Recreating a Petta-type fan service for Rajinikanth is not a bad idea but Nelson's Jailer is spread too thin within its world, writes Aditya Shrikrishna.
AS is customary in Tamil cinema, someone from the film’s crew reads out the statutory smoking and drinking warnings before a film begins. In Rajinikanth’s latest film Jailer, director Nelson’s voice can be heard loud and clear. Just as I did, the person sitting next to me recognised the voice and went “Nelson kaapathu da (Nelson, save us)”. My neighbour’s of course the famished Rajini fan after the twin disappointments of Darbar and Annatthe. Not just disappointments but solid embarrassments for the idol and disciples alike. Nelson himself is trying to recover from Beast, his film with Vijay, a not-half-bad but tame actioner that received a disproportionately negative response. Apparently a young, promising filmmaker isn’t allowed one average film. So everyone expects Jailer to lift not just spirits but also bring back Nelson and Rajinikanth’s mojo.
Does it? The simple answer is yes but it’s complicated. Jailer, written and directed by Nelson with a score from Anirudh, is the filmmaker trying a Petta in his universe. Where Karthik Subbaraj’s film was a no holds barred fan service, Nelson tries to inject this film with his strengths — dark humour, violence and subtlety. The feet first, face later introduction isn’t reserved for the hero Rajinikanth but for his son Arjun (Vasanth Ravi), the police officer. The star actor rests happy with a silhouette of him praying. Rajinikanth is the grandfather of a six-year-old in these early portions, we don’t even register his name. I doubt it was even announced. Neither do we bat an eyelid when he’s reduced to a backup dancer in a literally staged song. But unlike Baasha, Nelson doesn’t keep his cards close to his chest too long. We get a stray stylistic moment, a hint of violence, Nelson playing with chewing gum before it all explodes.
Once it does, it doesn’t stop. With the arrival of filmmakers like Lokesh Kanagaraj (Nelson has taken a few notes) and Nelson, the violence amped up and it is delicious to see our mainstream heroes indulge in some gratuitous bloodletting. Not that the results of their actions were different before, but where we once had to imagine, today the eye of the camera and the direction handholds the audience towards a blood bath. A fire extinguisher in Kaithi or simply blood splattering on Rajini’s glasses is conscious staging. At the same time, Nelson here deliberately holds back on Rajini’s persona.
Rajini — Tiger Muthuvel Pandian as we learn later — is a hitman, a killer, a schemer. Not a fighter. We don’t see him tackle a handful of ruffians like we have a million times. We see him in wide angle closeups more than in medium or long shots, his face creating dread even out of our rolling eyeballs. He gets straight to the point and that’s where this violence helps and gives us a fresher Rajinikanth who seems to be having the time of his life.
But it lasts only so long. As the body count rises in the first half, the film gets nowhere close to Nelson’s caliber of filmmaking. Jailer is a hopscotch of plot mechanics — a father with a colourful (mostly red) past goes on a killing spree to avenge his son’s death and is forked into a heist film. Nelson’s stamp of dark comedy with a decorated supporting cast is mostly missing (Yogi Babu helps in the beginning and then he too goes missing in the second half) and the film is one intended-to-be massy scene after another. While the latter can be excused because this is a Rajini film, the director taking himself out of the equation and going for a top angle shot through a garland when the father is informed of the son’s demise is a desperate attempt at emotion where there is none.
It’s not that Nelson must be pigeonholed as a certain kind of filmmaker but when he tries to mix worlds, it’s not entirely successful. This might be a mass film and even necessarily idiotic in terms of plot, but it is seldom smart after teasing us with the filmmaker’s capabilities in the early portions. Recreating a Petta type fan service for Rajini is not a bad idea but Jailer is spread too thin within its world unlike Petta which had a lot going on around the character. The cameos of Mohanlal and Shiva Rajkumar barely register and if what we see VTV Ganesh, Sunil, Sunil Reddy, Redin and Tamannah doing in the film is called comedy, it is best to let the genre die.
But for once, Rajini doesn’t have to cry, make us laugh, fight and save the world all in the same film. The pre-interval sequence, the most entertaining stretch (followed by one walk through a cul-de-sac and a confrontation outside a car) of the first half has Rajini doing nothing but play with his eyes and teach what panache filled line reading looks like. Nelson just wants Rajini to be present and kill. And with this man’s charm, it’s fun.