Guns, warfare, a pressing issue and a ricochet bullet
by Srivatsan S, The Hindu, Chennai, India, June 18, 2021
Karthik Subbaraj’s latest wants to have a bit of everything: a drama with an ultra-cool gangster (Dhanush) at the centre, a serious political film dealing with a global issue, and a stylishly-shot bubblegum film with a carefree attitude, that doesn’t quite achieve the desired results
A bittersweet moment between two characters over the idea of home paints a bigger picture of the kind of substance Karthik Subbaraj has in his hands. One of them is Murugesan (played by Subbaraj’s father), a Tamil from Ceylon but a refugee in Tamil Nadu, before moving to London where he works at a restaurant as a dish washer. Murugesan narrates his ordeal of being a “stateless” person, or rather, a man without an identity. The person receiving this information is Suruli (Dhanush in a “been there, done” that performance), a well-respected gangster from Madurai who has made a gulf called Little Madurai (like how Hosur is referred to as Little England) out of an entire street in London. They are both Tamil at heart but are immigrants living in a foreign soil when looked at from a holistic perspective. “How can you be a refugee in Tamil Nadu when you’re a Tamil?,” asks Suruli. Murugesan politely laughs at Suruli’s innocence or rather at his understanding of the politics of race.
It is a scene straight out of Jigarthanda when the Sangili Murugan character narrates the story of Kuruvama, a script that was pitched as his debut but never saw the light, to Karthik (Siddharth). Much like Karthik of that film, it is the story of Murugesan that ignites the spirit in Suruli for correcting all the wrongs. Karthik Subbaraj has this very interesting habit of creating these little but profoundly-personal moments that not alone alter the course of the hero’s journey, but also leave a wholesome effect on the audience. These intimate moments is when Jagame Thandhiram comes truly alive. But the catch is, there are only a handful.
The good news is, Karthik Subbaraj has excelled as a writer in presenting a globally-relevant issue of immigrant crisis by drawing attention to the oft-conflicting issue of Tamil Eelam and their decades-long struggle against majoritarianism. It is a marvel what Subbaraj has done: purely in terms of breaking down a geo-political conflict and etching it into full-fledged characters, without name-dropping or fingers explicitly pointing at the whos and hows. It would be far-fetched to say that the film gets its politics right, but it is sufficient to say that it understands and more importantly, empathises with the Eelam cause. At least, the film is not with the State but with the people; Jagame Thandhiram is what the second season of The Family Man isn’t. The execution is where the film falters.
- Cast: Dhanush, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Joju George, James Cosmo and Kalaiarasan
- Director: Karthik Subbaraj
- Storyline: Suruli, a petty gangster from Madurai, is hired as a “gangster consultant” by a White Supremacist in London, in the raging war against immigrants lead by Sivadoss, the leader of a Tamil rebel group whose roots trace back to Sri Lanka.
Notice how the characters are written, in the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Sivadoss (played with such panache by Joju George) is a Tamil rebel fighting for immigrant laws in London, where he goes against Peter (James Cosmo whose only brief seems to use the F-word in every sentence. Let’s thank the heavens that the script never reached Al Pacino or Robert De Niro), a White Supremacist who has aligned with the State, in their unified geo-political war against the minorities. Peter is on the lookout for a Tamil gangster to join his wolf pack, to wipe out Sivadoss and his group of Tigers. Here comes Suruli from Tamil Nadu.
A parallel can be easily drawn with the film’s primary characters (Sivadoss, Peter and Suruli) and the actual facts and figures: LTTE, the Lankan Army and Indian Peace Keeping Force, which was sent to Sri Lanka during the Civil War. All these readings can be derived from one particular word “dhrogam (treason)” and it appears that Subbaraj wouldn’t mind such an interpretation. If you look at Jagame Thandhiram with its geo-political context, it may seem like a fascinating experiment. But the bitter issue is, it remains to be an experiment till the end.
Now, the bad news. Jagame Thandhiram is perhaps Karthik Subbaraj’s weakest film till date. Of course, the bigger problem is, it doesn’t have the stamp of Subbaraj, the filmmaker at all. Sure, there are those trademark Karthik Subbaraj moments where he pays a hat-tip to Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ilaiyaraaja and everything Tamil cinema. But those don’t define the filmmaker.
Part of it arises mainly due to the way Suruli is written whose character descriptions go like: uber-cool, ultra-stylish, notorious gangster — Subbaraj’s words, not mine. Suruli’s inherent coolness is the biggest issue and the film, for the most part, looks like a gabfest with dialogues translated from English to Tamil. And it drags in the middle part. A lot.
Subbaraj’s steadfastness in retelling the central conflict, the Eelam issue, seems to have made him forget about Suruli, or rather, how to handle him. In other words, the entire stretch around Suruli looks like an afterthought that was flushed out at the last minute. “He is a loose cannon,” says someone about Suruli. But his portion comes across as a slender thread hanging in the air without support. If the idea was to treat Suruli like an uber-cool don, one is tempted to remind the existence of the Maari Cinematic Universe. Dhanush too has very little to offer to a cardboard character, though he gets a redemptive arc. Everything around Suruli seems concocted and put or “cooked up”.
Take the action scene inside Suruli’s parotta shop. The camera (by Shreyaas Krishna) rotates 360 degrees before it settles on Suruli. He takes cover, prepares a country bomb and flings it while popping a cigarette in his mouth — all in slow motion. It is supposed to be a cool scene showing us the extent of Suruli’s cruelty, but it ends up looking dull. Compare this scene with Angamaly Diaries, particularly the way a country bomb was used as a device to move the story forward, and you will realise why the latter felt real and more importantly, why the prop had a purpose. With such a central character who is a) unreliable and b) one-dimensional, it is exasperating to buy into the film’s actual core and everything else looks like a colossal mess. Let’s pray Karthik Subbaraj isn’t suffering from a burnout.
Jagame Thandhiram is currently streaming on Netflix