Emperor Caesar Augustus installed the Milliarium Aureum in Ancient Rome. All distances were measured relative to this monument, which gave birth to the phrase “All roads lead to Rome.” The film Thalaivii might be based on the late actor-turned-chief minister J Jayalalithaa (called Jaya and played by Kangana Ranaut), but all roads in this film lead to another actor-turned-chief minister, MG Ramachandran (called MJR and played by Aravind Swami).

From the rise to power of the DMK to the split between M Karunanidhi (called Karuna and played by Nassar) and MGR, the loyalty of one RM Veerappan (called RN Veerapan and played by Samuthirakani) and the rise of Jayalalithaa from film sets to the CM post, it all revolves around MGR.

One might find it ironic to tell the story of a trailblazing woman, who broke the hold of patriarchy in politics, through the man who helped her reach where she did – even if he was no ordinary man. But the way Vijayendra Prasad writes the character of Jaya, step by step, makes it worth your while.

Here is a girl who, as she becomes a woman, melancholically retorts, “Enna thavira en vaazhkaila ellarum mudivedukareenga.” She realises that in a man’s world she will hardly get to decide. The moment she realises this, she becomes a person who lives and dies by her reactionary nature. Thrown out of a film and threatened she will never act in a film with MGR again? No problem. She calls the press and sings the paeans of Sivaji Ganesan. Tempered in fire, she changes. She grows. She rises. The writing is excellent and the dialogues by Karky are full of joie de vivre.

When asked to rise up in reverence to a man, she shoots back, “Am I a security?” When told that it is better to be a Roman in Rome, she mocks the very fabric of the statement. When her mentor tells her, “Namma vidhi naama ezhudhardhilla, vaazhkai dhaan ezhudhum,” she proves to him that she is the one who controls the narrative. When told by producers that she is too old to be a heroine, she refuses to act at all. When asked who the better actor is between MGR and Sivaji, she nonchalantly says, “Neither; I am the best actor.”

The film opens in media res with the oft talked about treatment that Jayalithaa received at the hands of the DMK in 1989 that made her come out of the secretariat completely dishevelled. It then moves back to 1965 and continues chronologically, culminating in her becoming the first woman chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu in 1991. The film largely touches upon the stories we all grew up hearing and reading. It is a familiar story told in a familiar manner. What makes it worth the watch are the grand production design, the epic music by GV Prakash, and the aforementioned writing.

However the film, much like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, never really delves deep into its titular character, nor does it explore her growth or motivations. Just as Brutus got more space than Caesar in the Shakespearean tragedy, Aravind Swami and Samuthirakani are the ones who stand tall in this film. They make every scene they are part of extremely riveting. Swami plays MJR in his own way, so tenderly that it’s hard not to be moved by his lines. I genuinely was moved to tears when he says, “Nee makkala virumbina avanga unna virumbuvaanga.”

As for Samuthirakani, I lost count of the number of staring contests that he is part of throughout the film. But trust me, every single one of them is joyous. This is the stuff that makes the masala genre. It’s what makes the larger-than-life treatments of such films worth the time and the big screen. In a non-pandemic scenario, these scenes would have received the loudest whistles and cheers.

All said, the film also takes the convenient route by ending exactly with Jaya’s ascension to the highest political post in the state. It is as vanilla a treatment that a public figure of the stature of Jayalalithaa can get. Unlike Iruvar, this film is also not an in-depth study of any character (except maybe Samuthirakani’s). Then there are the lip sync issues that come with such multilingual films. That it happens mostly with Kangana’s character, who was known for her fantastic command over languages makes it all the more ironic.

As I walked out of the cinema hall, I felt like I had watched only half a film. Given the track record of Vishnu Vardhan Induri, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a part two covering 1991-2016 in a year or two. And how I would pay to see the dramatisation of that period, of a woman leading the state with the patriarchy rooting for her failure throughout her tenure. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the legacy of J Jayalalithaa.

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This Thalaivii review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.