Lal Salaam is a beautiful example of how a star like Rajinikanth can be used holistically, and not everything needs to revolve around him. But good intentions get diluted in poor filmmaking
In Tamil Nadu’s Muradabad village, the rural area has a politically charged demography comprising Muslims and Hindus. Laal Salaam stresses how unity once existed there, with communal riots erupting now and then; at the centre of all this is Thirunavakarasu (Vishnu Vishal). He is an ace cricketer but also a wastrel, which sets him at the centre of all the riots. On the other hand, there is the well-intentioned Moideen Bhai (Rajinikanth), whose son Shamshudin (Vikranth) is summoned from Mumbai to play against Thiru. As much as Moideen Bhai tries to negate the anti-social elements, religion and beliefs become the topic of contention. Violence returns and conflict comes to a climax because of a temple festival that demands the support of both groups.
Before we know what really works in Lal Salaam, there is one thing that is very clear, which the makers have got right. It is nice to see Rajinikanth in a cameo appearance in which he not only plays his age but gracefully takes the back seat. Lal Salaam could easily be a film that used Rajinikanth’s massive stardom, but it builds a character that need not necessarily be the 'hero' of a movie, but a prominent role. He lets others shine while lending his on-screen prowess.
But returning to what worked and didn’t in Lal Salaam, among the slew of Tamil films with cricket in their subjects, this film differs as it merely uses cricket as a trump card to build tension. As the film progresses, the question involuntarily rises: was cricket really required to move the story forward? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Lal Salaam, which has a runtime of 152 minutes, takes time to set its pitch and pace. There are interludes of narration that give the audience a gist of what is happening from time to time, but the film fails to take the responsibility to tell the story. Lal Salaam lacks world-building and instead relies on straightforward dialogues to spread the message of harmony and co-existence.
We're not even dwelling on the mild body-shaming or throwaway lines about God being a resort to “manasu saarndha” problems. Lal Salaam has conflicts that are only skin deep, even when they involve heavy subjects like inter-religious conflicts. An example is when a character speaks about shanthi (peace) just minutes after stabbing a handful of people.
The film works wonderfully as set pieces and fragments that could make themselves little tales of a larger topic. What Lal Salaam misses is the coherence. If, technically, its choppy editing becomes a prominent issue, the film becomes a clumsy sports drama that fails to address the real issue under the garb of not taking sides. Thiru and Shamshudin come from different schools of thought and beliefs, but cricket binds them. But do we really see sportsmanship? Yes, there is cricket, but it becomes a mere aid, and roping in two professional cricketing actors like Vishnu Vishal and Vikranth gets an underwhelming usage. The climax has a heartwarming connection, something that was forecast earlier in the film, but the film builds strongly on the emotional quotient.
Lal Salaam is also a film that boasts a star ensemble and, despite Rajinikanth’s towering presence, gives immense scope to perform for the others. Vishnu Vishal as an angry young man, Thambi Ramaiah as a helpless Hindu villager, and Senthil, a local priest who sees the temple festival to spend time with his grandchildren, fit the bill.
Lal Salaam is not a sports film in its entirety. In fact, cricket takes the backseat and gives only a nudge to elevate the message the film is conveying. Rajinikanth’s presence is wonderfully used, as are the other cast members, but the film falls short in its making and screenplay. The rural setting gives the much-needed backing the story needs, but gets lop-sided in its indulgence like a forced love story, and brewing enmity.
Lal Salaam is a film with noble intentions, but is wary of what it has to say. The drama also becomes an oblong narration with blotched editing and erratic screenplay. Lal Salaam is honest, but is marred by weak choices. It is a showcase of Rajinikanth’s acting delight, but does Lal Salaam go beyond giving you a knee jerk reaction of reality? That is question to ponder on.