‘Sivaji’ the stylish David fells the ugly Goliath

Rajnikanth makes many points in black and white, although Sivaji is a riotously colourful film. It is difficult to imagine that a theme that is constantly coiled in tension between a do-gooder greencard holder and a hydra-headed, corrupt State with its familiar Dravidian markings can meaningfully convey anything in the midst of constant diversions and distractions, not the least of which is the silken Shriya Saran.

A 'pachai thamizhan' who is larger than the decaying Dravidian State...

But Sivaji does present his case, and in black and white, without allowing it to be diluted by any greys in the picture. The most interesting part of the exploration is of course the character of money in India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular. What is black is only an intermediate stage between two white phases, if it is used to do good. Then again, with no apologies to Fair and Lovely, black is real and recognisably genuine, while white may only be a cover (in this case for evil), whether it is Suman’s radiant dhoti-shirt combo in the film or the Tamilised attire of the power elite in everyday life.

 A black Mercedes may have a symbolism of its own when someone evil is at the wheel – which is not surprising, as it is often an icon of third world decadence, despotism and corruption. Rajni is seen with a silver Mercedes for a while, contrasting with Suman’s black, although the system finally turns him, after murderous encounters, over to a strong black SUV.

Sivaji is concerned about the evils afflicting the system in this much vaunted largest functioning democracy in the world where the middle class pledges or sells everything except its morality and pays donations to put its children in school and college run by crooks in white. Director Shankar is a master of this genre. He trained his ballistic directorial skills at the monstrosity that is government to blow holes into it with Indian and Anniyan. This time, he literally drives a massive knife into the soft underbelly of the sleazy system using Rajnikanth’s own patented style. Though Shankar told The Hindu that there is no blood or gore in the film, and it is all light hearted fun and entertainment, there is a strong message of positive violence in Sivaji — not entirely accidental, considering that Rajni often contemplates the state of politics while in the Himalayas.

It is tempting to look at Sivaji as the first of a series of Rajni films that are bound the way of MGR. In fact, Rajnikant does not lose the opportunity to declare that he “is MGR,” although he explains that it stands for M.G.Ravichandran. Never mind, we all get the message.

The big question, of course, is how Shankar pulled off a film which inflates the protagonist, the superstar, to a stature that dwarfs the Establishment and literally traps the political class and its minions in office rooms and beats it into a bruised, injured and cowering state, with the police and bureaucracy appearing to be nothing more than cancerous appendages that respond well to Rajni’s radiation therapy. Alas, to retain that overpowering persona, even ‘Sivaji’ has to seemingly reincarnate himself in the course of the film, handing a victory to the Establishment however superficial and deceptive it might be.

If there is a resonance in Rajni’s Sivaji, it is on the ascendance of greed in contemporary India in education and healthcare and the helplessness of individuals who pose a threat to the corrupt merely by pursuing charity. Money and muscle, in khaki and out of it, gratefully serve corrupt masters and there is no room for freebies — or basic entitlements — in this superpower of tomorrow. Everything has a price tag.

The rest of the film, beginning with the grand spectacles that characterise Kollywood as much as Bollywood, is no more than digitally enhanced opium. A regal day-dreaming hero, a nubile and fluid Shriya, Rajni’s style rendered for the digiterati by A.R.Rahman’s techno-visionary music and giant masquerades by Thotta Tharani. But are these the defining features of Sivaji? Or has MGR just started taking aim at the establishment, hoping to tame the Goliath someday?

  • Photos from ‘Sivaji’ on The Hindu website
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