Running With Wolves:
There is a problem in making a biopic about a major political personality in India—followers and fans are just waiting to pick fault and take offence on behalf of the subject. Which is probably why most biopics are flattering and tremendously watered down. When a life is so eventful as to be stranger than fiction, then the fiction cannot be as insipid as Thalaivii—Vijay’s film on the life of actress-turned-politician, J. Jayalalithaa (made in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi).
The film begins with the real-life incident of Jayalalithaa (Kangana Ranaut) being beaten up, and dragged out of the state legislative assembly by members of then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi’s (Nasser) party. Outside, her clothes and hair in disarray, she stands up, and like she were acting in a movie scene, compares herself to Draupadi in the Mahabharat and vows to return as the chief minister, which, as history recorded, she did.
The first half of the film focuses on her success as an actress in a horribly misogynistic Tamil film industry—pushed into films by her ambitious mother, Sandhya (Bhagyashree). She catches the eye of the much older superstar MJR (Arvind Swami)—MGR with an initial altered—who is amused by her feistiness, and softened by her unabashed pursuit of him. It is not clear if the love was conditional, at least initially, since she undoubtedly needed to be attached to an influential man to keep the other wolves at bay. She is also smart enough to lock horns with MJR’s pit bill of a henchman, Veerappan (Raj Arjun), who, in an earlier scene, got an actress who tried to get too close to the hero, chucked from the film. When Veerappan does the same with her, Jayalalithaa switches allegiance to another star (Sivaji Ganesan), and, it is suggested, shakes up MJR’s career.
When MJR’s popularity nudges him towards politics, he drops Jaya rather unceremoniously. In Tamil cinema, a leading lady’s shelf life is even shorter than actresses in other regions, and when she starts getting elder sister roles, she proves her worth to MJR, now chief minister, by genuinely throwing in her lot with the poor. As “Amma” she is of more use to him in politics than as a love interest in many hit films. He makes her his party’s “propaganda” chief, and leaves his male coterie fuming.
Jaya drives the mid-day meal scheme for schools to success, makes a smart move to form an electoral alliance with the Congress, and turns out to be an astute politician. After MJR’s death, she wrenches control of the party from his wife Janaki (Madhoo), and Veerappan conveniently switches sides to support her.
This film ends with her triumphant electoral victory against Karunanidhi and her sitting in the CM’s chair, looking disdainfully at the men who had questioned the credentials of “just a woman.” There was, of course, more drama in her life, which will supposedly be shown in the second part of the biopic if it does get made.
The portions of her work in films are given an authentic period look (the kitsch shot wonderfully by Vishal Vittal), and her glamour comes through, even with the garish costumes (Neeta Lulla, excellent work) actresses wore back then. She was uninhibited on screen and ostensibly thick-skinned off it, to aim high and reach there.
Kangana Ranaut gets the look right, but is unable to completely inhabit the dynamism of the character, which Arvind Swami does with enviable ease in an award-worthy performance.
Powerful women in politics–and other male-dominated areas– are so rare that books or films about their lives cannot be so wishy-washy. With the same limitations and self-censorship that must have held back Vijay, the webseries, Queen, a fictionalized version of Jayalalithaa’s life, did a much better job of charting her rise to the top, flaws and all.
Thalaivii, based on a book by Ajayan Bala, scripted by KV Vijayendra Prasad and Rajat Arora, picks the high and low points in the life of a remarkable woman, but still fails to convey just what it was about her that made her such a fighter and winner. To audiences outside of Tamil Nadu, who may not be familiar with her work as an actress (she did just one Hindi film, Izzat, in 1968 opposite Dharmendra) or as a state-level politician, it would be difficult to understand the extent of her intelligence, resilience and ambition from this film.