The last scene in ‘Thalaivii’ where political icon J Jayalalithaa (Kangana Ranaut) ascends the Chief Ministerial throne and her all-male party aides bow to her in reluctant surrender is a typical trope in biopics made on Indian idols. The makers of such biopics are cloyingly reverential and try hard to expunge the warts and moles from their subject’s life.
But ‘Thalaivii’ tries not to fall into that familiar trap as it tries to present the eventful and fractured life of six-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and actress with restrained sycophancy and idol worship.
The real-life subject of ‘Thalaivii’ was enigmatic, flamboyant, steely, and sensitive woman who claims she was reluctantly thrust into politics after lighting up the screens as a popular Tamil actress. As an actress who mostly romanced the matinee idol MGR (Arvind Swami), J Jayalalithaa was unthreatening eye-candy, but as a politician she was revered and reviled in equal measure in a workspace dominated by ageing men. Does director Vijayan and the commander-on-screen Kangana Ranaut capture the paradoxes well? To a large extent, yes. But be warned, that they drive home their points with zero subtlety. Everything’s on the nose in this film as they depict every situation and twist with no nuance. Every scene is spelt out with clunky dialogues.
But it’s the collective performances of the lead players that make this biopic watchable. Both Ranaut and Swamy bring their A-game into this film in terms of performances. Swami as the mammoth superstar-turned-politician MGR is spot-on. He plays her mentor and her clandestine lover with a searing sensitivity. In turn, Ranaut as the feisty scarlet who captures his fancy is his perfect foil. Ranaut’s transformation from a popular actress – who has always been MGR’s co-star in his films – to a formidable political opponent is interesting to watch.
But the movie ends when the most dramatic chapter of life begins. Jayalalithaa – rising from the ranks of being an actor to a cultish political icon rivalling a Rockstar status – doesn’t explore the episodes where she’s slapped with charges of corruption and whether power corrupted her.
‘Thalaivii’ just focusses single-mindedly on the birth of a political leader and how she tries hard to gain a foothold in a political landscape filled by seasoned male politicians. Plus, there’s a lot of drama. Every insult and injury on Jayalalithaa’s person are exaggerated and given a heroic treatment.
From the legendary scene in which she gets assaulted by her peers at the Tamil Assembly in 1989 to how she’s kicked out of the funeral vehicle carrying her mentor and soulmate MGR’s body is all played out with great theatrics and melodrama. The dialogues are also unnecessarily bombastic and exaggerated, but there’s fun to be had in this film which is engaging in most parts. Be warned, the detractors of Jayalalithaa seem to have been given the brief to over-act. Seasoned actors like Naasar as Jayalalithaa’s political rival Karunanidhi are loud and abrasive. The supporting actors too seems to have all graduated from the school of over-acting. Barring actor Raj Arjun who plays the fiercely loyal aide of MGR hating upon Jayalalithaa’s closeness to his master, everybody else goes over-the-top with their reactions and moods. Actor Raj Arjun is delightfully wicked and restrained in his role.
Actor Arvind Swami was a revelation in this film. While his uncanny resemblance to the late MGR is striking, Swami nails the mannerisms and essence of being a mature, but confused man in love with aplomb.
The film rests a lot on Ranaut’s able shoulders, and she doesn’t disappoint either. It’s a delight to watch her play the polarising figure with admirable ease. Her turn as the young star who is thrust into politics by chance or fate is convincing. But the director and the actors has wrapped up this film before they got to the truly exciting and troubling chapters of her life. Her stint in jail, her corruption charges, and her life as a decadent-but-benevolent political leader – who demanded absolute loyalty – is nowhere to be seen in the film.
‘Thalaivii’ is strictly vanilla and refuses to enter murky parts of the subject’s life with an iron hand. An angelic and rotund Jayalalithaa earned many sobriquets in her lifetime such as iron butterfly, but it’s only the butterfly bits that are shown love in this biopic. The authoritative figure – who ruled with an iron fist – is barely skimmed upon and that’s a shame.
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