Shivaji Tamil Review1

~~ Sivaji : 99% Style 1% Substance ~~

When you are in a Rajini movie, you have to make certain allowances. Logic is usually the first victim to take a heavy beating. Common Sense follows next. Successful Rajini movies don’t aim high in terms of technology, story, logic and themes. They keep it simple and reduce the dependence on logic. Such movies progress smoothly using a nice balance of masala, comedy, songs, fan appeasement and interesting confrontations. It is not that Rajini is incapable of doing better. But he is a prisoner of his own image. Much like the bribery-capitation fee cycle that he tries to eliminate in this movie - The cost of a Rajinikanth project is high - the capitation fee is a compromise in logic, subtlety etc so that lowest common denominator among fans is appeased. You don’t need special intelligence to understand Annamalai or Padaiyappa. Just some basic sensibility towards human emotions is enough. Should the fact that this is a Shankar movie make things different? Should there be some expectation of logic, depth and surprise elements?

It is tempting to think Shankar and Rajini are made for each other. Rajinikanth thrives on the formula where an honest rich man is duped, becomes poor and later fights his way back to richness and glory. The simple message being ‘Good Triumphs’. Shankar thrives on revenge stories, where a common man is harmed by the evils of society, becomes poor/loses something, and uses unconventional methods to teach values and fights his way back to glory (Gentleman, Indian, Anniyan and to some extent Mudhalvan). The simple message being - ‘Honesty is the best policy’. Sivaji is a perfect marriage of these two formulas. Does it work though? Shankar in the past has shown tremendous depth in story telling and details. But he is not subtle a’la Manirathnam. His logic is sketchy and over-the-top. He is more raw. But still makes purists happy. So when Rajini and Shankar combine, Shankar could have gone for story depth and made purists happy. Shankar could have gone for style and made Rajini Fans happy. Or better he could have gone for the jugular by trying to do both and make everybody happy. Usually when someone tries to go for the third alternative they unknowingly open up a fourth - which is get stuck in the middle and go nowhere. Sivaji is a movie where shankar’s and Rajini’s negative aspects add instead of subtracting each other. Shankar wants to have some depth in story line, but then remembers that this is a Rajini movie, so he tries to keep it simple and starves the story. So we get an emaciated story that is too weak for Rajini to carry on his head. However, for a Shankar movie - the twins - story and masala are like belt and suspenders. When the story fails, masala delivers and vice versa. In Sivaji, the masala delivers.

Shankar usually builds a movie like a chemical potion. It’s a carefully built formula with preset ingredients. There is a social message, good songs with creative picturization, comedy, technology gimmicks, surprising twists, creative story line, unusual characters, interesting details, revenge sub-plot, and violence. He lines them up in perfect proportions and scales all these things up with ‘brahmandam’. Money is lavishly spent to bloat up each ingredient to enormous proportions. So that if one fails the other ingredient can somehow help the movie. Jeans is a good example of a Shankar movie which had several main ingredients (like story etc) that were dead on arrival and some that were at best unusual. But the formula helped the movie cross the ‘pass’ mark. Boys didn’t have even those ‘helper’ entities. Whereas in Gentleman, Indian, Kadhalan, and Mudhalvan almost every ingredient worked. Sivaji is neither here nor there. If not for Shankar’s broad and all-encompassing formula with a lot of masala buttressing to protect the movie from failure, this movie would have been a sure goner. Basically - Shankar’s plan A, which is the main story/content, failed and his spare bag of tricks in the form of Plan B helped this movie work to some extent. You could also say that Rajini’s plan A worked and plan B didn’t. Sivaji is better than Baba, which is not saying much. Overall, I felt it was a better movie than Chandramukhi. But I doubt if it has the X-factor that Chandramukhi had.

The story/depth part is the weakest in Sivaji. Sivaji is a returning NRI with intentions of providing free education and medical facilities for the poor. He does not explain how that business model will work but says he has shit load of money that can pay the medical bills of everybody. He faces opposition in the form of bribe-seeking government officials and influential competitors. Reduced from riches to rags, how he achieves his goal forms the rest of the movie. Shreya, an extremely hot (red red hot) babe is his love interest. Typical of Rajini heroines, she is ‘pothikinu’ dressed during the movie and ‘avuthikinu’ dressed in the songs. Shankar has just one trick in the story department. Sivaji’s idea to convert black money to white money. That is it. Everything else - what the Sivaji foundation does, how it helps people, his growth, his nature of help towards the poor is all fluffed up. Not explained. No time is spent on the meat part. You are basically told - ’sivaji does something good - don’t bother with the details - just know that he did some good and people like him now. ok bye’.

The logical/ common sense elements in this movie will not pass the scrutiny of even a complete Rajini fanatic. It is all right to say that one should not expect logic in a Rajini movie. But at least something should make sense. Firstly, NRIs who are senior software architects will not be worth 200 crores. It’s inconceivable. Secondly, meeting Suman, ministers, government officials etc is not so easily possible for common man turned rich NRI. Thirdly, the ministers/political people in this movie are vague. Suman ridiculously changes the ministry by snapping his fingers. We do not know if any one of the caricatured ministers who appear in this movie is a Chief Minister or not. Fourth, the love segment with Shreya is complete nonsense. That part is so over the top that it’s not even worth spending time criticizing. Finally, Sivaji drags people (auditors, drivers, Thalsildars) into his ‘office’, beats them, stabs ministers and stitches them up instantly. This is clearly nonsense and could have been done better. But I have questions. For what purpose? How is he not challenged by other rowdy elements, government, CBI, police etc? All these things basically add up and say - there is no real story but just a semblance of it. The ’social’ aspect is there as a puppet with no real impact. Shankar is usually very good in showcasing the exact nature of social evils. Be it corruption, capitation fee, money laundering - he picks a department and shows in great detail, the effects of it on a common man. The plight of public suffering is well brought out. The small, small details that Shankar provides are usually very interesting and engaging. So even if Shankar leaves gaping holes in logic, which he usually does, it is covered by his excellence in other departments. Here things are kept at such a superficial level that you don’t connect with the movie at all. The CPR revival is a glaring example.

Is there any redeeming aspect to this movie? Shankar has essentially assembled an A list technical team of Indian cinema. K.V.Anand, Anthony, and Rahman are pretty much the best in the business. They help. All the teeny weenie bits of masala items that Shankar adds as just-in-case works. Vivek’s comedy is funny. The punch lines are awesome. The part where Rajini whitens himself is ‘asattu thanam’ and unnecessary but comedy for the most part is very good. There are some very good surprise elements too in this department, which was delightful. Songs & Picturization. I did not like the introduction SPB song. The video made it slightly bearable (but not pictured as well as its Shankar counterparts ‘Andan Kaakha’ or ‘Aazhagaana Rakshasi’ ). ‘Oru Koodai Sunlight’ is an excellent song, the best song in Sivaji, well picturized but in a poor context. The blonde hair looks ridiculous. I was hoping they wouldn’t use it on ‘oru koodai sunlight’ and spoil it. They did. ‘Sivaji’ ‘Athiradi’ and ‘Saahara’ songs are actually well picturized. Special mention needs to be made on ‘Athiradi’ song. Its mind blowing. This song alone is worth the price of the entry ticket. I can’t think of a Rajini or a Shankar song that has a better picturization than this. The stunt scenes have been choreographed very well. Some of them are really impressive. The bullet-time sequences have been done with a touch of style and class. However, in a lot of sequences they are speeded up or jazzed up by some flashy camera work to cover for Rajini’s age. The climax scene is the only exception. When those trademark zoom-ins and zoom outs happen, which don’t until well into the second half, you know editor Anthony is saying ‘hi’. This fellow is very impressive.

It would be unfair if I did not talk about the way Rajini and his style carried this movie single handedly. In all honesty Shankar failed in his department but did the ‘Rajini’ aspect some justice. The stylized way in which Rajini pops in a bubble gum, the way he moves the 1 Rupee coin is all pure class. Only Rajini can do this. It’s fun to watch also. Somehow the heart warms up to Rajini. You feel for him, when shreya spurns him. ‘Charm’ is an underrated word. Especially when the Rajini charm works on you like magic. The ‘mottai’ boss morpheus-look-alike aspect is the biggest surprise and the highest point of the movie. If not for that segment, I would have left the theater completely let down. Just watch this movie for ‘rajini style’ and you’ll know what I am talking about. While Rahman has adequately changed the ’super star’ title segment, the actual introduction scene of Rajinikanth is a letdown. A risk, which if it works is awesome. In this case it is a costly mistake. Sivaji starts on an unconventional and deflated note. Usually a good rajini movie hits a high note and keeps going to higher places without letting up. This movie stumbles, stops and hiccups its way to the interval. You can usually say when something is amiss. The small parts look okay individually but there is no overall cohesion. While I couldn’t put a finger to it, I could sense that whatever this movie was doing - a formulaic once-every-3-minute round robin switch to Sivaji’s social work, suman, rajini-shreya love, rajini vivek comedy - it was not gelling well. The pace was all right and it was hitting some formula but it was not engaging. The movie improved dramatically in the second half. To me the second half was much better than the first. However, Shankar shows no intention of getting into details. Instead he chooses to spend time on stupid truck-jeep based fight scenes in a drive-in theater.

There were many points in the movie where I felt ‘wow’ and many other points where I felt ‘what could have been’. I wish Rajini had accepted the Mudhalvan script. It had a story. Keeping Sivaji’s story under-cover must have been easy for Shankar. It has no story.