'Thalaivii' released in theatres on September 10, 2021. (Image: Screen grab)
Jayalalithaa was Tamil Nadu’s chief minister for over 14 years, and people loved their ‘Amma’. The book Ammu to Amma by Jafar Sadik gave us a peek into this enigmatic young superstar's life: she fell in love with her co-star, older than her by many years, and then became the Iron Lady of Southern Politics battling patriarchy every step of the way. Making a film about such a fantastic journey must have been a daunting task.
The filmmaker A.L. Vijay manages to do a superb job in telling us the love story. Jaya (or Amu as her mum calls her) is a young vivacious girl, practically forced into making a career in the movies by an ambitious mother Sandhya (played wonderfully by Bhagyashree of Maine Pyar Kiya fame).
It’s good to see Kangna Ranaut being directed into giving us a wonderful performance as a young star Jaya. No traces of the shrill Manikarnika here, but of the affable girl in Queen. You like her chutzpah and agree that respect has to be earned. But not everyone likes her standing up to the superstar of that time: M.G. Ramachandran or MGR, who has a godlike stature among the people in the South.
Arvind Swami (the hunk from Bombay) is back as the Godlike MGR and he is simply awesome. He has got all the mannerisms right. He’s almost magical!
But what good is a love story without a villain? This film too has a villain in the form of a producer-cum-secretary-cum political man aptly named like the fearsome dacoit of the sandalwood forests: Veerappan. The character of R.M. Veerappan is played by Raj Arjun. He’s as fear-inducing as Pran was once. And his verbal skirmishes with Jayalalithaa in the movie are written to please even the most exacting audience. It’s like he says to Jayalalithaa in the movie: It’s not that I hated you or was against you. I was just on the side of MGR.
Veerappan’s loyalty to MGR makes him a formidable enemy to anyone who tries to take advantage of MGR’s generosity. And that includes Karunanidhi. The incredible one and only Nasser transforms himself into Karunanidhi, and we are reminded of a superb film made by Mani Ratnam - Iruvar - about the lives of two friends-turned-foes MGR and Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa which remains one of the best films made about friendship and politics. The film starred Mohanlal and Prakash Raj with Tabu, Aishwarya Rai, Revathy and Gautami.
The filming of movies within the movie with Kangna and Arvind Swami reminded me of The Dirty Picture (with Vidya Balan and Naseeruddin Shah). Great care has been taken with the costumes and the sets here as well, and the black and white sets and also the retro hair and clothes are very nicely done. As the two stars become closer, the hatred in Veerappan’s eyes gets more obvious. Raj Arjun has done an exceptional job.
It’s when Jaya joins politics that the showing stops and the telling in the movie begins. There is so much of the same that you stifle many a yawn under your mask. The trope is: She wants to do something for her idol who is now a political bigwig; he gives her a go-ahead because she’s doing it in his name; the other men scoff at her because she’s suspected to be the boss’s girl and hence no one will respect her; she gets things done and people hate the fact that the boss loves what she’s managed to do.
This gets tiresome, and you wish the director had found other ways to put her down rather than the predictable ‘yeh aurat apne aap ko kya samajhti hai?!’ If you go online and watch videos of Jayalalithaa, you will realise that she had gumption. And she managed to survive all kinds of dirty tricks politicians played. I wish the film had spent time choosing these episodes that brought out the fire that burned inside of her. The repetitive political trope could have been avoided.
Jayalalithaa's achievements like starting a unit for women commandos who trained as hard as the men, amma’s kitchens where the poor could eat a meal at a very low cost, could have been shown. Or perhaps her instinct to trust people, her vulnerable side, as she claims in an interview with Simi Garewal, could have been highlighted. It would also have been good to see how she handled the cases registered against her. But I guess it’s difficult to compress a life like J. Jayalalithaa’s in one 153-minute film.
Just look at her cinematic life: She acted in over 125 movies and had double roles in eight of them; 84 of her 89 Tamil films and all 28 of her Telugu films were smash hits. She’s even acted in five Kannada, one English and one Hindi film. No other Tamil movie star has had as many Silver Jubilee hits as she. MGR was 48 years old and she was 17 when she paired with him in their first movie together. Of the 28 movies with him, 24 were box-office record breakers. In 1966, she had 11 films released and all of them were super successful.
So there’s a lot that that Thalaivii misses out on and it covers a lot too. But when the two star-crossed lovers call one another over the phone, and are unable to express in words what they are feeling, you want to hug Kangna and Arvind Swami and the writers and the director for giving us such a wonderful cinematic moment. ‘Don’t put the phone down,’ Jaya tells MGR, ‘You don’t have to say what you feel, and I will understand what you are trying to say without saying anything too.’
Now that’s one reason why we watch movies with tissues handy. And yes, popcorn with so much cheese from the movies.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.