlikeliness of some scenarios does reduce their impact.

Both Pala. Karuppiah and Radha Ravi excel at traditional-minded, self-serving and corrupt politicians, but their conventional behaviour means that most of the confrontations between Sundar, Masilamani and Rendu follow an entirely predictable path.  As their power, prestige and ability to make millions in easy money is threatened, Rendu employs the police and multitudes of disposable minions to remove Sundar from the public eye. He never considers that every action will be recorded by the common man on his/her mobile phone, and that the media is on hand too to record every shady deal, even going as far as to walk out of a TV interview when Sundar arrives. However, Sundar’s response is also classic underdog reaction and despite all the wonderful slow-motion fight scenes and rousing rhetoric, for the most part Sundar is just as predictable as the politicians he opposes.

Perhaps to counteract this old-school predictability, Murugadoss adds another villain in the form of Komalavalli (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), Masilamani’s daughter. This could have worked well, except for Varalaxmi’s stilted dialogue and odd expression, as if there is continually a bad smell right under her nose. I can’t understand how such a usually expressive actor is so lifeless here, but then little about her character makes sense. She tells her father not to worry, that while Sundar may be a corporate criminal she has been a criminal since birth, but there is no explanation of why. Why is Komalavalli the brains behind her father’s political career?  Why then was she in Canada instead of Tamil Nadu when the elections were being held? So many questions and absolutely no answers. Instead Komalavalli is a one-dimensional character whose sole reason to exist seems to be to cause general misery wherever she goes. While at least her presence does give Sundar an opponent with the smarts to fight back, she’s too little too late and just too shallow to be a completely worthy adversary.

Even worse though is the inclusion of Keerthy Suresh as Sundar’s love interest, Nila. Nila is Sundar’s sister-in-law, although the marriage between Nila’s sister and Sundar’s brother has broken down. Sundar and Nila restart a relationship seems to be more friendship rather than anything else apart from one dream sequence song. For most of the time Nila follows Sundar around, stands in the background, and then follows him around some more. This type of political film doesn’t need a romance, certainly not a nothing of a romance that doesn’t even deserve the word, and there really seems to be little point in including Nila or her jealous reaction when Sundar dances with someone else.

Sarkar isn’t a bad film, it’s just a surprisingly ordinary offering from a film-maker who normally delivers a more exciting and well-polished story. Vijay is excellent and the film technically looks great with well choreographed fight sequences and good use of crowd scenes. A shout-out to for the generally very good subtitles, although none of the writing (including a very long piece of text at the start of the film) was subbed. Still, good to see other groups using the same style as Rekhs and adding English idiom rather than direct and nonsensical translations. The other departments are all fine too. A.R. Rahman’s music doesn’t particularly stand out apart from Oru Viral Puratchi, but it is well placed in the film and works as a rousing to action song while the others generally blend into the screenplay without disrupting the action.

The support cast, including Yogi Babu and a large number of students, voters and election officials are all very good and the parts of the story that deal with the mobilisation and politicalisation of the ‘common man’ are well handled. It’s really the predictability of the film that brings it back to earth and the knowledge that whatever happens, Sundar will best his political foes. His path to power seems to happen very easy, and very quickly here – there are massive poll swings from 5% to 80% literally in the course of one day, and a voting result that can be swayed in just a few hours. If only it were that simple! Overall, Sarkar is a watchable and reasonably entertaining film that works fine as a political stepping stone for Vijay but just could have been that little bit better. Worth watching for Vijay, Radha Ravi and the idea of what could happen when ‘ common people’ take action!

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Sarkar

I held out on watching Sarkar til a couple of years ago. I’m ambivalent about Ram Gopal Varma films. When he is good, he is terrific. But he has wasted some interesting ideas and great actors in projects that seem to be more about RGV than making a film (like RGV ki Aag, and that film all about Mahie Gill’s cleavage). I’m also on the fence about Amitabh Bachchan in this late career phase. He’s made some bad film choices (like Boom!) and not always acted to his ability. But Sarkar combines a focussed and controlled RGV with a complex performance from Amitabh and the result is a dark and gripping film.

Subhash Nagre (Amitabh) is an old school mafia lord. He believes in family, honour and loyalty. He isn’t painted as really good or sympathetic but he has a certain integrity, an old fashioned set of rules that he adheres to and that he upholds. Nagre is connected to his community and neighbourhood, and thinks of the social cost as well as the profit and loss numbers. His people worship him, gathering outside his mansion to catch a glimpse of their Sarkar. They come to him when the system fails them, and he is their justice. Amitabh looks picture perfect. He creates a focal point in every scene with his stillness and his gaze. I found I was almost hypnotised by him, drawn to watching Subhash’s reactions no matter what else was happening. There is a carefully controlled rage in some scenes that is far more unnerving than any histrionics would have been.

While Subhash acknowledges that he operates outside the law, he says ‘I do what is right for the people’. When people come to him asking for solutions, he accepts their obeisance with little expression. He makes a semblance of not wanting people to touch his feet etc but I wondered what would happen to anyone who dared not to. Some scenes are accompanied by a religious chant(Govinda Govinda featuring Amitabh’s vocals) showing the deification of Sarkar. There are glimpses of the monstrous ego behind the facade, the steely will that does not tolerate opposition or failure, and the carefully checked anger. We also see the family man and affectionate grandfather. Subhash Nagre is a complex man and he is a master strategist. Amitabh shows all of these nuances without being too actorly and I was watching the character, not the performance.

Subhash Nagre is challenged from within and without his family. Rashid (Zakir Hussain) is the new type of criminal. His decisions are all commercial and he has no empathy or reserve. He is not the kind of man Subhash is used to. There is no whitewashing of how Nagre makes his money, but the clashes hinge on honour and intent. He will not budge from his principles. His enemies know that to remove the man they must first destroy his reputation.

Son Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) returns from the US. Baby B has a role where doing an impression of his dad is actually appropriate. Initially believing that his father simply helps others, his eyes are opened to the realities of the family business. In a conversation with Pooja (Katrina Kaif) they refer to the Sarkar empire as a parallel government, supporting the people and doing what is right, not just what is legal. Shankar is appalled at how his father is portrayed in the media. He is the golden boy, the one his father wanted to keep clean and safe from the business. The focus and decision making Shankar used in his corporate life are now applied to his family concerns. He is a quick learner and he will do what it takes.

Abhishek is not completely convincing but he does structure his performance well. Initially Shankar is relaxed and engaging and his body language is more open. As he is drawn more into the threats to his dad, he assumes more of Subhash’s mannerisms and strategies. Abhishek’s face becomes less expressive, he speaks more slowly and moves more deliberately. And he is ice cold, like his father.

Vishnu (Kay Kay Menon) is the son most like his father in ambition, but lacking focus and self control. The tension in father-son relationship is well depicted as Vishnu challenges his father’s authority and decision making. The dynamic between Shankar and Vishnu is also fraught as Vishnu desperately wants to be taken seriously, to be the next Sarkar. Quick to flare up or retaliate he has no ‘off’ switch and only intermittent self awareness.

The pain of rejection drives him, and makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Vishnu is co-opted by his father’s enemies, and spirals into confusion, hate, anger and regret. He is an oddly sympathetic character despite committing some of the most heinous acts. I think that is due to the complex and changing emotions Kay Kay invests him with. Kay Kay is expressive and emotional where Amitabh is smouldering control.

The Nagre mansion is a world away from the glaring light and sound of the streets. It is almost timeless, and full of shadows and silhouettes. All around there are men at arms working out and waiting for trouble. The family live in a small pocket of domesticity within the encampment. It’s a bit claustrophobic, but also serene and sometimes beautiful. It is the price Nagre pays as he needs to be safe but accessible to the people who give him his status.

All around Mumbai there are shadowy figures in dark room havings meetings and plotting Subhash’s downfall. The story is well written by Manish Gupta, and gains in intensity as more deceptions unfold. Kota Srinivasa Rao is the repulsive Selvaramani, chortling his way through schemes and double crosses. His idea of honouring a friendship is requesting a quick death for someone. Anupam Kher has a small role as an anti-corruption politician and still manages to try and upstage everyone with a hammy death scene. Raju Mavani as Vishram Bhagat is the everyman type of villain – he seems perfectly reasonable yet he is calculating and meticulous in scheming to dethrone Nagre. Telugu actor Jeeva as Swami is less successful. His mannerisms and dialogue delivery are hammy, and while I believed he was a serious threat his wig didn’t convince me at all.

Supriya Pathak delivers a good performance as the mother watching her son go off the rails and placing her family in deadly jeopardy. Tanisha is likeable as Avantika, the foster daughter who is in love with Shankar. Katrina Kaif is not entirely terrible as Shankar’s American based girlfriend Pooja. But the women in Sarkar are background – providing all the support systems and needs for the menfolk, but not often in the spotlight. These relationships are important, and there is a lot of affection between family members but the men take care of business while the women take care of the men.

The visual design and camerawork throughout Sarkar is excellent and reinforces the drama and emotion. The majority of the film is shot in tight close ups, making the characters the focal point. When things move out into a broader shot, the background detail and bustle of extras and locations gives a strong real world flavour. Amar Mohile’s music is dramatic but not intrusive and the sound effects and orchestration are very effective.

It’s a fairly grim movie. There are lots of unlikeable characters and they do some despicable things. But it is such an accomplished film and just drags me in to that world. Every time I see it Amitabh reminds me yet again of why he is such a legend. Sarkar Raj was a worthy sequel, and builds on Sarkar very well. I’m cautiously looking forward to Department to see if RGV and the Big B can do it again in a different story. 4 stars.

Heather says: This isn’t one of my favourite Amitabh films despite the fact that I think he plays the part of the aging gangster well.  I think the problem is that the story of the film doesn’t engage my interest until near the end and I just don’t care enough about any of the characters to want to know what happens to them. However it does have some good points and the end is almost worth sitting through the preceding hour and a half. I do like how cold and clinical Amitabh appears and that his ruthless Don does have a more compassionate side. However that’s not enough to make me like him and since he’s not a malicious criminal either I don’t find him very interesting to watch.  His son Vishnu is more engaging and Kay Kay Menon’s performance is good enough to make me feel at least some aversion for his sleazy character, but Abishek as Shankar is incredibly wooden and quite tedious throughout. The most enjoyable scenes in the film for me are those with Selvar Mani and Virendra Swami, partly because Kota Srinivaso Rao and Jeeva both put in a very good performances and because those two characters do have some personality. The rest of the cast are all fine, and in fact many of the support actors draw my attention much more than the main leads. However I have no idea why Katrina Kaif bothered to turn up as she may as well not have been there for all the impact her character had on the story. I thought her role was fairly pointless and much better reasons could have been used for Shankar’s initial reluctance to help his father.

There are a lot of meaningful pauses and significant looks throughout the film which make it even slower. I was distracted looking at the set dressing (which was excellent!) and when there was dialogue found that I was concentrating on understanding the Hindi and trying not to look at the subtitles, rather than watching the action. The film itself is well shot and the general idea of the story is interesting, but the characters are so lacking in any type of appeal that it never really connects.  It’s not even that I found them dislikeable, they were just rather dull.  I give Sarkar 3 stars, mainly for the ending and a convincing if uninspiring performance from Amitabh.