Lal Salaam review: Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s communal harmony film is preachy & confusing
Lal Salaam (Tamil)(2 / 5)
“When our freedom fighters fought for freedom, they did not differentiate between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. When Muslims wanted a different country, they created Pakistan and those who wished to go, left. But we stayed. We are Indians. We are Indian Muslims,” says an emotional Moideen Bhai (Rajinikanth) at a peace meeting in the backdrop of a communal clash. Similar dialogues on communal harmony are peppered throughout the duration of Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s Lal Salaam. But the dialogues seem to be merely lip service to communal harmony, which seems to be the crux of the film but hardly materialises on the screen.
Lal Salaam is centred around Hindu-Muslim riots that break out between two fictional villages in Salem – Murabad and Sandanakoodu – and its aftermath. The film follows a non-linear format, where the story alternates between what instigated the conflict and how the residents of the two villages are coming to terms with the loss and destruction. Thirunavakarasu (Vishnu Vishal) is the prime accused in what transpired between the two villages, while Moideen Bhai’s son Shamsudeen (a wonderful Vikranth) is a victim of the violence. But the conflict soon loses plot and by the end of the film, you are left with a mishmash of communal harmony and personal vengeance, neither of them given a satisfactory closure. There is also no explanation to the logic behind naming the film after a salutation popular among Communists.
The film also has a lot of loose ends that seem like convenient insertions to keep the film going, but with no resolution in the end. For instance, one of the first scenes in the film involves a politician (KS Ravikumar) conspiring with two of his party members from Murabad to divide the united Hindu-Muslim population, so they can make their party’s candidate win. But he hardly makes an appearance after that. The film keeps harping on about the pre-existing unity between the two communities but several scenes in the film prove otherwise. Case in point is the rival cricket teams with only Hindu or Muslim players on each team.
Rajini’s character is based in Mumbai, where he is a famous ‘don’ and is affectionately called ‘bhai’ by everyone. But the clear attempt to invoke nostalgia for the superstar’s character in Baasha does not really work.
With Rajini playing a powerful Muslim businessman and a community leader, the preachy political message on communal harmony, faith, and religion do not come as a surprise. But these messages do not extend beyond dialogues, and in many cases, feel forced. Even Rajini’s Muslimness does not feel organic. The film has a series of scenes in which Moideen Bhai is offering namaz or reading the Quran, but they add little value to the plot and/or his character other than repeatedly trying to establish that he is, indeed, a Muslim.
The filmmaker strives hard to tell the audience (and maybe even to herself) that Lal Salaam is a film on fostering Hindu-Muslim unity. But this messaging reaches a saturation level and becomes tiresome, particularly in the second half of the film. What were conceived as emotionally charged flashbacks also become tedious and unnecessarily long.
Several characters, particularly in the second half, make fleeting appearances and could have used more depth and screen time. At the same time, a few sequences felt unnecessarily lengthy and tighter editing might have helped. The father and son relationship between Moideen Bhai and Shamsudeen were a pleasure to watch, and even provided some moments of comic relief that the film could have used more of.
AR Rahman’s music is spell-binding as ever and adds to the narrative of the film. Vishnu Rangasamy’s cinematography also works well and is able to capture even the subtle tensions that exist between the two groups.
Vishu Vishal has played the village sportsman role several times, starting from his debut Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu (2009), and has perfected the trope. So playing Thiru comes easily to him. Vikranth as Shamsudeen is excellent and displays his acting chops, especially in scenes where he expresses pain or disappointment in the aftermath of the riot. Thambi Ramaiah is a pleasure to watch as he goes from the caring uncle who takes Thiru in after the riot to reprimanding him when he messes up.
The women characters in the film are heavily disappointing. For Rani, Thiru’s mother, crying to resolve her problems or expressing any emotion seems to be the only resort. Meanwhile, Fatima (Nirosha), Moideen Bhai’s wife, plays the stereotypical wife and mother role and has little to contribute. Ananthika Sanilkumar who plays Thiru’s love interest is forgettable to say the least, as she is present for less than 10 minutes of the entire film. In the few scenes she was present in, the actor was fiery, spirited, and seemed the no-nonsense type, but only to disappear shortly after.
Despite its poor execution, Lal Salaam is well-intentioned. The politics is definitely safe and it is evident that the filmmaker did not want to offend any section of the population. But this caution also becomes Lal Salaam’s undoing as the film makes superficial observations and gets a big star to relay trite dialogues on unity. Perhaps, that is still a laudable effort at a time when religious propaganda films rule the box office, and OTT platforms take down films based on the outrage of majority groups.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the producers or any other members of its cast and crew.