I’m not a big fan of writer/director Murugadoss like most people are, but I never thought I’d see the day where I use the phrase ‘cinematically tone deaf’ to describe one of his films. But that’s exactly how large chunks of Sarkar plays out, without rhyme or rhythm. God dammit, I paid 16 bucks to watch a film with characters, not to see a big star look directly into the camera, wag his finger and lecture me on Indian politics for three hours.
But before any of that, let’s get this out of the way first: Sarkar is a movie with good intentions. It aspires to educate the masses on the importance of exercising our right to vote. It tackles the repercussions of phantom votes and why it’s important that the impoverished not cave in and vote for any particular party simply because the politicians promised a small chunk of cash. It discusses the significance of just one vote.
Murugadoss and his co-writer Jeyamohan have included a bunch of interesting facts and figures about Indian political law. (As a Malaysian, I couldn’t help but crack a smile during a number of scenes that parallel our recent fight for clean elections and against the former government. What’s funnier is that this Vijay-starrer that has nothing to do with Malaysian politics is actually a far better GE14 movie than Rise: Ini Kalilah.) I just wish the politics would’ve been infused in a narrative with cinematic quality.
We live in a world where lecturers tell students to WATCH MOVIES because it’s an artform that possesses the ability to broaden one’s perspective on culture & society by sucking you into the world its set in, moving you emotionally and entertaining the heck out of you, while also provoking conversation (film is the currency of intellectual debate). But here we have Sarkar, a movie that desperately wants to be a lecturer, the kind that reads directly from the slides and puts the whole class to bed.
The marketing campaigned teased Vijay as an anti-hero of sorts. In the first look poster (below), we see Vijay looking dapper in a dark suit, a lit cigarette in his mouth. This got me excited! (The biggest stars in Tamil cinema have in recent years shied away from smoking on screen.) In the teaser trailer, the Vijay character says “I’m a corporate criminal!” These concepts are (sorta) present during the first few sequences of the film. We see Sundar Ramasamy (a nod to the lead character in Murugadoss’ earlier film, Ghajini, perhaps? There Suriya plays Sanjay Ramasamy) having a smoke and partying in Las Vegas.
We also learn that he’s a ruthless serial entrepreneur, via characters who say, “he’s a dangerous man. Everywhere he goes, he destroys and buys his competition over and lays off thousands of employees.” A man says, “he’s banned from entering three countries.” Some girls look him up on Google and go, “He’s good-looking, but he’s a playboy.”
But these turn out to be nothing but weightless words. A fake out. A cheap trick. It’s a ploy by Murugadoss to get us hyped before he shoves us into our seats and says, “now that I’ve got your attention, I can proceed with my boring lecture.” Sundar Ramasamy isn’t an anti-hero. We don’t see him doing anything ruthless or morally ambiguous. The commercials promised a cooler version of Kathiresan from Kaththi, who we get is almost as straight-shooting as Kathiresan’s doppelganger, Jeevanantham.
He’s a corporate criminal who does no crime and a playboy who’s loyal to one girl. Think of it as a lecturer who walks into class with eight piercings, including one on his eyebrow, full sleeve tattoos, a Batman T-shirt and then flips his middle finger towards the students like Stone Cold in 2001. The class erupts into cheers and applause. Then the lecturer turns on his laptop and… reads word for word from the slides. Bruh, you ain’t a rockstar just because you dress like one.
That Vijay is a regular hero and not an anti-hero isn’t surprising (although it is disappointing). That the MASS sequences all lack energy, electricity, emotion and are completely out of place, is. It’s as if while making the movie, Murugadoss went, “hmm, okay. That’s quite a bit of finger-wagging already, let’s just include a random fight sequence here. And maybe a ‘punch dialogue’ there. Alright people, back to class.” Imagine the final speech in Mersal, now multiply that tenfold and scatter it throughout the movie. Forget finger-wagging, I drove home after with a headache because of how hard Murugadoss and Vijay bashed me in the head with their political baseball bat.
Murugadoss usually conceptualises interesting, fun, and even thrilling action sequences. The ‘12 men shooting’ scene in Thuppakki and the ‘coin fight’ set piece in Kaththi come to mind. But here the action scenes seem to have come out from the mind of director Hari. It’s frustratingly bland — as if it’s shot in the early 2000s — and annoyingly purposeless.
Even the one-liners lack originality and fire. I love that the Vijay character says “I’m waiting” right before the interval, which has become a trademark of the Murugadoss-Vijay combo. The theatre jam-packed with ardent Vijay fans simultaneously mouthed that dialogue before bursting into whistles. The energy was great! But there’s also a specific hand-waving that’s ripped straight out of Atlee’s Mersal and a variation of the Boat-Club-Marina-Beach-thimiru dialogue taken from Mersal too. It’s not uncommon for mass-masalas to wink at the audience and pay homage to the leading star’s previous films but considering how bland Sarkar is, the nods feel more like a product of lazy writing.
These mass scenes also mostly don’t work because the film doesn’t give us a reason to root for the hero. We cheer because it’s fun to cheer, not because we’re invested in the character’s journey. Consider the entire flashback in Mersal — the tragedy that befalls Vetrimaaran and his wife. After watching those scenes, we’re psyched to see the sons avenge their parents’ death by whooping some bad guy butt.
Here, Sundar Ramasamy doesn’t go through any lows. He’s always ten steps ahead of the villains (there are three, all of whom are almost equally useless. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar delivers a memorable performance, but she’s working with shoddy material here) so why should we care? We go into these movies knowing the hero is going to win. It’s the job of the writer and director to convince us that the hero might lose. Here, he just keeps winning.
There’s a scene where Sundar visits a village to… give them a lecture (of course). One second they’re all against him. Some even throw tomatoes at him. But Murugadoss doesn’t even let him lose here. Two preachy minutes later, they’re all on his side. Urgh! Speaking of tomatoes being thrown. Sundar talks about his past and the struggles his father faced as a fisherman. But we don’t cut to a flashback as we did with the farmer’s story in Kaththi or the little girl dying in Mersal. It’s just Vijay talking and talking and talking. Look, unless you’re freaking Aaron Sorkin, SHOW don’t TELL.
Then there’s the stuff that’s just outright STUPID. The stuff that really makes me wonder how this film is the brainchild of the same guy that gave us Ghajini, Thuppakki and Kaththi. When Sundar arrives in India, he’s accompanied by a few buff caucasian bodyguards. Before the meat of the story kicks in, he tells them all to head home to the US (it’s a lengthy scene that also has these bodyguards praising Vijay for his Vijayness). If the hero is capable of beating the crap out of 20 men single-handedly (which is not a problem at all as this is a star-centric action film) why even conceptualise bodyguards in the first place only to axe them out immediately? The entire sequence is redundant.
There’s also Keerthi Suresh’s character, who’s a daughter of a small time politician. At first, she’s written as someone who’s frustrated by Sundar’s righteous actions — she just wants her dad to win, by any means necessary. You wonder if she’s going to plot against Sundar or betray him after befriending him. But out of nowhere, she morphs into a typical loosu ponnu, who’s there to just look pretty. So, what’s the point? Did Murugadoss just drop these ideas halfway?
There’s also tension between Keerthi Suresh’s character and Sundar’s brother because her sister was once married to his brother or something. I don’t know, it’s brought up a couple of times and then completely forgotten. Don’t even get me started on Yogi Babu’s role in the film.
But it’s obvious that Murugadoss isn’t remotely interested in any of that. He’s singular minded and focused. Characters don’t matter. Action sequences don’t matter. Emotional beats don’t matter. Surprises and suspense don’t matter. The songs don’t matter (A.R. Rahman’s Top Tucker is rousing when [only when] it plays in the background. Everything else is invasive. Murugadoss has never understood the craft of musicals, so I don’t know why he keeps trying. Why not just follow the Chekka Chivantha Vaanam/Vada Chennai format?). The only moments that matter are the ones where Vijay looks directly into the camera and talks to you about politics. Moral of the story: Get your ass up and exercise your right to vote (and do it honestly) or Murugadoss will make another boring three-hour lecture video, this time starring Rajinikanth.
PS: I’m giving this movie 5/10 only because the atmosphere in the cinema made the first half of Sarkar more entertaining than it had any right to be. And even these fans fell asleep during the second half.
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Moral of the story: Get your ass up and exercise your right to vote (and do it honestly) or Murugadoss will make another boring three-hour lecture video, this time starring Rajinikanth.