Much like its protagonist, a man from a distinct culture finding himself in a totally alien territory, Karthik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thandhiram comes across as a Tarantino film that ambled into the alleys of Kodambakkam. The result is as interesting as spaghetti cooked in salna!
The film introduces us to the three main characters – Peter (James Cosmo, who manages to acquit himself better than most foreign actors in Indian films), a ruthless gangster in London; Sivadoss (Joju George, a solid presence), Peter’s rival; and Suruli (Dhanush), a small-time gangster in Madurai. The xenophobic Peter, who is trying to get a controversial immigration law passed with his muscle power, decides to hire Suruli, who is always open for some quick bucks, to take on Sivadoss, whose secretive – and lucrative – operation is handled by his crew of immigrants. Even as Suruli starts making his move against Sivadoss, but starts questioning the ethics of his acts when Atlia (Aishwarya Lekshmi, trying her best in a role that offers her little scope), the Sri Lankan Tamil woman whom he has fallen for, tells him what Sivadoss actually means to the immigrant community.
The initial portions of Jagame Thandhiram, showing the quick-witted Suruli using his streetsmart ways to track down Sivadoss, are the film’s most interesting bits. The quirky tone makes these scenes interesting. And Dhanush has a ball playing a Maari-like gangster with a devil-may-care attitude. The pop culture references, like Suruli and Vicky (Sharath Ravi), the London-based software employee, who acts as the translator between the gangsters, debating about Delhi Ganesh’s character in Nayakan, the many nods to Rajinikanth and his films (a signature of this filmmaker), and the yesteryear songs, are quite amusing.
Karthik Subbaraj establishes the smiliarities between Peter and Suruli quite effectively. When they are introduced, we see them killing someone, but more than the killing, they seem to be getting their pleasure in the wise-cracking, complaining about their clothes getting ruined by the blood. Like Peter, who doesn’t want immigrants taking over his country, Suruli doesn’t want a ‘Saettu’ running a jewellery shop in ‘his’ land. So, we know that Suruli will see the error of his ways at some point, but it is in showing us the how that the director disappoints.
One reason for this is that Sivadoss isn’t a fleshed out character. We see him from Suruli’s point of view during the first half and later, when Atlia shows him what the gangster actually stood for, we are supposed to respect him. But the character is written in broad strokes that he doesn’t come across as someone unique. The rest of the characters, including Atila, are strictly functional. Actors like Kaliyarasan, Sanchana Natarajan and Vadivukkarasi are pretty much wasted in minor roles.
In the second half, the tone changes and it feels like we have been dropped in a different universe. We even get a Shankar-style flashback! Karthik Subbaraj uses the struggle of Eelam Tamils to add depth, but somehow, the attempt doesn’t make the scenes moving. We get many lines that talk about immigrants and their plight, what displacement does to people, how richer nations like the US and the UK have a cause to keep wars going in the smaller nations, and how they brand those who oppose their ideology as terrorists. But they feel out of place in a film that repeatedly chooses coolth over gravitas.