Jagame Thanthiram: Is Karthik Subbaraj too falling into the trap?

Spoilers ahead...

Let's take a look at films that this director has made so far. This exercise is imperative to make an informed guess at the future filmography of the young filmmaker. He started off with an impressive Pizza. The film was essentially a heist movie with a fantastic twist that got us reeling at the ending. It was pure entertainment. No complications, just pure fun. His second, Jigarthanda gave us a hint into how sensible, smart and intelligent he is. The meta-ness about filmmaking, the Karthik SubbarajTM twists and the Tarantinoesque touches make it one hell of a film. You would find Easter Eggs at every rewatching of the film. Then came Iraivi, my favourite of all his films. It dealt with a lot more sensitive subject - women empowerment, toxic patriarchy. But even here, he layered it brilliantly, in terms of the visuals, the dialogues and even a separate plot point (the whole crime angle is just another peek into the way we neglect women when they are around and celebrate them - again, a Balachanderesque dark twist here - much later by attributing value to them). Even though the film dealt with a message, the writing was so dense, layered and solid that not for a moment will you roll your eyes in exasperation or exhaustion.

He followed it up with Mercury, an interesting and impressive attempt at making a silent film of sorts. Though the first half an hour or so of the film is a bit slow, thanks to the genre, the film quickly gets you hooked. Even here the director is at his peak in terms of writing and the direction is pretty good if not at its peak. The casting is near perfect and once again, the end with a twist - need I say more? Come Petta and I got what was the quintessential Thalaivar film. With an equal proportion of star worship and the director's finesse, the film, in my opinion, is a textbook on how to make a "Rajini film" in the current scenario. The casting, the framing of the shots, the focus on his inimitable mannerisms and charisma followed by the Karthik Subbaraj universe in the second half was completely wholesome.

I have purposely left out the segments in Putham Pudhu Kaalai and Bench Talkies as those are his strong suits. He has excelled in much shorter versions like Kaatchi Pizhai with the film running just under 10 minutes and this particular one just over five minutes. Probably that's one of the reasons his films work so well. He's been so well groomed in writing an effective screenplay for the short films that all of those films are like practice and his feature films ultimately become an interesting and engaging experience, automatically. I wonder how different his way of writing is for features.

Coming back, Jagame Thandhiram was supposed to have a theatrical release. Thanks to the pandemic, it never happened and we watched it on Netflix. I watched it on the laptop screen - the largest screen I could afford - and my special earphones, to replicate the theatrical experience. Just like any of his other ventures, this film too has all the elements of a Karthik Subbaraj padam. Dark humour, sharp and funny dialogues, Tarantino tip-of-the-hats and homages, some brilliant background score, writing Easter Eggs and so on. But it didn't feel enough.

This film is pure Karthik Subbaraj. Right from the first 10 minutes, which by far are the most engaging, the funniest and the most entertaining 10 minutes in a long, long time, he got me hooked. The bright and flashy don (a fantastic Dhanush as Suruli), his dumb associates who can't differentiate between thaamboolam and thaambathyam (the former is a synonym for betrothal and the latter for married life), the hero introduction song and the quick turn of events that finds him at England. I love the way how the director doesn't waste too much time in establishing the character. There are no punchlines for Suruli or an elaborate action sequence. What I felt a little too good to believe was the conceit to bring Suruli to London. The reasoning felt really weak, but then, we have had films like Airaa where just because a character closes the lift impatiently a ghost wreaks havoc, so this, I am okay with. We get the character introduction through the flashes of their names, the The Hateful Eight touch was an outright homage to Quentin Tarantino. Within the first half an hour so, the plot thickens and we are all set for a game of chess between the gangsters viz., Peter, Suruli and Shivadoss. The interval point leaves you at a great high and you look forward to the second half.

I have to talk about some of the brilliantly shot sequences here. Right in the beginning, the way we are shown how influential Suruli can get (spoiler alert, so much so that he can stop a train!) is just amazing. The conceit is in the form of comedy and the reveal is a "Woah" moment. It continues in the way he kills a guy not before he asks him a difference between thamboolam and thaambathyam. I was laughing and just like that, Suruli killed that character, I was rolling and the blood almost splattered on my face! If this scene is about solid writing and brilliant acting, the action sequence just before he goes to London is pure art in terms of the camera work. In what feels like a single shot you get to see the new characters, the henchmen to kill Suruli and the ambience in a single swivel of the camera. The fight that follows is fresh in terms of the style, beautifully complimented by SaNa's rousing score and the icing on the cake, a slow-mo shot towards the end. You have to watch it to feel it.

But in the second half, despite all the hints, jabs and outright pontification at the themes of racism and its allied toxins, the whole Eelam angle sprung up on me. This is where the film starts to lose its grip and the fantastic set-up right up to the interval point dissolves like hot butter melting on a stove. Due credit to Karthik Subbaraj for trying all his might to avoid being painfully preachy while explaining the concepts of racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, etc. Most of it is explained through montages with dialogues running in the background. But the film becomes taxing and drab once it climbs the morality pedestal. By this time it only feels like the whole film was just an excuse to set right the deep flaws in Suruli.

Though, to be fair, the film redeems itself once you get back to Suruli's gangster ways of redeeming himself. There is this fun sequence where he traces down one of the defaulters from Shivadoss's gang. It all happens in a jiffy and you get those much-needed laughs. The ending, once again, a typical Karthik Subbaraj ending, aims to give the audience a little to ponder but, again, that is not something that I looked forward to. I kept wishing that the can would burst, sending Peter into flames.

I think I find this change-of-heart flavour of the film trying too hard to fit only because so far, no film of Karthik's has taken an apologetic stance or set out to justify why a grey character is so. In fact, he has been quite the opposite. Take for instance the interview scene of Assault Sethu in Jigarthanda. He says, "In order to live a great life, killing people is not wrong". Heck, even the character of Rajinikanth in Petta has a lovely grey shade with which the film ends.

Also, with this film, is Karthik Subbaraj trying to tell us that he is a "socially aware" if not "socially responsible" filmmaker? The film runs for about 160 minutes, but it felt so much longer! I don't mind long films. For instance, Master runs about 3 hours but never a moment does the run time seem an issue. But here, the film's length is completely justified. No scene is overdone. In fact, I kept hoping, in wain, that I will see the Bujji song somewhere in the film! The Eelam scenes, their struggles and pain are supposed to evoke empathy and make us bleed for them. All they made me do was look at how much longer the film will run. Could there have been a more interesting way of revealing the greatness of Shivadoss without an elaborated flashback, which had traces and an obvious call back to one of the director's earliest shorts Kaatchi Pizhai? Could he have just taken the final shot of the short film and had an exposition between the characters for the same, thereby avoiding the long-drawn flashback? There is another thing that I didn't understand. Was that Suruli's marriage when Rakita Rakita happens? If so, why is that plot point left unexplained?

Dear Karthik,

Why did you decide to explore these different themes in this particular screenplay? Why not make it a gangster film like The Godfather? Did the "films-with-a-message" bug bite you too? Are you doing this just to stay relevant? Would this be a one-off or is your next film with Vikram also have these messages?

I have always believed that any artist shouldn't be bracketed into any kind of labels. Even though "Master of Romance" and "Master of Grandeur" sound fancy, they are still labels. For instance, Shankar S., the "Master of Grandeur" has a script rooted in the villages - a small scale film. But he could never make that because of his image. In such a scenario, dear Karthik, I'm thankful that you don't have a label - at least not yet. Having said that, I thank you for making Jagame Thandhiram. Though a few parts didn't work for me, it's still a Karthik Subbaraj padam and I'm happy to have watched it.

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