The producers of the Jayalalithaa biopic Thalaivii include a company called Gothic Entertainment. Is that why Thalaivii has its own version of Mrs Danvers, the psychotic housekeeper from the Gothic classic Rebecca?

Like Mrs Danvers fiercely guards the memory of her dead mistress and torments her new employer, Thalaivii’s RN Veerappan hovers around MJ Ramachandran, movie star and chief minister of Tamil Nadu. When Ramachandran gets entangled with co-star Jaya, Veerappan works overtime to trip up this new competitor for his master’s affections.

RN Veerappan is, of course, based on real-life Tamil politician RM Veerappan and MJ Ramachandran is MG Ramachandran. Despite a minor change in the names of these leaders, there is no doubt about who the movie is about or what it sets out to do – create a flattering and flattening portrait of a multi-dimensional personality.

The tributes that followed J Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016 reminded us of the crests and troughs that marked her existence: the genteel poverty that forced her to the movie business, the stardom, the professional and personal bond with MG Ramachandran that eventually led her into politics, her reinvention after MGR’s death in 1987, her years in power and in the wilderness, the rampant corruption and the high-handedness.

If one image of Jayalalithaa has survived the controversies, it is of a woman storming a male bastion and remaking it in her own likeness. The misogyny that Jayalalithaa encountered and then countered with fortitude is one of the themes in Thalaivii that survives the pedestrian writing and unimaginative direction.

Thalaivii (2021). Courtesy Vibri Motion Pictures/Karma Media and Entertainment/Zee Studios.

Directed by Vijay in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, Thalaivii is based on a book by Ajayan Bala. The Hindi production, co-written by KV Vijayendra Prasad and Rajat Arora, is the object of this review.

The 153-minute Hindi version comes with the biggest disadvantage: a Tamil title (it means Female Leader) and a broad unfamiliarity with Tamil Nadu politics.

Prasad and Arora take the easiest possible route. Thalaivii crunches decades of Dravidian politics into a handful of bullet points and adds a couple of paragraphs to each of them.

The inciting incident is one of the best known in Jayalalithaa’s career. Heckled and molested in the state legislative assembly by members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (it goes by a different name in the movie), the woman known mostly as Jaya vows that she will return only after she has won the electoral battle.

Flashbacks reveal a bizarre love triangle at work. As an actor, Jaya (Kangana Ranaut) attracts the vastly older megastar MJR (Arvind Swami). Despite the age gap and his married status, the couple achieves a rhythm that survives their respective problems.

Veerappan (Raj Arjun) is the third spoke in the wheel. Driven to near-apoplexy by MJR’s fondness for and dependence on Jaya, this evil puppeteer tries to destroy Jaya’s reputation.

Raj Arjun in Thalaivii (2021). Courtesy Vibri Motion Pictures/Karma Media and Entertainment/Zee Studios.

A second, less effective, adversary is M Karunanidhi (Nasser), who is dismissive of MJR and drips contempt at the very mention of Jaya. The real-life Karunanidhi’s own roots in Tamil cinema is one of the many inconvenient truths that Thalaivii ignores in its attempt to provide a puff piece.

The Tamil flavour in the Hindi version too is reduced to brush strokes – recreations of the songs from some of MGR-Jayalalithaa’s most popular films, Nasser’s Tamil-accented Hindi, a running joke about medhu vada, Jaya’s impressive Kanjeevaram sari collection.

The romantic relationship leads to some of the more consequential scenes. Transfixed by Jaya, MJR suspends his better judgement, while Jaya’s love for MJR helps her survive her darkest moments and gives her actions direction.

Kangana Ranaut and Arvind Swami in Thalaivii (2021). Courtesy Vibri Motion Pictures/Karma Media and Entertainment/Zee Studios.

If the love story ends up being the chief takeaway from Thalaivii, it’s the fault of the post-interval section, which plays out as pure hagiography. Jaya is shown as a maverick genius who has more political acumen than MJR, other members of her party, her detractors and even Indira Gandhi.

All Veerappan can do is deliver blood-curdling stares at the rate of one per second. The movie isn’t remotely funny, but Raj Arjun’s teeth-gnashing performance is hard to take seriously soon after it first appears.

Several actors drop in and out of scenes. Bhagyashree and Madhoo have inconsequential parts as Jaya’s mother and MJR’s wife respectively. Thambi Ramaiah, as Jaya’s loyal manager, has more screen time than both the women. Nasser’s goggle-wearing Karunanidhi is the comic-book villain to Jaya’s warrior queen.

As an in-joke, Radha Ravi plays a disgruntled producer who fires on MJR after being denied shooting dates – a reference to the actual attempt on MGR’s life in 1967 by the actor MR Radha, who is Radha Ravi’s father.

While Arvind Swami turns in a spirited performance, Kangana Ranaut’s Jaya is a continuation of the doughty heroines she has played in the past. Coquettish in her early years, naively trusting in her middle period, and in full-blown imperium mode as a politician, Ranaut mechanically conveys the essence of her heroine’s journey.

Cinematographer Vishal Vittal’s wide-screen frames and rich colours dress up a tawdry history lesson. At least in the looks department, director Vijay strives to deliver.

Thalaivii (2021).

Also read:

J Jayalalithaa (1948-2016): The doughty fighter who earned her place in the Dravidian pantheon

Before ‘Thalaivii’, Jayalalithaa’s eventful life inspired the web series ‘Queen’