Karthik Subbaraj is an ideas man. This is evident at the conceptual level of his arresting body of work which abound with some doozies and yet, none of it really amounts to anything in his films. I blame his writing skills (or rather it’s lack) for the failure of his intriguing ideas from cohering into an entirely satisfying movie. It is just too bad because parts of Jagame Thanthiram shine with Subbaraj’s especial brand of flamboyance, whackiness and singular stamp as a director who is almost always worth paying attention to.
Jagame Thanthiram starring Dhanush who has a whale of a time playing the petty gangster Suruli who finds himself working for a white supremacist after a truly asinine sequence of events, has difficulty making up its mind about the kind of film it wants to be. On the one hand you have the murderous gangsters who are stuffed to the gills with coolth (it is a distracting Tarantino hangover, because nowadays even Tarantino seems to find it difficult to pull off what he used to with such inimitable flair) and then you have the sentiment and seriousness surrounding weighty issues like racism, anti – immigration politics and the refugee crisis. The tonal shifts between the two are so jarring it makes it impossible to enjoy the fun parts or take the serious portions seriously.
Suruli is a somewhat unconvincing creation though Dhanush does his best and has some exemplary moments when he is not himself nursing a Rajnikanth hangover. His character is a clever, cruel, callous fellow who is always saying witty stuff moments before blowing a guy’s brains out or making homemade bombs to blast his enemies into oblivion, snorting with laughter after being dumped on the day before his wedding and thinking nothing of betraying someone if the price is right. It is all supposed to be good fun, yet, inexplicably a sob story is all it takes to make him turn over a new leaf while retaining all those savage elements of his earlier persona. At various points in the movie he is referred to as a rat but one character tells him he should try being a fox (or was it a wolf?) and this becomes a mutant metaphor for Suruli as well as Jagame Thanthiram because both fail to come together given the unmixable mix that went into the composition.
Aishwarya Lekshmi, plays the heroine who is named Attila (after the Hun?) and has more to do than is usual in a Tamil film committed to worshipping on the altar of the hero’s star power, but I am tired of being grateful for small mercies. Her role is to propel the narrative forward with a flashback about war – torn Lanka and the ensuing refugee crisis. But it is hard to buy any of her actions. After all she has been through it seems unlikely that she would be in such a tearing hurry to hand over her heart to a trigger – happy, violent gangster with a history of screwing people over just because he professed to being cool with her widowed state and bought her son a gift. Like the others in this film, she has her murderous moments too and they are every bit as convincing as her lovesick state.
Normally, white men in Tamil films are caricatures and the English dialogue is hard on the ears. Despite some effort to amend this sorry state, Peter Sprott who is the big bad racist gangster played by James Cosmo is a bit of a caricature and the dialogue is embarrassing in places and no amount of f – bombs dropped with casual abandon can salvage the situation. And seeing the man wield an ‘aruvaal’ to slay a rival gangster was unintentionally hilarious.
Subbaraj is obsessed with his twists and they worked in his first film, Pizza but these have been yielding diminishing returns since then in addition to compromising the emotional arcs of his characters. A veteran gangster makes an inexplicable decision to place his trust in one who has just slaughtered some of his best men including his right hand. So when he pays the price for it, you are not moved enough to get worked up on his account even though he makes a powerful point about treachery being the bane of his people just before he croaks. For similar reasons it is hard to respond to the ubiquitous ‘mother sentiment’ when a mother is waxing eloquent about how murder and thievery are forgivable because circumstances drive a man to do these things whereas treason is never justified.
Of course, some of Subbaraj’s messages which have been shoehorned into this unwieldy mess of a movie are laudable. I liked Suruli’s remark in response to a character who tells him that some among the British resent that their beautiful, shiny white country has been ‘blackened and browned’ by immigrants. He points out that the Brits seemed happy enough when they had conquered as well as looted India and attempted to whitewash it. In another instance, Suruli makes an excellent point about how Indians ought to root out their caste bias because outside India so many Indians are treated the way the lower castes are treated here. Some of the dialogue teems with wit and the occasional scene crackle with energy and Subbaraj’s trademark inventiveness. Santhosh Narayanan’s music is a plus and works wonderfully to create mass moments. In places, it even elevates the mediocre material. Overall though, Jagame Thanthiram has too many misses and far fewer hits, making this oddball venture a massive letdown.