Review: THUPPAKKI Is A Beautifully-Constructed Hot Mess

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Review: THUPPAKKI Is A Beautifully-Constructed Hot Mess
Diwali is upon us, and for fans of Indian film, that means that we can see the year's biggest titles as they all flood the market at once. Last year AR Murugadoss stepped into the Diwali ring with Surya in 7aam Arivu, a high-concept disaster that squandered its early promise by shoehorning in unwieldy masala tropes that completely broke the rhythm of the main storyline. The same day saw the release of Tamil cinema's other big Diwali release, Velayudham, which starred the people's hero, Ilayathalapathy Vijay as a rural superhero. One of these films was supposed to be a new kind of blockbuster, and the other all-out entertainer, but neither came out entirely successful.

However, this year the main forces behind last year's Tamil clash of the titans joined hands and the result is Thuppakki, an AR Murugadoss directed, Vijay star vehicle that Murugadoss promised was less ambitious, and more geared towards getting butts in seats. As it turns out, Murugadoss largely succeeded in his goal of putting together a more fan-friendly film, but not without making several fatal mistakes.

Thuppakki is the story of an Indian army soldier, Jagadish (Vijay), who is kind of a badass. When we are first introduced to him, Jagadish is beating the ever-loving crap out of a fellow soldier at least twice his size in a friendly sparring patch. He's on his way home for some leave when he stumbles across a sleeper cell of jihadi terrorists intent on setting off a dozen large bombs in Mumbai. He only knows this because he happens to be present when one of the bombers prematurely allows his wad to be blown in a public bus, graphically killing a trio of 8-year-old girls, among others. After this horrible event, Jagadish becomes obsessed with getting to the bottom of the sleeper cell by any means necessary. Oh, and he meets a girl.

I know that last part seems kind of abrupt, but I assure you, I cushioned it as much as I could; It's an even harsher transition in the film. The girl, Nisha (Kajal Agarwal), is one who Jagadish's parents have set up for him. They're hoping to arrange his wedding while he's home on leave, but there's no spark at first sight, and a later meet-cute is necessary to seal the deal.

When Nisha first appeared in the film, I was very hopeful. Here was a female character who took charge, one who refused to the subservient "homely" girl that seems to be every Indian mother's dream for their son. She even boxes a bit! In short, she appears to have something to offer the story. However, when I complained about the lack of meat in Agarwal's role in Maatraan a few weeks ago, I had no idea what I was up against in Thuppakki.

There are two distinct story lines in Thuppakki; the terrorist-fighting story and the love story. Never at any point do the two plots cross paths. It's as if they made two entirely different movies, a thriller and a romantic comedy, and decided at the last minute to crudely cut them together. It's truly bizarre. At least with Maatraan, when the lead character stomps around the world, he takes his lady friend along; in Thuppakki, Nisha never appears anywhere other than a nightclub or coffee shop, and never when she could be put into danger. Her character completely expendable.

While I complained about the crude integration of the romantic subplot in Murugadoss' 7am Arivu last year, this film makes that looks seamless. And here is Murugadoss' main issue; he takes high concepts and throws in low-brow elements which scuttle any progress he might have made toward creating something new and exciting. Except this time, he doesn't even bother with the high concept.

I'm not completely down on the film, though. The thriller elements and Vijay's performance as Jagadish are very satisfying. Granted, there are a few stupefyingly dumb moments in the narrative, such as the moment when the main villain discovers that a team of assassins that took out his crew were all wearing suits and from that one piece of information figures out the entire plot. But, by and large, the chase is very exciting and I really enjoyed this aspect of the film. Terrorists seem to be the villains du jour, and Thuppakki handles the concept a million times more effectively than Thaandavam did a few weeks back.

As good as Vijay is, the real star of the film is Murugadoss, who, in spite of his inevitable digressions, makes a better looking movie than almost anyone in Tamil cinema these days. The cinematography in Thuppakki is astonishingly good, and really helps to deliver some fantastic moments that would be clumsy in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. The cinematography by the inimitable Santosh Sivan (Urumi, Asoka, Dil Se, Before the Rains, Bride & Prejudice, and on and on) is absolutely gorgeous, and Murugadoss and Vijay have never worked on a better-looking movie. 

Ultimately, Thuppakki is an enjoyable, though largely forgettable film. There's little about the story or script that distinguishes it from any number of recent big budget Tamil films, which is a bit disappointing since I do expect more from a director like Murugadoss. However, even though the story shows little in the way of innovation, the execution is fantastic, and the film does exactly what it sets out to, which is entertain. There is no larger message here, despite the pre-credits note that dedicates the film to the Indian army. All Murugadoss was trying to do was make us laugh and make us cheer, and to that end he has succeeded, I just wish he hadn't left so much on the table.
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