Fans play drums before the screening of Indian actor Rajinikanth's new Tamil-language movie 'Jailer' on the first day of its release, outside a theatre in Mumbai on August 10, 2023 Image Credit: AFP

If 'Jailer', Indian superstar Rajinikanth’s first movie in more than two years, were to be summed up in a phrase, it can be this quintessential refrain from movie audiences: “First half good, second half ok.” The action entertainer that brings together a galaxy of stars and is the actor’s first project with a relatively newbie director is in many ways good and leaves the audiences asking for more in other aspects.

But first, appreciation where it’s due. Nelson Dilipkumar succeeds in drawing out Rajinikanth out of his comfort zone — of merely reveling in his aura, swagger, body language and style — and showcases the performer beneath. For large swathes of the first half, it feels like we’re in a “Nelson film”, where the setting is in a suburban locale, humour takes over in the unlikeliest of situations and audiences plunge headlong into a gripping story without much ado.

The director’s previous hits, 'Kolamavu Kokila', which saw Nayanthara getting entwined with cartels owing to a family exigency; and 'Doctor', which explores kidnapping gangs and a Sivakarthikeyan not resorting to slapstick humour; were delicious owing to their novel plots and performances from every cast member. As Nelson had said in an interview to an Indian news portal, he relishes exploring putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations. 'Jailer' is no different.

‘Tiger’ Muthuvel Pandian (Rajinikanth) is a retired jailer, and his son Arjun (Vasanth Ravi) is an assistant commissioner of police, who’s secretly after a gang that’s smuggling idols from temples. Pandian’s biggest nemesis is Ritu, his grandson, who threatens to bawl six hours straight if grandpa cannot film his YouTube videos and bump up his online channel's subscriber count. He polishes his son’s and grandson’s shoes dutifully before they leave for work and school, and his biggest grouse is in his wife Vijaya (Ramya Krishnan) not making mint chutney for breakfast. One day, Arjun disappears, throwing the family into a tailspin.

Pandian pulls all strings in the department to get to know of his son’s whereabouts, and encounters a brick wall. As a helpless dad, Rajinikanth puts in one of his finest performances in recent times —reminding viewers of his erstwhile hits 'Mullum Malarum' and 'Aarulinthu Arubathuvarai' — showing us the actor that’s irretrievably lost to the brand immortalised by India’s version of Chuck Norris jokes. Watch out for the scenes where a colleague (Aranthangi Nisha, another Nelson regular) shares a distressful truth with him, and Ramya Krishnan blames him squarely for their son’s plight. Anirudh Ravichander’s moving score adds to the pathos and serves as an invisible cast member. You pinch yourself twice to make sure you’re watching a superstar movie.

But then, this IS a superstar movie. And it’s only a matter of time before he’s cut loose. Even here, Nelson goes about in a methodical manner. Tamil cinema’s rising star, the comedian Yogi Babu, gets enmeshed with the jailer through scenes that are an absolute hoot — where poems of the freedom fighter Subramania Bharati get cited as requests for a romp, and blood is mistaken for “beetroot”. And then there’s Varma (Vinayakan), a ruthless dealer in contraband, who believes in smashing the heads of his adversaries with a hammer.

That’s when the interval block hits, giving succour to fans of the superstar.

Cameos galore

The swashbuckling Rajinikanth of yore steps in the latter half, as Pandian’s pursuit of his son takes him to Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Mumbai and more. By then, the movie is more interested in assembling its guest actors, in a display of the who’s who of Indian film industry. From Shiva Rajkumar, Mohanlal, Sunil to Tamannah Bhatia, Kishore, Jackie Shroff and Makarand Deshpande, the actors come and go — but only cameos by Shiva Rajkumar and Mohanlal are the most memorable and whistle-worthy. Rajinikanth shoulders the film, papering over a formulaic plot. There’s a treat for fans of Rajinikanth in the form of the flashback and the climax, when he brings in his trademark swagger. There’s also déjà vu by the bucketload — Pandian recruits snipers and you know they’re going to come in handy at a crucial moment. A vehicle is intentionally toppled, and you make a mental note of it, only to see it put to use a little ahead.

A twist gets introduced in the final stages which seems rather perfunctory — as does Ramya Krishnan getting together on screen with Rajini, 24 years after their memorable hit, 'Padayappa'. Women get the short shrift on screen too. But then, does that matter in the 'Jailer's scheme of things?

Movie name: Jailer

Cast: Rajinikanth, Ramya Krishnan, Vinayakan, Yogi Babu, Shiva Rajkumar, Mohanlal

Director: Nelson Dilipkumar

Music: Anirudh Ravichander

Rating: 3 out of 5

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