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Newsletter: With Thunivu, Ajith Has Fun. Us, Not So Much

Director H Vinoth needs to focus on being a storyteller, and not a messenger.

Newsletter: With Thunivu, Ajith Has Fun. Us, Not So Much
Detail from the poster for Thunivu
  • Rohini Nair

Last Updated: 05.19 PM, Jan 18, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on January 11, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

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THE VALID CRITICISM of Theeran Adhigaram Ondru — the extrajudicial violence as well as the racism directed at North Indians and tribal communities — seems to have hit H Vinoth hard. To the extent that three films later, he feels he still owes everyone an apology. His latest film with Ajith Kumar, Thunivu, contains a random insert of the sample of xenophobic attitude of the local Tamil population at a migrant worker from the North. It’s not uncommon; but remove it, and nothing about Thunivu changes. The film is littered with such political “messaging” of the worst kind, packaged as a star-driven actioner.

THE TROUBLE WITH THUNIVU

THE "MESSAGE" CHOSEN by Vinoth for Thunivu is related to billionaires scamming the public of their hard-earned money and jetting off to tax havens or other foreign countries. Most times with the help of governments and political figures. It’s almost topical and this is the bedrock for a heist film orchestrated by a mysterious, supposedly one-man army (the film too is his show all the way) played by Ajith. It’s interesting till a point: nobody knows his motives, some of his machinations are funny and clever, and unlike Vinoth, Ajith brings a certain unapologetic tone to it all. It’s not the flaccid slow-motion bikes or walking sequences of Valimai but more wisecracks and casualness in service of a serious plot like bank robbery. The film hits the ground running and there is never a dull moment, which is also its undoing for it never slows down enough for a smooth landing. But it at least eschews the grating sentimentality of Valimai.

The first half is entertaining for the film keeps us guessing — who is Ajith? Who is Kanmani (Manju Warrier), complicit in his conspiracy? How many people planned to rob this bank on the same day and who is teaming up with whom? The action is unimaginative (and the bank is called Your Bank!) but relentless. The writing doesn’t disappoint here, it builds enough excitement, but the film is visually bland. The action choreography is functional at best, save for a single take fight scene as the camera swirls around Ajith. The interiors of the bank look like a struggling theatre troupe’s set put together for a play and the outdoors blend some location shots with bad graphics of crowds (everyone seems to be filming with their mobile phones but there is only a bank locked from the inside in front of them). There isn’t a single shot, sequence or set piece here to suggest that this is the same filmmaker who made Sathuranga Vettai and Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru.

It's disappointing to realise that we lost a promising filmmaker to the quandaries of politics. The meat of this preachiness isn’t fully formed either. There is cringey humour relating to women and sexual harassment between a senior TV journalist and a police officer. A comment uttered by a henchman as he looks at Kanmani is too lewd to even be part of this film. For a major part of Thunivu, Vinoth leans towards blaming the public for the faults of a financial system. Sure, he takes enough shots at the system as well, but he shames the public for supporting a cricket team (it’s not explicit in the film but one can hazard a guess that it’s likely Chennai Super Kings).

The analogies are all over the place. Memes have now become a mode of expression and their visual language bleeds into cinema. And Vinoth’s complaint remains that people opt for levity where there must be sincerity and clarity (maybe it explains why Vinoth took the early career criticisms so seriously). If that’s the case, then why did he cast GP Muthu in an inconsequential cameo (while wasting a wonderful actor like Bala Saravanan)? Thunivu contains a lot of jokes (the live interview parts are a hoot; let’s have Ajith do this all day instead of giving him a family to cry with) but it’s ultimately humourless. In the parting shot, Vinoth resorts to blaming the victim, adding an unnecessary comment about guts and suicide.

The film rushes to its climax like an unstoppable bullet train. It’s mostly mindless action but when has mindless action been a problem in this genre? It’s only when there isn’t a smooth segue from one event to another that this becomes an issue. Thunivu is the most fun Ajith has had on screen in a long time. And it’s never boring, which is a bigger sin than making a bad film. But the clarion call is still for H Vinoth to be a storyteller instead of a messenger.

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