Eelam has been a constant point of conversation in Karthik Subbaraj’s major works. His short film Parallax/Kaatchipizhai deals with children from different class backgrounds fascinated by an airplane. One boy alone is traumatised, and Karthik characterises the location in medieval ruins somewhere in Tamil Eelam, Sri Lanka. In Jigarthanda, Karthik’s journalist uncle says he deals only with politics and Eelam, to which Karthik replies, “They are the same.” In Iraivi, it is suggested that Arul’s unreleased film that forms the MacGuffin is likely to be one with an Eelam backdrop by the poster on the wall at the producer’s office. In it, a weapon lies flat in a rainforest and the title is May 17. In an offhand moment, Arul’s friend at the bar (played by Kaali Venkat) mentions how the issue is politicised and weaponised in Tamil Nadu.
While Karthik has relegated the issue to the background so far (or maybe we must dig deeper – Iraivi is a great choice to do so), in his latest with Dhanush, Jagame Thanthiram, the issue is foregrounded for the first time. In the film, Gajaraj — Subbaraj’s father and the actor who played Karthik’s uncle in Jigarthanda — becomes Murugesan, an Eelam refugee in India during his younger days and now in the UK, clearly a deliberate casting choice. This is Subbaraj trying to perfect what Kamal Haasan tried with varying results through the latter part of his career – it can be magic, a glorious misfire or straight up embarrassment. Labelling Jagame Thanthiram too soon can be tricky but it is not devoid of its moments of blistering visuals and politics.
It is post-2010 London and the Tory government is chest-beating its xenophobia. Peter (James Cosmo) is a white supremacist gangster who has both business and ideological issues with an immigrant counterpart Sivadoss (Joju George), the Robin Hood among the Eelam diaspora in UK. Peter does what every white boss does – bring the service provider gangster on site – Dhanush as Suruli from Madurai, who is all but younger version of Petta. The gratuitous violence and body count too is not dissimilar from Petta and unfortunately, it is the Eelam characters that suffer the fate.
The film has its share of explosive filmmaking – a single-take scene erupts in violence within a claustrophobic parotta mess. Confronting a backstabber takes another complex single-take when tens of Eelam voices ring into and take aim at Suruli’s head. A peace talk is filmed in circular pans as if to draw the shape such efforts usually end in. A stormtrooper level shootout goes from landscaped outdoors to creaky woods almost replaying the past trauma of some of the characters. Murugesan laments to Suruli about the ignominy of being stateless, without a “paper”. These are the moments in Jagame Thanthiram that work, the casual insertion of larger politics, the gentle schooling of a character like Suruli.
Suruli is a curious figure amidst all this. He is the quintessential mass hero who cannot fail. But he is also just a gun-for-hire who is apolitical and uncaring to a fault. If you ask me to picture Suruli in Subbaraj’s head, he takes the shapes of Tamil Nadu’s opportunist politicians and state actors. The Eelam issue could be twisted into many forms for him – it can be financially viable and often politically valuable. It can even lead to ethno-fascism as we have already seen in recent times. Suruli’s slant towards this is his first character trait to be established. But Suruli must win at all costs.
Apart from the choppy editing that is so clearly on display throughout the film, the writing and handwringing over the redemption of Suruli are some of the factors that bring a wonderful idea — almost a lip smacking setup — crashing down. He is not always dumb. He asks Sivadoss, rhetorically, how it is that only the rich people complain about the baggage that comes with all the money and if that is the case, why can’t they distribute the wealth so others could find out for themselves what it is like. Almost nonchalantly, Sivadoss’s line raises the million-dollar (pound?) issue – isn’t calling for peace talk and then killing the usual modus operandi? Now which government is he talking about? Your guess is as good as mine.
It is frankly great to see the Eelam issue front and centre in a Tamil mainstream film. It is about time and we now have about a decade worth of Tamil filmography where filmmakers have fine-tuned their craft to reinforce their politics in an increasing age of majoritarianism. Subbaraj, about twelve years after Parallax, has decided to show his cards. It might not be a full house or even a flush, but it is a beginning. He is at the table, and I hope he goes all in.
The Jagame Thanthiram review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreenindia.com and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.