I’m not gonna take names of critics or link blogs since I just wanted to address points made in other reviews. My arguments are against criticism of the film and not against the authors. So if you think this is about your review, please don’t take this personally.
First, get this. Superstar can act. He’s proved it enough times. He does not need to prove it anymore. I had written in an earlier post how there is a rigid dichotomy between the function of an actor and a matinee idol.
While an actor is expected to change colours and showcase his artistic range, an icon is expected to consistently embody all those traits that people love about his personality and reprise them in whatever story he is a part of. Because he’s an icon, a superhero – THE reason why people go to watch that kind of cinema.
Obviously, the gratification superheroes provide is different from the kind of gratification actors provide. Sometimes, though not always, even the audience differs. We’ve always had a Sivaji for every MGR, a Kamal for every Rajni, a Vikram for every Vijay (at least, until Vikram decided to change roles from actor to icon!)
Let’s not forget that Superstar has done his share of intelligent classy cinema in the past.
Now, he’s into something more intelligent. Reaching out to a huge far-from-homogenous mass of people. We’re talking about a diverse bunch that takes the aruval out over culture, chastity, caste, class, colour, ideology, politics, religion, language, state boundaries and water among other things.
Why should Superstar reach out to this huge a mass again?
Because that’s what superheroes and icons do.
They reach out to stand up for what is right, to fight for the oppressed majority.
They reach out to assure people that no matter how screwed up and complicated life maybe, there’s always one person they can turn to.
Or, at least fantasise that there’s someone who’s gonna kick bad asses and spread hope.
The word associated with superheroes, my friends, is fantasy. The thing about the format of a fantasy, as a genre, it does not need to delve into plausibility, rational thinking, logical reasoning or what people call a “tight” screenplay.
Think fantasy again.
Think about the free-flowing Alice in Wonderland that probably gave you no idea where in the burrow it was heading.
Think Superman who turned the planet back in time after losing Lois Lane.
Think James Bond, who gets his ass covered by women who bare their ass most of the time.
Think Peter Parker, who recently blubbered when Mary Jane broke up with him.
Think Captain Jack Sparrow.
Wait a minute, Captain Jack Sparrow runs away all the time. He got fooled by a woman, got himself handcuffed to the Black Pearl at the end of ‘Dead Man’s Chest.’ When he realises there’s no way out, he goes down fighting, with his head held high.
Does that make him any less heroic? Or does the fact that Shriya saves Sivaji at the end of what was a light-hearted comic segment? Interestingly, Superstar does hop around around like Captain Jack Sparrow as he sees the train approaching and then when Shankar changes gear from the comic to the serious, Superstar stands his head held high, ready to embrace death, much like Sparrow. The point really isn’t that Shriya saved him. The point is that she was willing to die for him.
A Superstar is timeless. His age does not matter. How does Bond remain the same age when the world around him changes as suggested by technology? How many years did Peter Parker be a college kid? How many years did Superstar live in America to earn Rs.200 crores? What’s his business model? Why does Peter Parker take Mary Jane on his scooter when he can just swing around the buildings in the dark of the night? Superheroes have a comic book license that excuses them from having to answer such smartasses. Things said have to be taken for granted. That’s common sense.
To get back to the analysis, this is not just a Superstar movie.
This is as much a Shankar film as much as it is Superstar cinema. Shankar is one of those few idealist filmmakers who believe that cinema can bring in reform. After addressing capitalist educationists (Gentleman), corrupt bureaucrats (Indian), lazy-ass politicians (Muthalvan) and indifferent apathetic citizens (Anniyan), he wants to address a more basic function that involves the common man. Paying taxes. He knows most people think taxes are unfair, a “fine” for doing fine. He hates the fact that there are many among the rich who don’t pay taxes. Now, how do you make the prospect of paying taxes more attractive to the common man?
You get a brand ambassador, someone they all like, to tell them: “Listen up guys, Black money is bad. Not paying taxes is bad. We’re not a poor country. The richer get richer, the poor get poorer because the rich get away not paying tax and the poor need to keep paying for getting anything they want – starting from basic education.”
That’s a noble thought, a well-intended message, that in order to reach a mass of Superstar crazy fans needs to be said within the format of a six-song six-fight routine, with the mandatory happy ending.
Why is the happy ending so important?
Kamal Hassan could afford to die in ‘Indian’ and ‘Nayakan’ because he’s an actor. An actor becomes immortal when he dies in a film. People give him a standing ovation. A Best Actor award. But, a superhero is reduced to a mere mortal when he dies in a movie. Which is why Shankar and Mani Ratnam knew they had to keep him alive in ‘Thalapathy’ and ‘Sivaji,’ no matter what the odds against them were.
It’s not a compromise. It’s common-sense. It’s what people go to fantasies for. To see their hero kick butt.
So why is Sivaji among the most memorable Rajnikant films ever despite a rather weak romantic track?
Oh, let’s think about that critically slaughtered romantic track again. There’s clearly a shift in Superstar’s philosophy. From ‘Thou Shall Choose Who Loves You Over Who You Love’ (that emerged in Valli and continued till Baba… Listen to Dippu Dippu:
thaedi cheLLum kaadhaL/kaadhaliLLai nanbaa/uNmai kaadhal soLLava/
naLLa kaadhal enbadheNNa/thaedi vandhey kaadhalae) to ‘Best To Live With Who You Love Than What You Get.’ (Kadachavangaloda Vaazhradhoda Pudichavangaloda Vaazharadhuthaan Santhosham).
A complete volte-face.
Why? I guess it is to make Superstar contemporary from being a pragmatic chauvinist to a die-hard romantic because Shankar’s brand of idealism needs a romance to die for. Colour is such an important part of the South Indian’s psyche. Shankar exploits that complex inherent in his audience by having their icon endorse their ‘Fair and Lovely’ aspirations. ‘Velai Thamizhan’ (mentioned in the Style song) is part of that fantasy of the dark-skinned man’s obsession over fair and lovely maidens from Mumbai (starting from Nagarrth Khan known as Khushboo, Rishibala Naval a.k.a. Simran Bagga, Namrata Sadanah a.k.a. Nagma, Jyotika Sadanah and now Shriya Saran). Shankar turns that sentiment into a feel-good fantasy by coating it with the comic treatment and then making the girl say that the dark colour is the best part of their favourite hero. He’s trying to tell them that even if by some miracle they do manage to turn fair, it’s still ‘coool’ to be dark.
Let me get back to the observation with which I started this piece. Stars or Icons are known to consistently embody all those traits that people love about their personality and reprise them in whatever story they are a part of.
Not all the traits Superstar has been known for are politically correct.
Now, Superstar has been criticised by politicians and health activists that he has glamourised the Cancer stick. Superstar, in his last two outings, has tried to make amends – Biscuit in Chandramukhi and Chewing Gum in Sivaji. Superstar’s heroines, over the years, have often been dependents – college students or village belles, often being slapped by the hero. This sort of unabashed chauvinism might not work in the 2000s and in an attempt to make it progressive, Shankar gives us a middle-class working woman. It’s also contemporary because finally, the woman is an equal with who Sivaji shares his life and secrets, and she’s also capable of saving him.
Yes, she’s still the meek submissive lover but hey, things can’t change overnight in Tamil cinema.
I was amazed at the focus of Shankar’s screenplay (I hated his character mix in Anniyan!). He begins Sivaji with the classic Flashback structure, establishing the intentions of the protagonist in the very first three scenes. At the airport, we know he’s come to settle down in India with the line-up of girls waiting to snare him. At the get-together later, we know he wants to get to the root of poverty that he has seen (the beggar at the crossroads sandwiched between the scenes of his arrival and his declaration of intent) – empowering through education.
Once he lays down the agenda for the film, he gets to the other objective of the protagonist – his search for a life partner, an epitome of everything Tamil. He then addresses the social problem of families being so fiercely protective of their space with a strict regard for boundaries that they don’t encourage the courting ritual. Romance needs healthy grounds to blossom. And since at the basic level, marriages in India are about the union of families than just two individuals, he shows us how one family manages to woo the other through a light-hearted comic segment (not all of which I approve – certainly not the bit where Thalaivar goes red with chillies and washes it down the basin graphically but Shankar has always loved to show us what’s gross). This track is smartly paralleled with the protagonist’s efforts to build the college facing hurdles with the ground realities of red tape that leads to corruption… that further escalates politics. He shows us the rich have become too powerful to take on. No matter how much money you have, they can still pull you down and leave you penniless. It doesn’t get tighter than this.
At the interval block, his twin intentions of getting the right girl and building the college are the lowest point. Things can only get better from here and as that coin turns, so does his fate and Shankar flips mode from reality to fantasy. Now, this is the part we’ve been waiting for. The part that Shankar absolutely revels in. The part that puts Sivaji in the list of his most memorable films.
We see Rajni fight his way back, like in Annamalai, like in Padayappa, like in Baasha, he gets his chance to payback… Line for line, coin for coin… “Kooti kazhichu paaru, Kannakku Seriya Irukkum… Yenkitta Kannakku Pesuraanga. Yedu Vandi!”
Now, all those films were about personal triumph, this one is a little larger than that. It’s about a triumph for the society, issues are large and complex and they need to be simplified with comic book storytelling. The villain needs to be someone you hate with all your guts and having a despicable soft speaking scum is a nice touch. After all those Perarasu films, I was turning deaf with all the yelling.
Settling a score is what most films have been about. And seriously, who does it better than Superstar. What makes Sivaji memorable is that it also plays out like a Best of Rajni compilation. It has features his best looks, get-ups, gestures, dialogue delivery, plot-devices and also enriches his existing repertoire of style, facilitating a connect with the Rajni we know from the past to the Superstar he has become to what he could be – the reformer, a Sivaji (the actor par excellence) who could also be MGR (the messiah).
Entertainment has never been so explosive. The last act is pure dynamite. Climax is at its orgasmic best if you’re a Rajni fan. Something that works like a charm especially because of the extended foreplay in the slightly flawed first half.
To Shankar’s credit, even those stray scenes of mediocrity are salvaged by a classy Vivek whose timing in Sivaji is probably a career-best. Jalra has never made itself more audible during a one-man orchestra in concert.
Now that I’ve taken my critic’s hat off, Thalaivaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!