Kangana Ranaut’s Thalaivii Fails Both Jayalalithaa and Tamil Political History
Kangana Ranaut plays the role of Tamil actor-politician J Jayalalithaa in her biopic 'Thalaivii.'
Can J Jayalalithaa’s complex life be packaged into a two-odd hour movie? She was a hugely successful film star for well over a decade, acting in over 140 movies. She was equally successful in politics, helming the AIADMK founded by her mentor MG Ramachandran till her death in December 2016.
Since her passing, the AIADMK has been struggling to get its act together – a telling commentary on how the party had banked on the personal charisma of leaders like MGR and her to keep it going.
It is hard to look at Jayalalithaa’s life in black and white. It had various shades in between – shades that built her up, that defined her persona – both in cinema and politics. Thalaivii fails to get these shades right.
The biopic is a lacklustre, unimpressive attempt at portraying the life and times of Jayalalithaa, instead ending up portraying the ups and downs of her relationship with MGR.
Failure to Capture Nuance
The film fails to even remotely capture the persona of Jayalalithaa and in the process, solely relies on some moments in her life — like her refusal to accord due respect to MGR during their first day of shooting together.
At least on two occasions, MGR talks about Periyar in Thalaivii – about how he was on the same boat as Karunanidhi in spreading the ideals of Periyar and Anna. But the film fails to document MGR’s transition from a rational leader to a temple-hopping chief minister.
Why was that important? Because like him, Jayalalithaa too was a believer, the public exhibition of which had a definitive impact on her political career. In 1992, a year after she took over as the chief minister for the first time, Jayalalithaa took a holy dip at the Kumbakonam Mahamagam festival which ended in a stampede, killing an estimated 50 people.
For someone who was lured into Dravidian movement – a movement that has social justice and rationalism as its basis – and had elements of Dravidian movement infused in the early part of his film journey, MGR changed tack soon after — especially after launching the ADMK. A series of events led to the fallout between MGR and Karunanidhi, including a brewing rivalry since the death of DMK founder CN Annadurai. While portraying the friendship and rivalry, the film fails to capture the nuance of both.
Grey Areas Left Untouched
The film has a scene in which Jayalalithaa and her aides bring all her possessions to a table, from jewellery to cash and documents of her properties – in response to the doubts of other party seniors in winning the election without money power.
“Take all of this, but those who think only money can win the election can leave now” she thunders.
Ironically the film fails to speak about the infamously extravagant marriage of her foster son in 1995 or the fact that she was arrested in disproportionate assets case.
The makers might well have an excuse that the film ends with her ascension to power in 1991. But well, her life as a politician in her own right starts just after that. It is only evident that the makers do not want to touch any grey areas – not just after 1991 but before that too.
All has not always been well with Jayalalithaa and MGR. Unlike what is shown in Thalaivii, there was a point in her life when Jayalalithaa reportedly wanted to cut off from MGR. Writer Vaasanthi’s book The Lone Empress: A Portrait of Jayalalithaa speaks about how MGR was ‘too overbearing and dominating for Jayalalithaa to take him for long.’
“According to reports, he started controlling all her activities, including the clothes she wore. He had control over her finances and she had to depend on his good mood to get her money from him. It became too stifling at some point, where she felt the need to cut herself free of him”, the book says.
Another grey area left almost untouched in the film is Sasikala. Actor Poorna plays her role but Sasikala’s personality as someone who had a deep influence on Jayalalithaa fails to come through. Her husband Natarajan who was at one point Jayalalithaa’s advisor before falling out with her is not shown in the movie.
But one character that gets some space is R M Veerappan’s. Played by Samuthirakani in Tamil, the film rightly establishes R M Veerappan as a close confidante of MGR, but is inaccurate about his relationship with Jayalalithaa. They both cannot stand each other, before MGR and after him. Jayalalithaa’s visceral hatred for RMV doesn’t come through as much as RMV’s hatred for her does.
The film shows RMV as visiting Jayalalithaa after she emerges as the leader of the AIADMK and having a rapprochement, but RMV is on record (as quoted in Vaasanthi’s book) stating that Jayalalithaa invited him to join her cabinet ‘on Natarajan’s idea to have seniors who could help her run the government.’ The camaraderie did not last long.
Film Shows Jayalalithaa as By-product of MGR's Life
Jayalalithaa’s legacy was perhaps that she fought hard in a male dominated politics to not just carve her own space, but retain it with a rare conviction, asserting her supremacy in every possible way – from flaunting her proximity with MGR in the beginning to making the men bend to her in the end.
Both were her own ways of asserting her ‘indisputable’ leadership among a sea of contenders – a question that remained unsettled till MGR’s death and little after that.
In the film, Jayalalithaa is largely shown only as a by-product of MGR’s life and times – his heroine (when in reality, she had acted in 20-odd films with him of over 140 films) and his political protegee (something she had contested even when he was alive). The aggression in her body language is confined to just that – and shown as something drawn from MGR’s unwavering support and love for her. Of course, MGR leaves her at one point only to come back and take her into the party. The story again is largely true except that the reality had many more shades to it.
Thalaivii fails to emphatically capture Jayalalithaa as an actor, as a politician and as a chief minister. But with Aravind Samy reprising the role of MGR to a tee, it might offer a nostalgic trip to the good old days of MGR movies for his hardcore fans. Otherwise, even as a film on a fictional character that falls in love with her co-star and joins politics at his instance, only to become his political heir, Thalaivii is barely watchable. Occasionally, it reminds you of Jayalalithaa.
(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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