The Mumbai police force gets the shakeup it sorely needs in the form of Rajinikanth. AR Murugadoss’s Darbar stars the Tamil screen icon as the city’s Commissioner of Police – clearly a leg-up from the lowly inspectors he played in Hindi films in the 1980s. Rajinikanth starts the movie as a rogue cop who threatens to bump off a government human rights official in his office. Events show that this candidate for prosecution has a back story, one that involves his beloved daughter Valli (Nivetha Thomas) and the cop-hating druglord Hari (Suniel Shetty).

Part Sherlock and part Samson, Aaditya arrests drug dealer Ajay (Prateik) while cleaning up Mumbai’s streets. Payback arrives in the form of the manbun-sporting Hari who, like most things in this movie, has a bark worse than his bite.

Darbar (2020).

In between, Aaditya romances the interior designer Lily (Nayanthara), but the only female in his life who matters is his daughter. As ornamental and ephemeral as the flower after which she is named, Lily floats into view whenever Murugadoss remembers that his cast list extends beyond his hardworking hero. Yogi Babu is also around, providing the laughs when permitted.

Both characters could have been played by anybody and it would not have mattered. Every other member of the cast is, in fact, as dispensable as the location for the plot is disposable. Murugadoss shoots on the few available streets and neighbourhoods in Mumbai that have not been affected by ongoing construction projects, but the city barely makes a difference to the events.

The sui generis hero swallows up everybody and everything around him. Rajinikanth’s trademarks take up much of the 159-minute runtime: the cartoonish gestures accompanied by sound effects, the purposeful stride, the knowing smirk, the villainy that colours his heroics. He is even shown pumping iron, and a bared back is offered as proof of his continuing vigour and health.

The packaging of mothballed material is carried out by experienced talent, including Santosh Sivan behind the camera. About the youngest thing in the movie, however, is Anirudh Ravichander’s cheerful and rousing score. It includes the chartbusting Chumma Kizhi, which adds at least one new gesture to the Rajinikanth dance moves collection. The old man lets it rip as he typically does. He is the true narcotic in this drug-and-vengeance saga, but his enthusiasm cannot animate outdated material. Sometimes, even Rajinikanth cannot.

Chumma Kizhi, Darbar (2020).