It is truly fun to see Parthiban back on the screen and even better to watch him sparring with Vijay Sethupathi.

Parthiban and Vijay Sethupathi in the Tamil film Tughlaq Durbarscreengrab/ThinkMusicIndia
Flix Review Sunday, September 12, 2021 - 16:53
Worth a watch

The anthemic “Annathe Sethi” from Tughlaq Durbar that released last year had me looking forward to a bold political satire — that the film is not. While it doesn’t match the fiery intensity of the song (penned and performed by Arivu), it is amusing and engaging. Just not particularly deep. Beyond lampooning political careers as one driven mainly by blind ambition and greed, it makes little attempt to really cast light on the issue of land grabs, which is the driving crux of the plot. In wanting to highlight the fact that such land grabs happen because of political-corporate nexuses, the film dilutes itself by randomly making NGOs the scapegoat. If you’re willing to ignore these aspects, Tughlaq Durbar is breezy, fun to watch and has some great comic timing.

Singaravelen or Singam (Vijay Sethupathi) as he’s fondly called, is a man born into politics. No really, he’s born at a political rally. Rayappan (Parthiban), an ex-MLA of the fictional MMMK, is a powerful figure in the party. Singam, like in the traditional telling of heroic tales, has a momentous birth. In his case, in the middle of Rayappan’s speech. Only he’s not much of a hero. His is the story of a selfish man too clever for his own good or of those close to him. Foreshadowing the upheaval Singam will grow up to create in the party and Rayappan’s own unwitting hand in it, the latter magnanimously gives up his vetti to create a temporary tent for the baby’s delivery, forcing the other cadres to do the same, much to their chagrin.

It’s over-the-top political gestures like this, deliberately thought out to create the impression of a towering and beatific leader that Tughlaq Durbar takes repeated digs at. Singam too carefully crafts such moments for himself, again and again, to propel his ascent within the party chain of command, fully knowing its electoral value. After all, he had been a pawn in this image-making game as a baby.

Singam and Rayappan’s relationship anchors the film. It is truly fun to see Parthiban back on the screen and even better to watch him sparring with Vijay Sethupathi. This is possibly the foremost reason to sit through Tughlaq Durbar. Parthiban is equal parts menacing and comedic, though there is room in the film for less smoldering about his erratic protégé and more of his trademark humour and witticisms.

It appears, Delhi Prasad Deenadayalan in his directorial debut wants to inspire direct political engagement and solidarity among people, in place of self-serving loyalty to a leader or a party. This is why, following an injury, Singam develops a secondary personality that is the opposite of his real nature in every way. It manifests unexpectedly, announced only by a facial tic. Sethupathi’s performance shines as he pulls off two personalities that apparently decide to go to war with each other.

Mercifully, the film doesn’t have a prolonged pseudo-psychological explanation for Singam’s strange condition. Apart from a short exchange with a bemused medical health professional (psychology students will recognize the copy of Robert A Baron’s textbook on the desk, maybe to their amusement) there’s no attempt to provide a “scientific” reason. Maybe it is his conscience, maybe it’s a “ghost or spirit or demon” in Singam’s words, we don’t know. This personality represents the good that people can do in politics if they have the will. It’s just unfortunate that the director didn’t have the will to delve into the issues he brushes upon. A greater understanding, balanced with the well-scripted humour Tughlaq Durbar already has, may have given us an intelligently dark comedy that could have been memorable.

The movie we were given is rife with references to iconic moments in Tamil cinema. Sometimes, they’re laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes the intention seems unclear. The blue and red paint flying in the intro song “Arasiyal Kedi”, the reclaiming of a wall inside the housing board colony Singam is from, recall scenes from Kaala and Madras, but are feather-weight versions. Even the ending of the “Annathe Sethi” song sequence stops short of re-creating the ending of Kaala; there is no riot of blue powder in the air. On the other hand, Sathyaraj in a cameo referring to himself as Ammavasai, the unscrupulous protagonist of the political satire Amaidhi Padai, or the hints at Vijay Sethupathi’s dark comedy Soodhu Kavvum are neat touches.

Tughlaq Durbar wins as an engaging comedy, but doesn’t have enough political thought to quite fit the definition of satire. It maintains a more or less good pace required for a lighthearted entertainer. You won’t miss the hours spent on the film, nor will you be left thinking much of it after you’re done. The film, which had a direct OTT release, is streaming now on Netflix.


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