Review: Jayalalithaa Biopic ‘Thalaivii’ Is As Uncomplicated as Devotion Itself

In the India of 2021, cults of personalities are aspirational – and popular figures can say the most outrageous things with no worry at all. So, it makes perfect sense for Kangana Ranaut to play Jayalalithaa in her latest release, Thalaivii. This 153-minute biopic is a simple drama – as uncomplicated as devotion itself. There are good people, and there are bad people. Good people: Tamil superstar M.J. Ramachandran (Arvind Swami) and Jayalalithaa. Bad people? M. Karunanidhi (Nassar) and film producer-politician R.N. Veerappan (Raj Arjun). (“MJR” is of course we know who, and “RN Veerappan” is modelled after R.M. Veerappan.) Based on the book Thalaivi by Ajayan Bala, the movie chronicles around two-and-a-half decades of Jayalalithaa’s life, from 1965, when she made her acting debut, to 1991, when she became Tamil Nadu’s youngest chief minister.

It opens ‘in medias res’ in 1989 – deriving dramatic potency from a true incident – when Jayalalithaa, as the leader of the opposition, is assaulted in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly by Karunanidhi’s party members. She thunders that she’d only enter the assembly after becoming the chief minister – and then we cut to 1965. It’s an impressive ‘mass-ey’ opening, no doubt, but Thalaivii soon runs into a roadblock, a problem so fundamental that it is not even present in most films: language. For a movie centred on a Tamil leader, who was also a star of Tamil cinema, its Hindi version (which I saw) sounds decidedly false. An ideal approach would have been to make this film in Tamil and release it with multilingual subtitles but, obeying the box-office diktats, the makers shot (and released) it in two more languages, Tamil and Telugu. But even amid such restrictions, the Hindi dialogues don’t even try.

Written by Rajat Arora – renowned for his pleasant melodramatic swings in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010) and The Dirty Picture (2011) – the dialogues range from bizarre to icky to ludicrous. Some bits sound so misplaced that they yank you out of the film: touching feet becomes paaye laagu, better chapter behtar adhyaya. When a doctor is thanked for saving MJR’s life, he says, “Yeh toh mera farz tha [it was my duty]”; when Karunanidhi is reciting a poem on stage to praise his friend, its repeating refrain sounds, “Mera yaar, MJR”. Such stark disconnect between audio and video elicits unique exasperation: of watching two bad films at the same time. Even the obviously dramatic bits have no verbal flair or fire – the cinematic embodiment of a matchstick serving its notice period.

But let’s give this film the benefit of doubt, hoping that it sounds much better in Tamil and Telugu (written by Madhan Karky and K.V. Vijayendra Prasad). Or better, let’s pick an actor who stares more than he speaks, the main villain for the large part, Veerappan. Now I’ve seen enough weird characters in films to not get too surprised, but the Veerappan dude takes the cake (and the plate and the knife and the insulin shots). Because with respect to MJR, he’s a bizarre mix of four figures: a loyal party member, a protective friend, an avaricious producer, and, going by his mannerisms, a jealous love interest.

Right from the time he’s introduced, this man has one obsession: that no actress, after the shoot is over, should come near MJR. When a heroine tries to defy him, he throws her out of the film, burning the prints of her scenes. Whenever he sees Jayalalithaa being pally with MJR, Veerappan simmers and stares – and stares and stares and stares some more. Veerappan gets worried if she dances well on stage, gets worried if she’s greeted by a crowd, gets worried if she’s sitting on a chair (!) on set (not making any of it up), and on and on. Veerappan stares so much, and so suspiciously, throughout the film that he looks less like a producer-turned-cabinet minister and more like a KGB spy. Not that his confrontations with Jayalalithaa are any better: two of them involve medu vada and idli (the former is both literal and metaphorical, the latter just metaphorical – admirable restraint in the idli case, gotta admit).

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MJR is another prominent male presence. He is (relatively) the most balanced character in the film, but Swami is so ineffectual that he annuls any possible theoretical gains. Playing a pied-piper Tamil icon, Swami seems to be forever chasing a mirage. He lacks the screen presence, the gravitas, the gait, or anything else, that you’d associate with a superstar. This seems to be a version of an everyman trying to act like a star, but we all know that when it comes to stardom, there’s no ‘trying’ — you are either one or you are not. Compare him to Mohanlal, who also played MGR, in Mani Rathnam’s Iruvar (1997), and the difference is of fire and water. Swami’s mediocre performance in fact encapsulates the entire film: that it is constantly trying to make you feel one thing, but there’s scant evidence on screen supporting that claim.

Then there’s Ranaut. A role like this – comprising stardom, self-righteous anger, dialogue-baazi, and a tilt towards a cultish image – would have been near-perfect for her. But she, too, is flat. Like the film, her character has no nuance – and thus no heft. She operates in a few fixed modes: the actress Jayalalithaa, the mentee Jayalalithaa, the angry Jayalalithaa, the victimised Jayalalithaa, and the ‘noble’ Jayalalithaa. The last bit is especially painful. The makers rely on the oldest trick in the propaganda playbook to develop her character: using poor kids. Pivoted on MGR’s mid-day meal scheme, this subplot is centred on Jayalalithaa revamping the welfare state to ‘uplift’ the hapless urchins. But every bit about it is so shamelessly exploitative and brain-dead, propping her up as a ‘messiah’, that you can’t take it seriously.

Now since this is a Ranaut film, it must have a victimhood vibe, too. And some insecurity related to English. After Jayalalithaa gives a speech in parliament in Delhi, a politician says, quite abruptly, “I didn’t know south Indians can speak such good English.” Pat comes the reply: “I didn’t know north Indians can understand such good English.” The whole thing reminds you of a high school fight. She’s further victimised after MJR’s death – in scene after scene – where people are pulling her hair, pushing her, and disregarding her presence: She’s not allowed to enter MJR’s home or funeral wagon. It’s a bit too much, like the rest of the film, almost compelling you to say, “Alright, alright, I got it!” But none of it is surprising, because Ranaut, like many Indian directors, is not interested in filmmaking anymore. What interests them the most is bhakti: towards a country, an ideology, a person – whether dead or alive. The release of such ‘films’ then prompt a singular question, also the best line in Thalaivii, “Iske peeche kya propaganda ho sakta hai?”

Featured image: Kangana Ranaut as J. Jayalalithaa in Thalaivii. Photo: Screengrab via YouTube

This review was first published on The Wire