In 2019 when director AL Vijay announced the biopic of the late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa with the talented Kangana Ranaut in the lead, the project met with mixed reactions.
While Jaya as a personality is not one easy to understand, leave alone capture, the sterling cast comprising Kangana, Arvind Swamy, Nasser, Madhu and Bhagyashree among others was enough to evoke a lot of curiosity. So how does Thalaivii fare? The 152-minute film begins with Jaya being pushed out of the state assembly and Karuna calling it a black day in the history of TN politics in the year 1989 — one of Tamil Nadu’s most colourful political moments.
But soon after, it rewinds two decades to the start of her career where a young Ammu is being forced to enter films by her ambitious mother (Bhagyashree). From then, the film follows the story that most are familiar with – of her becoming the female lead of almost all MGR films (played by an excellent Arvind Swami). Here, the director depicts the heroine as being completely attracted to her lead actor, and their romance is carefully crafted as a beautiful love story.
While there is no definition given to their relationship, Jaya sees them as Radha-Krishna, and is devoted to him. RM Veerappan (Samuthirakani), a close aide to MGR is not in favour of their growing closeness and distances Ammu from MGR. These carefully recreated songs and scenes are some of the highlights of the film.
There are several anecdotes woven in – like a scene in which Jaya calls for a press conference and says that she looks forward to acting with Sivaji Ganesan, something that she did to get back at MGR for side-lining her. Such details make for interesting viewing, but they are far and few, with the focus remaining firmly on MGR. And herein lies the film’s fatal flaw.
Despite being titled ‘Thalaivii’, we never get an insight into Jaya’s personality. And for a viewer in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s charismatic and dynamic personality is not effectively conveyed by Kangana, despite her earnest performance. Another let-down is the transformation of Jayalalithaa's physical appearance after she becomes the Chief Minister, which just looks artificial and doesn't make for a pleasant watch. Rather, it’s almost comical, drawing a few giggles from the audience.
And just when the journey of Jaya actually starts, Thalaivii abruptly ends. The film which was timely and could have cashed in on the sentiment that people have for Jayalalithaa and her contribution to Tamil Nadu remains untold.
Biopics are not an easy genre to attempt. Over the years, we have seen quite a few — MS Dhoni, Milkha Singh, Mary Kom – and while they have had varied degrees of success at the box office, most have at least managed to stay true to their narrative. 'Thalaivii' fails to convey Jaya’s story effectively, but if you are still curious, watch it for Arvind Swami and Nasser, and for GV Prakash’s music, which is another highlight. But if you want to watch it for Jayalalithaa, wait for the next attempt.
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Samuthirakani, Thambi Ramaiah, Nasser, Bhagyashree, Madhu Bala and Poorna
Music director: GV Prakash Kumar