Immigrant haters, pro-Brexiters, imperialists and men who drive cars with the slogan “White Power” carved on their licence plates, beware: a crude bomb from Madurai is going to blow you to bits.

His name is Suruli, he is a reckless criminal, and he loves guns, home-made explosives and old Tamil film songs. He will do anything for money, even betray his own. He’s also a fast learner who gets up to speed on immigration policy and the Sri Lankan Tamil cause in as much time as it takes to infiltrate a rival gang and fall in love.

Britain hasn’t seen anything like it yet (and probably never will).

Tamil director Karthik Subbaraj’s crime drama Jagame Thandhiram, headlined by Dhanush, is being streamed on Netflix. The meeting of the thug life and the global immigration crisis plays out mostly in London. Racist British mobster Peter (James Cosmo) hires Suruli (Dhanush) from faraway Madurai to finish off his closest rival, the Tamil of Sri Lankan origin Sivadoss (Joju George).

It takes a brown man to spy on a “strange secret brown world”, Peter reasons. The amoral Suruli’s Yojimbo-inspired campaign to destroy Sivadoss comes at a huge cost, of course. Encouraged by his largely decorative girlfriend Attilla (Aishwarya Lekshmi), Suruli becomes an unlikely advocate of pan-Tamilism.

Aishwarya Lekshmi and Dhanush in Jagame Thandhiram (2021). Courtesy Reliance Entertainment/Y Not Studios/Netflix.

Overstuffed with Subbaraj’s trademark flourishes – a carnivaleseque atmosphere, a villainish hero, a mid-plot twist, dark humour – Jagame Thandhiram seeks to be something more than a gangster movie. Like Suruli’s moral transformation, Jagame Thandhiram too wants to reach a higher plane, one in which differences will be dissolved and governments will open their borders to undocumented migrants, especially when they are fleeing civil strife like the one in Sri Lanka.

The world is tricky, the film’s title suggests, but navigating it is stunningly banal. It involves guns and crude bombs.

The overegged confection is filmed and performed with undeniable gusto. Shreyaas Krishna’s ripe frames are always bursting with movement and colour. Most of the battle is won by Subbaraj’s choice of the leading man.

Dhanush is magnetic as the wry and wisecracking hoodlum who has to travel all the way to London to gain a history lesson. Suruli’s overnight metamorphosis into the messiah of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and the nemesis of empire bloats the movie and drags it down, but Dhanush never drops a beat.

Joju George turns out a dignified performance as the Robin Hood of the British underworld. James Cosmo is a scream as the archvillain whose bark is worse than his bite.

The staggering runtime – a bottom-warming two hours and 38 minutes – proves to be inadequate to accommodate most of Santhosh Narayanan’s rousing score. If the antics of the movie’s swaggering hero are all that linger in the end, blame it on the trickiness of delivering a plea for empathy and understanding through a hail of bullets and bombs.

Jagame Thandhiram (2021).

Also read:

In Karthik Subbaraj’s ‘Jagame Thandhiram’, a ‘tricky world’ of gangsters and migrants