Thalaivi (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – A biopic on popular actress turned politician J Jayalalithaa

My Take – Though over the past year with her continuous indulgence in dishing out dispensable political statements irrespective of any concern or knowledge has proved that Kangana Ranaut is indeed quite a detestable human being, yet there is no denying the fact that when given the right script and the opportunity to perform, she always delivers. A fact she has no doubt proved time and again especially with her choice of picking up versatile stories.

However, her latest role, right from its announcement seemed like her toughest one yet. After all she gets to essay the late South Indian actress turned politician J. Jayalalithaa, who served as the Chief Minister of the Tamil Nadu state for more than fourteen years and was considered as one of the most powerful and iron-fisted leaders of India in her time.

Helmed by director AL Vijay, while the biopic sets out to document her life with efficient dramatic highs and personal lows, it also unfortunately ends up playing very by the numbers, moving from event to event tying itself up in knots all in the hopes of creating a coherent tale. The film begins and ends where it is convenient for the writers to not to indulge in political complexities. It sticks true to real events, doing little work by way of writing, does little to explore the inner journey of any of its characters and inappropriately exaggerates selected events for dramatic effect.

The Jayalalithaa story, in essence, was supposed to be about a strong-willed, irrepressible woman who rose to power in a predominantly man’s world and went on to reign unrestricted over a party and a state for an extended period of time. But here, the drama of her career as an actress, activist and politician is reduced to dreary driblets of information, much of which has been available in the public domain for decades, and a series of stilted situations designed to project Kangana Ranaut in the best light.

Even Kangana, who self-proclaimed to have given her best performance here, is literally playing herself throughout. A haughty star who blows her own trumpet at the drop of a hat. This is clearly not the ₹100 Crore biopic that was promised.

The story follows Jayalalithaa (Kangana Ranaut), who at the behest of her mother (Bhagyashree), gives up her studies and starts working as an actress in the Tamil film industry at the age of 16. Her big break drops in when she finds herself cast opposite the industry’s biggest star, MGR (Aravind Swamy), which raises her career exponentially. But as Jaya’s stardom rises, so does her intimacy with MGR, who despite being married to Janaki Ramachandran (Madhoo), begins a relationship with her in secret, becoming her mentor and lover.

However, the relationship is forced to end when MGR, whose lifelong ambition had been to serve the people of his state who consider him to be a god, decides to distance himself from Jaya and the film industry to launch in his own political party after turning foes with one of his closest friend, M. Karunanidhi (Nassar). Though over the years Jaya maintains her slowly diminishing career with a mix of live shows, fate forces her to face MGR once again when he invites her to join his ruling party, first to take care of his schemes, and then as a member, thus beginning a journey filled with challenges and hurdles.

The biggest problem of the film other than being by the numbers is that it treats chronological incidents in the protagonist’s life as the story itself. It overuses montages, often using them as a crutch to rush through timelines. It jumps from scene to scene, trying to pack 20 years of Jayalalithaa’s life in 153 minutes.

However what does work is the bond shared by MGR and Jayalalithaa. Their affair too is never explicitly detailed in the film and it is mostly suggestive, perhaps keeping in mind the sentiments attached to the two stalwarts. But when it moves into the politics, it gets too convenient.

The late CM was known for her ability to break into a largely male-dominated political arena and create her powerful position there, leading to accusations from the media and the opposition for a personality cult and of demanding absolute loyalty from AIADMK legislators and ministers, who often publicly prostrated themselves before her.

Sadly, director AL Vijay and writer K. V. Vijayendra Prasad never delve deep into her persona and focusing more on presenting Wikipedia information in a more dramatized manner. Resulting in a film that never hits you or leaves any impact as we witness the rise of a glamour star to a people’s leader, becoming a queen fighting the patriarchal political system.

As advertised, the film is indeed Kangana Ranaut‘s show, as she is almost in every frame. However her performance here is nothing to write about. In the first half she plays the familiar giggly, squeaky film star smitten by the charismatic man akin to her role in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), while in the second half she literally plays herself honing on her recently created image of a self-made star who doesn’t need anyone to prove her worth.

Nevertheless, Arvind Swamy as MGR is mesmerizing and steals the show with one of his finest performances. In supporting roles, Raj Arjun and Nassar are highly effective, while in smaller roles popular 90s actress, Bhagyashree and Madhoo are wasted. On the whole, ‘Thalaivi’ is a drab by the numbers biopic backed by a convenient screenplay.

Directed – A.L. Vijay

Starring – Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swamy, Nassar

Rated – PG13

Run Time – 153 minutes

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