From practising medicine in Mersal (2017), Vijay has moved on to presiding over the birth of a new Tamil Nadu in Sarkar (his words). Mersal had a medical miracle at its heart, featuring brothers who were alike in every respect despite not being twins. A similar scientific marvel occurs in Sarkar, in which Tamil Nadu 2.0 is birthed by a single parent, with only a few midwives in attendance.
AR Murugadoss’s third collaboration with Vijay is the one-man show we have come to expect from the Tamil screen icon. Every frame in which Vijay is present is a showcase for his omnipotence. Sarkar runs out of adjectives to describe its hero and credits him with amazing feats to underline his unique qualities – ironic in a film that claims to celebrate the vibrancy of Indian democracy and the rule of the many rather than the few.
Vijay plays the world’s only corporate leader who can single-handedly win a street brawl. Vijay’s Sundar is the non-resident Indian head of a Google-like company who flies thousands of miles to Chennai to cast his vote in an assembly election. Sundar is heavily talked up in the opening sequence as, variously, a playboy, a missile, Genghis Khan, a corporate monster and the “most intelligent man in the computer world”. In fact, on hearing that he is arriving in Chennai, Sundar’s competitors initially fear that he is on a mission to take over their companies.
When Sundar learns that a vote has been falsely cast in his name, the endlessly inventive and perenially unruffled businessman inaugurates a plan for another kind of hostile takeover. Sundar wants all of Tamil Nadu to rise up against its corrupt political leadership, and he deploys street savviness, marketing smarts, social media and scriptwriting contrivances to barrel his way through the opposition. Veteran leader Masilamani and his sidekick, nicknamed “Rendu” for his double dealings, cannot withstand this barrage. This prompts Masilamani’s scheming daughter Komalavalli (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) to step in.
Komalavalli, of course, was the original name of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. The screenplay of Sarkar, by Murugadoss and Jeyamohan, barely disguises its contempt for the AIADMK’s long rule over the state. (Op-Ed alert: Sarkar has been produced by DMK associate Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Pictures). Between thrashing his adversaries in slow motion, Sundar delivers many stump speeches about nearly every single socio-economic crisis Tamil Nadu has faced in recent years. The 163-minute movie is not exactly subtle, and the messaging is at its loudest when Sundar breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera to utter the words, “Let’s go.”
Through the fog of propaganda, Murugadoss also has a movie to deliver. Sarkar is slickly directed and produced (the action sequences are among its highlights), and puts its hero’s ability to command the camera to maximum use in the sequences that highlight the flaws in the electoral system. However, any character who is not named Sundar barely gets a look-in, and it is a miracle that the other cast members manage to even register their presence.
Pala Karuppiah, a former AIADMK legislator and occasional actor (he appeared in Angadhi Theru in 2010), is highly effective as Sundar’s chief opponent. Masilamani is to this movie what Bharathiraja’s politician was to Mani Ratnam’s Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004): a venal and old-fashioned leader who must make way for a new Aam Aadmi Party-type resurgence led by young people with access to social media.
Radha Ravi, playing Masilamani’s enforcer Rendu, fares better than Keerthy Suresh, who plays Nila, the daughter of one of Masilamani’s associates. Suresh headlined the Savitri biopic Mahanati earlier this year, but in Sarkar, she is relegated to a simpering witness to Sundar’s brilliance. Nila could, in fact, have easily been excised from the movie, along with the many scenes that crown its hero as the answer to Tamil Nadu’s problems.
Varalaxmi Sarathkumar’s Komalavalli proves less disposable than Nila, and briefly interrupts Sundar’s inexorable progress, but she is unable to prevent the movie from snapping out of its Vijay-induced spell. The near-farcical plot developments reduce the complexity of electoral politics to a joke, and voting day is a free-for-all for the kind of breathless twists and turns that would have worked better in a crime thriller.
One man is all you need to change the system, Sundar observes as he achieves his techno-corporate takeover and creates a new social order in which power rests in the hands of the people he has championed. Of all the adjectives used to describe Sundar, the one we miss the most is “demagogue”.