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CHENNAI, India — Indian cinema often is explicitly political. Tamil-language films are particularly so. Tamil superstar and cult figure Rajnikanth’s blockbuster, “Sivaji –the Boss,” faithfully follows that tradition of packing itself with a searing critique of the social and political order of the day, and offering solutions that can at best be termed dangerous.
The movie opens with a scene of an imprisoned Sivaji (Rajnikanth), who tells a cellmate that his crime was “doing good for my country.” Members of a large crowd outside of the prison hysterically cry for his freedom while they ask, “Why punish one who has given the masses food, education and medical care?”
The film has been panned by critics, who have called it shallow and terribly crass. But the movie’s message, delivered through attention-grabbing tricks and witty one-liners, has swayed audiences, who have been relentlessly thronging the roughly 1,000 screens where it is playing worldwide. Made at an estimated budget of nearly $20 million, one of the most expensive Indian movies ever, “Sivaji” has earned many times that figure since its opening.
In a state like Tamil Nadu, cinema often doubles as an effective political platform. Rajnikanth, often viewed as a future political leader, uses his latest movie to say what is wrong with the Indian administration — corruption in medical education, in this case, though he touches upon other social ills.
Sivaji returns from the U.S. after a highly successful stint as a software engineer. He wants to use his enormous earnings to open medical colleges that will not charge capitation fees, thereby breaking the cycle of corruption, which begins with a candidate having to cough up a vulgar amount for admission.
Adisheshan (Suman), a notoriously corrupt businessman running medical colleges that mint money through capitation fees, tries to destroy every brick that Sivaji lays. Adisheshan bribes ministers into refusing legal permission for Sivaji’s medical institutions. The rest of the story traces the fight between the men.
The film’s fairly linear narrative is punctuated by eight songs, where Sivaji sports a bizarre mix of costumes and appearances that border on the ridiculous. He is seen in one with snow-white hair and a skin color to match that. However, it is in these scenes that he gets a chance to dance with his lover, Tamizhelvi (Shriya), to lilting music composed by A.R. Rahman.
Yet, the movie’s high point is humor: A string of one-liners by Arivu (Vivek), who plays Sivaji’s maternal uncle, is ribald but it works. A natural, Vivek effectively portrays the lighter side of the drama, which manages to stay above the dark and the depressing. Shriya appears as an antithesis to Rajnikanth’s histrionics with her refined performance.
Rajnikanth’s mannerisms, on the other hand, follow a highly theatrical pattern, where voice and gestures overshadow emotive expressions. Here in this film, he gives up flicking a cigarette (it is now banned on Indian screens), using chewing gum instead for his antics that after a point seem labored.
“Sivaji” is hardly a novel story, having been done and redone since the early days of independence. Its director, Shankar, manages to pull off a mediocre work, whose opulent sets by veteran art director Thotta Tharani and garish costumes by Manish Malhotra are awfully distracting.
SIVAJI — THE BOSS
Screenwriter-director: S. Shankar
Producers: M.S. Guhan, M. Saravanan
Director of photography: K.V. Anand
Art director: Thotta Tharani
Music: A.R. Rahman
Costume designer: Manish Malhotra
Sivaji Arumugam: Rajnikanth
Dr Cherian: Raghuvaran
Running time: 185 minutes
No MPAA rating
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