Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lingaa (2014)

Rajnikanth's sixth film of the 21st century is an unsurprising disappointment. A loosely plotted film which generously borrows tropes from the actor's previous films, KS Ravikumar's "Lingaa" tirelessly references works from the actor's illustrious past without building anything original of its own that would stand the test of time and be worthy of being looked back at. The writing is dated and lazy, and the general sentiment of the film seems to be embroiled in old values, completely out of touch with times. Other than clearly being a hastily made cash-grab, it is a failure on multiple levels, with none of the contributors coming through to make this film the special event of the year that it was supposed to be. It's frankly insulting to fans of Rajnikanth and to the superstar himself, who is let down on all fronts.

The film is based on a silly premise and I'm going to synopsize it to show you the extent of indifference the writing carries. A corrupt politician offs a government surveyor for refusing to give a favorable report regarding a 70 year old dam's strength. In his dying moments, the surveyor manages to tell a respected elder that the only way of saving their town is by reopening one long-closed temple. But many decades ago, someone made a promise that the temple would remain closed until the heir of the great Raja Lingeshwar (a king / civil engineer who put his own money to build the aforementioned dam) himself opens it. And thus begins a search for the heir Lingaa. How is this not a bad early-2000s Telugu movie? 

As much as I would like him to do age-appropriate films rooted in reality, I must admit that, at 64, with the right script, Rajni is still quite capable of carrying an action film on his shoulders. Unfortunately, "Lingaa" is not that film. After playing a psychologist in "Chandramukhi", a NRI computer engineer in "Sivaji", an actor in "Kuselan" and a scientist in "Endhiran", "Lingaa" has Rajnikanth return to his "Baba" avatar. As Lingaa, he plays a petty thief with wild dreams. While "Baba" bothered to acknowledge its protagonist's advanced age and deemed it necessary for him to hang out with equally old people, "Lingaa" has Rajni running around with the likes of Santhanam, Karunakaran and Dhadi Balaji - all of whom refer to him as 'avaru' or 'ivaru'. These things matter and all it requires is a single self-aware line from Santhanam to take care of it. But without it, Lingaa is just some old dude with a ridiculous taste in clothing who still hasn't figured his shit out; like some uncle who hangs out and plays cricket with neighborhood kids.

Unsurprisingly, "Lingaa" happens to share a lot of its issues with "Kochadaiiyaan" - the other forgettable Rajnikanth film released this year. For the sake of this discussion, let's also take "Muthu" and "Padaiyappa" into consideration. Now all these four films on which Rajni and Ravikumar collaborated have one thing in common: a multi-generational thread with the story spanning decades - with Rajni playing his older self in three of them, and Sivaji Ganesan performing the duties in one. You will also notice that in each of them, the greatness of the protagonist is hereditary. In the first two films, it is easy to define the protagonist. But in the recent two, even if you were to decide who the protagonist was based on who the film was named after, you'd still be left scratching your head (and tugging on a strand of hair, maybe.) It's this lack of clarity, the inability to economically divide space and attention between the two Rajnis, and the greed of wanting, no, demanding them both to kick ass - irrespective of who they are in real life - is why "Lingaa" is such a mess.

In addition to this old trope, Ravikumar re-tries the age-old formula of manufacturing pathos by having a rich and powerful Rajni relinquish all wealth and property to someone who clearly doesn't deserve it. A subsequent part of the film is then spent reclaiming that lost glory. Here, the only setback either of the characters face is when Lingaa Sr. is forced to strike a deal with a British district collector. He is willing to risk losing the respect of people dear to him by owning up to someone else's misdeeds. His greatness is amplified because he becomes the fall guy; and he won't say the truth because he has given his word to someone. We have seen one too many Rajni characters in that position. The worst part is that this plot is always followed by an exasperating period where we wait for some character to blurt out the bloody truth and dispel the misunderstanding. Here, the character who does eventually sort the dramatic complication is some random white lady who happens to have less than a few seconds of screen time in the film. 

What actors like Vijay and Ajith are learning from the successful Rajni template of mass making, Rajni himself has not been provided in "Lingaa". Despite AR Rahman's unforgivable sub-par soundtrack, the film could have been salvaged if it had a half-decent recurring theme music - which might sound like an unnecessary complaint but, believe me, it is one of the central reasons why even the few attempts at mass fail to elicit any joy. 

"Lingaa" puts Rajnikanth atop a pedestal so high that none of the punches - both literal and figurative - actually land on him. The stakes are always very low. This is true for drama, but particularly so when it comes to action. There was a time when watching Rajinikanth fight was a thing of joy; when his mouth moved just as much as his limbs did; when every tiny movement of his hands created that singular whooshing sound; when his actions were supported by some of the most memorable musical compositions. Without the fantastical context that films on which Rajni collaborated with Shankar provided, these action sequences in "Lingaa" play out like a reaffirmation of every Rajnikanth joke ever. But what's even more horrific is that it constantly feels like Rajni is not in on the joke. It's a scary thought - that this superstar actor is putting all this faith in a director who is almost deviously pushing the stunts to laughable extremes. Here, we see him fighting faceless intruders on top of a moving train and riding a bike off a cliff onto an airborne hot-air balloon and not one person buys the conceit for a second. There's zero myth-building. The film rudely expects audience to believe that this person - a District collector in British India - is capable of doing insane daredevilry and that we simply have to accept it. That's just shoddy, presumptuous filmmaking from Ravikumar. 

The women in the film don't really have much to do. Anushka is paired up with Lingaa Jr. (tee hee) and plays a journalist with a penchant for hidden cameras. Sonakshi is reduced to play a nauseatingly patriotic village belle who goes around spilling tea and what not. There's a minor subplot involving Lingeshwaran's assistant (played by Ilavarasan) who knocks up a white woman and marries her. His reason is that he wishes to rule a British woman the way Britishers rule India. It's messed up, I know, but it only gets worse. The film repeatedly shows him physically abusing the poor docile woman, and especially when she is heavily pregnant - which is all the time. In one scene, he smacks her to get back at the "evil British collector" whose vileness pales in comparison. The problem is that this behaviour is never condoned in the film by Rajni's character, the way he does with child labour. I am not saying he must have, but I see no other reason for those scenes to exist otherwise. It is confounding and sends all the wrong signals.

I don't know who's responsible for this but the film is treated like a letter about Rajni's well-being to fans who are seeing him for the first time in four long years. In a particularly embarassing exchange, where the two are locked up in a tiny broom cupboard, a surprised Anushka tells Rajni how strong his body is. This can be forgiven for being regular pandering. But a few seconds later, she says this other line, and I swear I am not making this up. She asks him, "Wow. Yepdi ya un odambu la yella parts um supera velai seiyudhu?" Okay then. Hale and hearty. 

Till the very end, it never becomes clear how the opening of the temple would have lead to saving the town. There's some talk about the temple's shiv-ling being made up of some precious stone but even that leads nowhere. It should have been clear since the day this project went into production that it was never going to amount to anything good. 

And now we wait. Four more years.