"In IT companies, they conduct a yearly group discussion," begins Vicky, a software testing lead. We cut to a conference in London where a bunch of techies are sitting around a table looking at a white man pointing to a whiteboard that says, "Q1 Appraisal Group Discussion. Gangster in Tamil Nadu". Vicky explains that his promotion and increment depends on what he can say about the worst gangster they know. Vicky speaks of Suruli. We cut back to Madurai, where Vicky is inviting Suruli to return to London with him to help a big English gangster take on another Tamil gangster.
This is the backstory of how a small-time rowdy from Madurai came to be a white supremacist's right-hand man. If you're willing to fly alongside the film in such giant leaps of post-modern preposterousness, Jagame Thanthiram is a moderately entertaining affair.
The film begins by introducing us to a man whose wall is painted with the words 'goods only', with one of the o's struck off. Another man who drives a white car with the number plate that says, 'white power'. A third who parks his red retro car across the railway line stopping an oncoming train to commit murder. Jagame Thanthiram, Karthik Subbaraj's latest, featuring Dhanush, has an interesting premise, presented attractively " exactly what you'd expect from the director.
The writing, however, can hardly sustain that interest.
The film cannot make up its mind between being an empathetic story about xenophobia or a mass gangsta film about a borderline psychopath. It has moments of both, neither building on the other, ending up as a silly mess.
The tempo changes at such a ridiculous pace that we can hardly catch up. For instance, there is a point in the film where after a gut-wrenching flashback, Suruli meets the allies of a gang leader he betrayed to apologise to them. When they mock him, he jumps in the air, punches their face in, and beats them down to submission. "Accept my apology, or else," he seems to say. In a matter of seconds, they accept his apology, and he returns to his "gethu" state of being. Apparently, in the world of Jagame Thanthiram, revolutionaries sit around waiting for strangers to come lead them.
The film wants to be self-aware, regularly mocking the epiphanies of its characters; but such ill-fitted jokes only serve to further weaken those realisations at all. It wants to be clever, but much of the foreshadowing seems off-kilter. It wants to be rooted, but the flashback to genocide in Sri Lanka acts merely as atrocity porn. It wants to be poignant, but suddenly bringing up a child and giving him dialogues about hiding under the bed is lazy.
That is not to say that Jagame Thanthiram is all smoke. There is a spark here and a bonfire there. Many Tamil dialogues are sharp; the ones that don't reference past Tamil cinema are delicious. For instance, the wordplay about "erangal" (which can mean both 'getting down to business' and 'condolence') is quick-witted.
Murugesan stands out as an interesting character, perhaps because he seems to be the only one written with empathy. His pontification about washing plates is melancholic but endearing. The climax scene shot in snow and the epilogue in a desert are good filmmaking.
But for a film that's over two and a half hours long, Jagame Thanthiram has a very weak backbone. It's confused, self-indulgent and inconsiderate.
Jagame Thandhiram is currently streaming on Netflix India