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Review: Dhanush's 'Jagame Thandhiram' Is a Tedious Gangster Flick
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Review: Dhanush's 'Jagame Thandhiram' Is a Tedious Gangster Flick

Review of Karthik Subbaraj's 'Jagame Thandhiram' starring Dhanush, James Cosmo out now on Netflix.

Updated
Movie Reviews
5 min read

Review: 'Jagame Thandhiram' Pits Dhanush Against James Cosmo In a Tedious Ideological Showdown

After the curious but crummy eco-slasher experiment Mercury and the underwhelming Rajini vehicle Petta, Karthik Subbaraj's new padam marks a return to a well-acquainted mash-up territory of Madurai mobsters and meta-comedy. But Jagame Thandhiram isn't exactly a return to form. Coming off the recent success of Karnan is Subbaraj's star Dhanush, who keeps us glued to the screen even when the movie backs itself into corners it can’t finesse its way out of. With James Cosmos playing the Lord Commander of the London underbelly and Joju George as a Tamil Robin Hood, there is no charisma vacuum. Add Santhosh Narayanan's music powering the movie's emotional beats and all the other talent teeming in front of and behind the camera, Jagame Thandhiram is simply an offer you can't refuse. On paper.

On screen? That's a question which can't be answered with simple binaries like good or bad. No doubt the film will disappoint some of those expecting to see a movie fitting all the pre-release hype that boosted it up as event cinema. If you kept your expectations in check and didn't let them get stoked to an insurmountable degree, there's some fun to be had in Dhanush's unbridled energy.

(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

A still from Jagame Thandhiram.

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Dhanush is Suruli, a cocky hoodlum from Madurai who kicks off his body count in the movie in "Witness Me" fashion: he stops a train in its path to kill the brother of a rival. Forced to go into hiding following the crime, he turns freelance so to speak — as one does in tough times. He is commissioned by London mob boss Peter Sprott (Cosmo) to take out his own chief rival — Sivadoss (George) and his gang — from within. As he graduates from local thug to the big leagues, love and ethnic loyalties compel him to find a conscience. Then, it’s only a matter of time before Suruli and Peter are themselves at each other’s throats, setting the stage for an ideological showdown.

Indeed, it was ideology more than commerce that divided Sivadoss and Peter. Sivadoss runs a guns-for-gold scheme to fund the movement to help Sri Lankan Tamils gain refugee status, and if possible, buy their citizenship and help them settle in as citizens of the UK. By contrast, Peter is a bit of a one-note bad guy defined by Tarantino-esque excesses. An unapologetic racist, he drives a car whose number plates — WHITE POWER — reflect his ideology. His contempt for immigrants can be heard every time he speaks to Suruli.

(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

A still from Jagame Thandhiram.

The xenophobia in London is thus portrayed with a matter-of-factness. Subbaraj here adds a topical dimension with migrant anxiety, which in fact lies at the root of mobster mythos. The opening episode of Fargo's Season 4 — "Welcome to the Alternate Economy" — worked in a sort of preamble on the origin of the criminal underclass. Every fresh group of migrants were marginalised, oppressed and forced to live in the fringes of society. So, they turned to illegal means to gain a foothold. The stories of the rise of Vito Corleone, Satya and Sivadoss are all migrant narratives in a way.

In search of a fuller accounting of the crisis, Subbaraj sets a flashback during the Eelam War. But the trials of the escaping refugees are given the quick montage treatment, which doesn't allow for a proper reckoning with our own past — and extended present. India has continued to deny citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees it has hosted in camps in Tamil Nadu for decades. Thus, many of them make the perilous boat journeys from Asia to Europe in search of a better future. Subbaraj opens the film with a similar scene.

In interviews, Subbaraj spoke of the idea of home being a key theme in the movie. The idea of home for the refugee is coloured by the experiences carried from the country of origin as well as the host country. As refugee communities often live isolated from the host society, it leads to a conception of home as a no man's land, where they don't know where they truly belong. This applies to the Sri Lankan Tamil migrants still suffering from the fallout of the civil war. Subbaraj thus serves a wake-up call to not just the Brexiters, Trumpists and all the white supremacists, but also the Tamil Nadu locals who distrust the refugees, referring to them as viduthalai puligal and agadigal.

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(Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

A still from Jagame Thandhiram.

Amid all the message and mayhem, Jagame Thandhiram finds an entry point for a fast-tracked romance arc between Suruli and Attila (Aishwarya Lekshmi), who also happens to be a Sri Lankan Tamil. Lekshmi's role for the most part is limited to Suruli's moral conscience. Dhanush brings a fitting swagger to Suruli, vestis and vices intact. He is as skilled at making parottas as he is at making DIY bombs, which really distills the essence of his star persona, making even the coldest of settings a little warm in his mere presence. He not only drives the film's pacing, but sets its tonal barometer throughout, maintaining a steady balance between the action and the comedy. But the macho posturing does get tiresome, like it does in any mass movie. All this patchwork is held together by Santhosh Narayanan's music, which blends together folk, electronic and bagpipes too.

Jagame Thandhiram isn't Subbaraj's first tryst with streaming platforms. That came last year with the Amazon anthology series Putham Pudhu Kaalai, in which his entry Miracle was undoubtedly the highlight. But on either side of it, the features he's made have been nowhere near his best work. He brings a hyper-active gangster chic to Jagame Thandhiram’s East-meets-West collage, with nary a thought for convention or tradition. Which when done well yields unforgettable results. Case in point: his own Jigarthanda. An exercise in tonal gymnastics that’s bipolar by design, Jagame Thandhiram however is conflicted between delivering mass pleasures and topical commentary, and ends up doing both half-heartedly.

Rating: 2 Quints out of 5

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