Karthik Subbaraj and Dhanush were keen on Jagame Thandhiram releasing in theatres first. Watching it, you can see why. The film is made for the big screen, with plenty of stylised action sequences, absurd comedy sketches and Dhanush's vibrant personality lighting up the scenes. And of course, Santhosh Narayanan's background score would have set the audience on fire. But as fate would have it, the film is now out on Netflix and you have to 'Rakita Rakita' in your drawing room.
Gangsters in the Subbaraj universe are colourful, quirky characters who amuse and entertain more than instill fear. They are meant to be seen as jolly people even if they're taking the head off someone and show no remorse. Jagame Thandhiram's Suruli (Dhanush), with his prominent moustache, fits the bill. He runs a barotta restaurant in Madurai, but that's just a front for his gangster activities. On the day of his engagement, he kills the brother of a north Indian man who set up business in his town. The murder happens on a train, and typical of Subbaraj's films, the violence is served with some black humour. As the blood splatters on his shirt, Suruli is upset because he's the groom. The gesture mirrors what happened in two other murders we witnessed before this â€” one executed by Sivadoss's (Joju George) men and the other by Peter Sprott (James Cosmo) â€” connecting them even before the dots are joined.
Sivadoss is an Eelam Tamil in the UK who deals in arms while Peter is a monied, anti-immigration racist with political clout. How does Suruli from Madurai land in their midst? The reason is mind-numbingly flimsy and makes zero sense; perhaps this was meant to be a cue that we should stop expecting the film to have any logic, but considering the narrative plunges into serious issues later, it just stands out as lazy and convenient writing. And this inconsistency in tone and execution is a problem that hampers the film throughout.
Dhanush is undoubtedly the life of Jagame, reeling off punch lines with his impeccable comic timing and easy body language. Game of Thrones fame James Cosmo seems to have enjoyed himself, wielding an aruva like any other Madurai gangster. The scene when the two of them meet and Suruli jokes about Peter's name is especially hilarious. To Subbaraj's credit, Peter makes for a worthy adversary, even if you keep wondering why he had to import a part-time barotta master from Madurai to see the fruition of his racist ideology. Tamil cinema so rarely has a villain worth their salt these days that an actor with screen presence in the role makes a big difference.
Watch: Trailer of Jagame Thandhiram
It's only been a few days since season 2 of The Family Man triggered massive outrage over the representation of Eelam Tamils. I can't imagine that Jagame Thandhiram will score any better in this respect. Joju George is impressive as Sivadoss, but criminalising the Tamil community even if it's justified later in the film with some nods to the LTTE, is still problematic, particularly when you're juxtaposing it with immigration policies. The wounds left by the nearly 26-year war in Sri Lanka are too raw and deep for the struggle to be packaged in a jokey gangster plot like this, and marketed to the viewers.
Aishwarya Lekshmi plays Attilla, an Eelam Tamil woman, occasionally slipping into a Malayalam accent (ironically, Suruli looks at her and declares that such a beauty has to be a Tamil woman â€” why not actually cast someone of Tamil origin in the role? Or at least be conscious of the industry's double standards and avoid such lines?). The actor brings intensity to the emotional scenes, but the romance between her and Suruli is quite inexplicable and juvenile. You don't understand why he falls for her (beyond the fact that she's hot, that is) or why she falls for him.
There are some wildly fun moments in Jagame, like a song from Muthu playing in a car ride on an empty European road. Or Dhanush in the endgame going guns blazing in a veti. But these remain moments, leaving us largely unmoved by the story. You feel like you've been playing an extended video game rather than watching a cogent film. Subbaraj likes to squeeze some messaging into his films, but this tendency is his Achilles' heel. The karutthu looks out of place when most of the film has no moral compass.
At over 2 hours and 30 minutes, Jagame Thandhiram falters â€” if it doesn't fall flat entirely, it's thanks to Dhanush.
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.