Mani Ratnam's Nayakan spoke of a don of Dharavi many decades ago. And it was a brilliant film, critically as well as in popularity. It's Hindi version Dayavan may have bombed, but its story of Velu Nayakan is memorable even today.
Rajinikant plays Kaala, the man who wears black and rules Dharavi, Mumbai's largest slum. Hindus and Muslims live together in harmony only because Kaala is able to keep the together. He is 'black' literally and figuratively (they speak of his murky past). And you just accept that he has earned the crown.
The film opens with the police and a builder wanting to break down one part of Dharavi. Kaala's son Lenin and his girl are heading the protest. When the builder's goons resort to violence, someone informs Kaala, and he shows up to scare those goons away. The son does not like it. Ooh! Smells like Frederico Corleone, no?
Alas, this is no Godfather of Dharavi, neither is this film Nayakan. Rajinikant has its own magic, and the first time he says, 'I'm here, come at me!' you are not expecting the cavalry to rescue the assassination, you are expecting the truw Rajini style fights. You want him to pound the bad guys as he did in Baasha (Remember the scene where he ties up the politician who tries to molest his sister? Each time he hit the bad guy, the entire theatre erupted in whoops). You want him finish the never ending steam of bad guys... This film takes us to the brink of those fabulous action set-pieces and stops. It's super annoying to be left hungry. And you wait and you wait for justice, Rajinikant style. It never comes.
We see the movie go round in circles around schemes to evict Dharavi. It' as though the filmmakers have not bothered to see what Dharavi is today. It's a huge commercial hub. It's a thriving leather industry, there are workshops that make designer clothes, and there are food factories where deep fried stuff is made. Imagine the baddies being fried in oil when the Dharavi residents take it upon themselves to fight back! Imagine the tanning factories where baddies can enter and never come out... The possibility of better action is just waiting to be discovered. But Pa Ranjith's Dharavi seems to be straight out of the 70s. People gathering to watch small tvs at a tea shop... woah! The leather shops have flat screen TVs today. And they accept VISA. This world that they're trying to pass off as Dharavi is sham.
Rajinikant's wife (played by Eswari Rao) is delightful and real. But then the rest of the family is so generic, they could pass off as 'family' in any of the South films. Remember how Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) plays with his grandchild before his fatal heart attack? What a memorable scene that is with oranges and tomatoes. In this film, there are so many grandkids, you don't care about them at all. The scene with Rajini and his grandkids is so forced, you step out and get another coffee.
Alas, when you come back, the narrative has not moved at all. Yes, there's Nana Patekar who wears all white and wants Kaala (and everyone else) to touch his feet. But you're bored of the 'pure and clean' dialogue. Harry Potter film that talks of Purebloods and Mudbloods is more adult and scary than this, 'You are Ravan, so you must die,' dialogue. Boring.
Once upon a time the name Rajinikant was enough to bring crowds to the theater. And the Tamil version of the film is doing well, is what one has heard. But the Hindi version simply lulls you to sleep. Even a rabid fan like me needed four black coffees. Yes, the last scene where the little girl throws black muck was full paisa vasool. Then they throw blue and red and aaaaaaargh! Rajini fans deserve better.
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