AR Murugadoss's Darbar is what the title suggests it is – it's about a king and his court. Except, the king is a policeman who is in the year 2020, in a democratic country which has inconveniences like human rights. So, when Commissioner of Police Aaditya Arunasalam (Rajinikanth) goes around killing gangsters like he's swatting flies, a mandatory short-haired woman (it's always a woman of that hair length in Tamil films for some reason) questions him on his actions. But what does Aaditya do? He switches off the CCTV, slaps her fellow officer, and threatens her to sign documents absolving him of any crime.
And of course, he gets away with it. Because this is a Rajinikanth film and anything else is inconceivable. (Is Hey-he-he-hey S.U.P.E.R.S.T.A.R RAJNI flashing in your mind already?)
Darbar is about a good man who believes he must be a bad cop if he's to do his duty. He lives with his young daughter Valli (Nivetha Thomas) and the two of them only talk to each other about marriage. She wants him to get married and he wants her to get married. Despite the incredible staleness of the situation, Nivetha and Rajinikanth work out a decent chemistry on screen, and with Yogi Babu as the reliable sidekick, they succeed in delivering some comic moments. In fact, I kept wishing the film had been a straightforward family drama instead of the highly predictable cop and gangster film that it is.
Nayanthara plays Lilly, who...I'm not sure what to say about her character other than the fact that she wears classy sarees and looks terrific. Murugadoss sets up the awkward romance between Aaditya and Lilly well, but it dissipates in the second half entirely. There were rumours that Nayanthara was unhappy with her remuneration for Darbar. Is that why we see so little of her in the latter half, or is it just the bad writing after all? Nayan is fun to watch in the 'Dumm Dumm' song though.
Rajinikanth is thoroughly entertaining, and it is his trademark swag that keeps the scenes alive. There are quite a few references to his real life age and he accepts them sportively, endearing himself to the audience a little more. The first half is saved by his charm more than anything else.
The plot involves drugs and trafficking, but all of it is just an excuse for Thalaivar to do his fast walks, flick his sunglasses, and shoot a lot of clueless junior artistes as Anirudh's fanboy background score amplifies his every move. Murugadoss usually does a fair job mixing comedy, sentiment, and suspense in his screenplay, but the shifts stick out in Darbar. One moment Aaditya is joking around with Valli and Mr Sidekick, and suddenly, a load of police officers rush to him with some inane news from the world of gangsters. It's clumsy and doesn't let the audience invest in what's happening.
Murugadoss doesn't even try to make any of the investigation realistic. While films like Theri and Thuppaki also had a superman hero in the lead, he had to do some work to accomplish his mission. The action in Darbar happens in a universe where an IPS officer has the powers of a monarch. He dismisses political pressure with punch dialogues; he kills whoever he wants with barely any consequences; he gets court orders to his favour with complete ease so he can work out at the gym and show off his muscles to us. I could almost see Abbas in the audience whispering, "Whattay man!"
Jatin Sarna, Prateik Babbar, Nawab Shah, and Suniel Shetty play gangsters of various stature, their suits leaving more of an impact than their characters. The Hindi-Tamil dubbing is also distracting. I did find myself in a philosophical frame of mind thinking about Suniel Shetty's career though. It was longer than Vivek Oberoi's but here he is, doing the same thing that the latter is doing in south Indian films. It reminded me of how people go to engineering colleges of varying repute but finally end up at the Infosys bench.
The "international" gangster scenes are all generic, with people of different nationalities speaking in a growly, menacing fashion to make up for the silliness of the dialogues. The Thai policeman who imitates Rajini swag, however, had me in splits. Murugadoss films as a rule have an innovative stunt sequence but even that's missing from Darbar. The one in the railway station lacks imagination and is too over-the-top to make us go ‘wow!’.
Darbar veers into Lingaa territory (at least, that film was actually about a king) and feels dated. One really wishes that filmmakers would stop trying to bring back the "old Rajini". The man is close to 70 but is still very much in his game when a good script comes his way – consider how he has evolved with the years (and the audience too) and write something worthy of his abilities.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.