Review: Superstar Rajini's LINGAA, For Super Fans Only
Put away the pitchforks for a moment and allow me to explain.
Superstar Rajni, as he is dubbed in his own title sequence before each of his films, is an idea. A perfect idol to be worshiped as the human incarnation of the goodness and light. He is wish fulfillment embodied. Everything that every ethnic Tamil aims for in life, Rajini puts on screen. In his films he fights corruption, he fights villains and goons, he fights the British Raj, he fights for the common man, to his fans he is Thalaivar. The word means "boss", or "head man", for Rajini, it means the one who never backs down from a fight and never cowers before those who would corrupt or oppress him. He is an idea. This is both his greatest strength as a performer, and his greatest weakness.
In Lingaa, Rajini plays two characters, the title character, a loveable cad of a thief, and his own grandfather, King Lingeswaran, an upright model of Indian patriotism and self-determination. The plot is somewhat irrelevant, and too convoluted to quickly synopsize, but suffice it to say that Lingaa fights modern corruption in India and Lingeswaran fights the oppression of the British Raj. There is romance, there are far too many plot complications, and there is dancing aplenty. What there is not, however, is much of a soul to this film.
When done well, this type of patriotic film can be a wild entertaining ride that makes the viewer leave the theater wanting to be a better person. These patriotic films are the bread and butter of the South Indian film industries; one man takes on an army or bureaucrats/foreign invaders/underworld goons and brings them to their knees. These films, led by actors like Rajini, Vijay, and Ajith in Tamil Nadu and Jr NTR, or Mahesh Babu in Andhra Pradesh, are often hollow experiences, riddled with ten minute monologues in which the hero crushes the villains under a mountain of platitudes from which they cannot surface. They run rampant, and bring in massive amounts of money, often regardless of quality. However, there is a dearth of truly engaging films formed from this mold, and I fear that even with Rajini in the captain's chair of Lingaa that it, too, will fall by the wayside.
The apex of Rajini as superhero was probably in 2007 when he led Shankar's Sivaji - The Boss, an immensely entertaining film that tackled the issue of corruption and tax evasion in India. Sivaji, the character, was a native Tamil who'd returned from a job as a computer programmer in America as was able to build a hospital AND college, both operated without payment from customers. An insane premise, ridiculously over the top execution from India's top visual stylists, catchy music from Academy Award winning composer AR Rahman, and a performance from Rajini that embraced the ludicrous nature of it all made the film work like a dream.
Even Shankar and Rajini understood that this was the apotheosis of Superstar's career, the culmination of everything he was and represented. They followed it up with Enthiran, a Rajinikanth film whose plot centered around a literal robot who performed all of Rajini's trademark mannerisms perfectly, and its battle to remain relevant when faced with an evil version of itself. The only better than one superstar is two hundred CG Superstars, right? That film embraced its manic insanity and used it as a draw and allowed Shankar to simply allowed the contents of his remarkably fertile mind to spill out onto the screen unfiltered, and it was beautiful chaos.
Lingaa, on the other hand, is clunky. Writer/director KS Ravikumar, a frequent Rajini collaborator, has no sense of pacing and inserts entire elaborate scenes lasting twenty minutes or more for his own satisfaction. All of Rajini's trademarked characteristics, his swagger, his punch dialogues (monologues for those of you not familiar with Indian film idioms), his hair even, are wasted on a film which never seems to find its feet. No one goes into these films expecting taut drama, but they do go expecting a good time. Sometimes they laugh with the film, sometimes they'll laugh with the film, but if they aren't laughing or hooting and hollering there is something terribly wrong.
The film definitely has its moments, the problem is that they are nothing more than that, moments. There is no sustained emotional core. Rajini inadvertently woos two women, Anushka Shetty, who turns in one of the more likable performances in the film, and Sonakshi Sinha, who somehow manages to take a step down from her blank faced Bollywood films into downright childish caricature, neither of whom are allowed the space to build their own arcs. The music by AR Rahman, as in Rajini's last four films, is exceptional, but even in context within the film it seems to fall flat, with the exceptions of perhaps Rajini's intro song, Oh Nanba, Anushka's lovelorn dream suite Mona Gasolina, and Sonakshi's paean to Rajini, En Mannavva.
Rajinikanth is a force of nature, an icon, a heavenly being, a demigod, but even with all his powers of charisma and forceful grace, he can't save Lingaa from falling into the traps of weak writing and reaching far beyond its grasp. I have been waiting for a new Rajnikanth film since Robot's festival run ended near the middle of 2011. After being disappointed mightily in Kochdaiiyaan earlier this year, I pinned all my hopes on Lingaa, sadly, those pins appear to have deflated my heart and here I wait, ready and hoping for a return of the Superstar I know to come back to me. I'm just hoping it's not too late.
- K.S. Ravikumar
- Pon Kumaran
- K.S. Ravikumar
- Anushka Shetty
- Sonakshi Sinha
- Jagapathi Babu