Last week, Hassath took me to the Siri Fort auditorium to watch my first
Sivaji, The Boss.
I didn't know what to expect—this was my first Tamil film. I knew what
an iconic figure Rajnikant is in Tamil cinema, and Hassath had told me
that the best way to watch his films is in an inexpensive local theatre
in Tamil Nadu, so that the enthusiastic and vocal participation of the
audience adds to the experience.
To my surprise (because I have never heard much Tamil), I was able to
understand quite a lot of the dialogue and even some of the songs. The
grammar and many words were recognisably similar to Malayalam, which I
do speak. A happy coincidence, because the subtitles were awful. Bajji
(an Indian dish) was rendered everywhere in the dialogue as
(an Indian dish).
Sivaji is a rich software engineer who has returned to Chennai from the
USA with the dream of providing free education and medical care to all.
He is stymied at every turn by a corrupt system intent on extracting its
pound of flesh, let down by the law, and driven to bankruptcy by his
powerful and well-connected opponents. He retaliates the “Lion's
way”—by blackmailing the same people into giving him half of their
black money (i.e. undeclared income), then turning them in to the income
tax officials anyway. He then launders the money and uses it to fund the
universities and hospitals he wanted to open.
Along the way, he delivers cathartic beatings to a range of rowdies and
villains, inspiring fear in his opponents and the unswerving loyalty of
ordinary people all over his native land. The fight scenes are a thing
of beauty. There are no adversaries, not even the
top ten rowdies
in Chennai, that can intimidate him. There is never any question
that Sivaji will win; but he does it in great style every single time,
and sustains just the right injuries needed to advance the plot.
There were frequent, lengthy digressions to song and dance sequences,
each one an epic of visual excess. Every costume was fantastic, every
colour intense, every dance set in a different world. I was startled at
first by the sudden appearance of Sivaji in golden armour with a beard
and a retinue of Roman soldiers who joined him in a dance, but I soon
got into the spirit of things. By the time a chalky-white Sivaji and his
traditionally-dressed bride-to-be are transported from a shop in Chennai
to the Sydney harbour in snazzy western clothes, it took me barely a few
seconds to readjust; and rapid costume changes and set transformations
within a sequence didn't faze me in the least.
I noticed that the film was very aware throughout of its role as a
Rajnikant starrer, and was not above making fun of itself or the Tamil
film industry. The first dance sequence featured a few dozen overweight
(but very energetic) men with Rajnikant's face painted in vivid colours
on their stomach, in movie-poster style. Little in-jokes like this one
(paraphrased) were scattered throughout the film, with appropriate
pauses for applause each time:
[Rajnikant begins to threaten a hoodlum…]
Wait, are you going to give the ‘punch’
Every two-bit Tamil actor is using that dialogue now.
Here, let me handle this one.
The Uncle (who plays a critical role as Sivaji's supporter and sidekick)
then delivered a couplet whose impact would be lost in translation (and
there are many such rhymes… which the film pokes fun at itself
for). The film also ridicules capitation fees, the desire for fairer
skin, paying attention to horoscopes, and a few other things besides.
For all its buffoonery, though, the central message of the film couldn't
be clearer or more direct: We need free education and healthcare, which
the state and private interests conspire to keep from us. Let's turn the
tables on them, beat the rascals thoroughly if they so much as sneeze,
and use their money to benefit everyone. It's a pity that all this
hinges on a lone great Saviour… but at least it's Rajnikant.
I was thoroughly entertained for three hours, as every film convention I
am used to was thoroughly trashed. I thought the film was very well put
together, and that the (many) reviewers who criticise it as illogical
and unrealistic have missed the point altogether. There's no use looking
for bottles of hairspray growing on a cactus and being disappointed when
you don't find any.
I also understand now why Rajnikant is a superstar in Tamil Nadu, but
I'm not going to paint his face on my stomach… at least, not until I
have watched a few more of his films.