Thalaivii review – if Margaret Thatcher went to the Rank charm school

The recipient of 2021’s second highest-profile Twitter ban, Kangana Ranaut has channelled her newfound spare time into a biopic of J Jayalalithaa, Tamil cinema sweetheart turned regional political powerhouse. (Think The Iron Lady, if Margaret Thatcher had enrolled at the Rank charm school.) The result is a hodgepodge of a film, haphazardly passing a long, storied life through the multiplex cookie-cutter. Yet it’s also semi-fascinating, as a project only India’s robustly forgiving star system could now initiate. The true subject often seems to be Ranaut herself – like Jayalalithaa, a woman whose steely ambition provokes both devotion and ire. “Who the heck are you?” barks an opposition MP before a Congress debate descends into a literal pile-on.

The trajectory certainly mirrors Ranaut’s own: effort is made to court movie lovers, then things get fractious. Director AL Vijay lays on a fun recreation of the 1960s Tamil film business, with its wet-sari numbers and clunky-cute courtships. Throwback scenes have become a staple, but Vijay stages his with craft and detail: the songs are strong, and somebody has sourced period undergarments that moulded the female torso into comically unnatural shapes. We are reminded of Ranaut’s onscreen flexibility: adroitly segueing from gamine to stateswoman, she gets a laugh in passing simply by answering her dressing-room door in a blonde wig. Yet the script approaches politics as a stage-managed dress-up, where you don a sober sari, and sit back to receive the plaudits.

Regular rallies – hundreds of extras, clapping to suggest Something of Import is being conveyed – don’t reveal the politics that would make Thalaivii enlightening. In their place, we get would-be crowdpleasing stunts: ladling gruel on a chief minister’s desk or hauling herself from a wheelchair to flash peace signs on a balcony, our heroine seems to want a standing ovation for everything. While more nuanced than many of its star’s recent statements – it could hardly be otherwise – the film still feels like a passive-aggressive idea of doubling down. Jayalalithaa gets elevated to high office, leaving roomfuls of sycophants bowing to her will, and Ranaut looking like she’s exactly where she wants to be.

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