Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Arvind Swami, Bhagyashree, Samuthirakani, Raj Arjun, Jisshu Sengupta
Director: A. L. Vijay
Producer: Vishnu Induri, Shaailesh R Singh
Genre: Biography
Duration: 2 hrs 34 mins

First things first. Vijay’s Thalaivii is a biopic of Jayalalithaa, but right at the start, the makers choose to describe this as a work of fiction. So, we get characters who are playing real-life persons, but under slightly different names; in place of Jayalalithaa, we get Jaya, and MJR instead of MGR, and so on.
Thalaivii begins with that fateful day on March 25, 1989, when Jaya (Kangana Ranaut) is abused — and almost disrobed — on the floor of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. And like Draupathi, she makes a vow — she will step foot in the place only as a chief minister. Writers Vijayendra Prasad and Vijay use this terrific set-up to narrate the roller coaster life of an iconic figure, capturing the journey of how a young actress turned out into a determined politician. It is a smart decision as it immediately lends a mythical quality to the story.

The film then flashes back to 1965, when a young Jaya meets the charming MJR (Arvind Swami) and focuses on the relationship, and its transformation from co-stars who develop feelings for each other to protégé and mentor. The film doesn’t put a name on this relationship, but Vijay manages to safely walk the thin line between playing safe and offending the followers of two of Tamil Nadu’s biggest leaders by invoking Krishna and Radha. He also shows how this sets tongues wagging and the efforts of RNV (Samuthirakani), MJR’s right-hand man, to keep Jaya away from his leader and safeguard the latter’s image. If the platonic relationship between Jaya and MJR is the beating heart of the film, it is this arc — of Jaya winning the respect and acceptance of RNV — that is actually its soul. It is here that the fingerprints of Vijayendra Prasad are quite evident. He turns RNV into a formidable antagonist for Jaya to win over (in an earlier scene, we see him ruthlessly destroy the hopes of another young actress who dared to get close to his leader), and the battle between the two keeps the screenplay’s wheels turning.

This clever writing is what makes Thalaivii an engaging watch. Yes, the lives of its principal characters are filled with so much drama, but Vijay succeeds (largely) by choosing to focus on the arcs that make his protagonist’s achievements truly heroic. He also ensures that most of the major milestones in the life of Jaya and MJR are brought out… her warm relationship with her mother Sandhya (Bhagyashree), her defiant character even as an actress (watch out for the impish way in which she gets back at MJR for agreeing to RNV’s decision to kill off her character in a film), MJR getting shot by co-actor MR Radha, his hospitalisation in the US and so on.

That said, the film also falters when it comes to giving us a complete picture of who Jaya was in real life. It only shows two aspects of her. Was she just a lover pining for a man she cannot be with and a woman who had to chart her own path in a man’s world? A few moments showing us what Jaya was like when she isn’t either of these two things would have made this character even more fascinating. In fact, the film completely skips the years when Jaya and MJR stay apart. What this also does is make certain scenes seem repetitive.

Thankfully, the performances help the narrative from not getting bogged down by this blinkered approach. While she doesn’t resemble the real-life Jayalalithaa, Kangana manages to bring out the essence of the late actress-politician. What pulls the performance down is the lack of lip-sync in many places; there are times when you catch the actress speaking the dialogue in Hindi (the perils of trying to convert this into a multilingual film, perhaps!). While Arvind Swami is made to mimic MGR in places, the actor makes MJR an imposing character, someone whose presence is felt even in scenes that he doesn’t appear in. Among the supporting cast, the excellent Samuthirakani and the dependable Thambi Ramaiah (as Jaya’s Man Friday, Madhavan) stand out while a couple of them, like Madhoo (playing VN Janaki) and Nasser (as Karuna, MJR’s friend-turned-rival), are given the short shrift.

And the big moments work very well… how Jaya managed to pair up with MJR the most despite stiff opposition; how Ammu became Amma; how she was mistreated at the funeral of MJR; and how her pluck not just helped her defeat a cocky rival but also made the men who were with her bow down to her.