Tuesday Tamil: Mersal Review (No SPOILERS), Very Very Political

This was such an exhausting weekend.  I saw Nivin’s new movie on Friday, then this on Saturday, then ran around for 9 hours on Sunday.  I’m so glad that all I have this week is Ittefaq.  Although I did enjoy this movie, and Nivin’s movie, it’s just a lot to squeeze in.

This was my experience of the movie.  An hour in, I was thinking “wait, this seems kind of political?”  Two hours in, I was thinking “is it possible Vijay is considering a run for office?”  Three hours in, I was thinking “did I just pay $10 to watch a political ad for an election I can’t even vote in?”

But it’s a good political ad!  I agree with the message, it explores all aspects of the situation in a clear way, and it ends with a rousing and specific criticism of what is happening and what needs to change.  Plus, you know, lots of great songs about how Tamil-speakers will dominate the earth and their language will never die.  Made me all read to go out and campaign for the DMK.  And then I remembered I can’t because I am American.

Which is also fascinating!  Not that I am American, that’s boring.  No, that this film is doing so well overseas, despite having a very very very specific political message for one state/language group in India.  Tells me that the Tamil diaspora in most places are still super tied in to local Tamil Nadu politics.  And tells me that maybe the non-Tamil diaspora (and people still in India) are beginning to watch this all closely.

I heard rumors that the film might have had the controversial parts edited out in some places, so I’ll tell you what they were in case you missed it.  There are two jokes about the demonetization, a character is robbed in Paris and explains that his wallet is empty because no one in India has money, even the ATMs don’t have money.  Later, a character is donating a huge wade of cash to a charity hospital and there is some remark I didn’t quite catch about how he is (or isn’t?) using decommissioned bills.  Just generally the tone is a little more wry and sarcastic than Toilet‘s “this is the greatest thing EVER” attitude.

But the big moment is the end.  When Vijay gives a long speech specifically about funding for Government hospitals, that then jumps over to pointing out that Singapore has a 7% GST (goods and services tax, or sales tax) and provides full free health care to its citizens, and India does not and has a 28% GST.  And then Vijay points out that the new GST also taxes medicines, but not alcohol.  How does that make sense?

It’s a long speech, the camera is mostly straight on his face, and he is not giving this speech “in character”, that is, he isn’t crying or angry or anything, he is speaking directly to the audience both onscreen and off and criticizing the situation.  It’s not the kind of thing you can overlook, or only process subconsciously, this is a clear attack.  Which, yay!  Bravest and most exciting moment of the film, for an actor to take a risk on their public persona and box office by making a principled stand.

However, on top of all the many many songs about great Tamil Nadu and all, including many nods to MGR and DMK (the flashback sequence takes place at the start of MGR’s reign, even thought that doesn’t even make sense with the character timeline), and even a song in which our hero starts in a black shirt (symbol of the DMK) and white dhoti before dramatically putting on a red shirt on top (symbol for Communism maybe?  Or AIDMK?), I am ready for Vijay to announce his candidacy and forming of a party essentially any day now.  I may only know about Tamil politics from Iruvar and a few lines in history books, but this seems pretty clear to me as a move towards a new arena for him.

(This song, which I know isn’t actually political but merely a representation of the kind of political songs inserted in films, is almost identical to some of the ones in Mersal)

The reason I started the review with the political part is because it kind of feels like the filmmakers started with that too.  There just isn’t much else there.  Like one of the magician’s tricks that we watch in the film, there is a bit of slight of hand and distraction happening.  Multiple Vijays, multiple heroines, bright lights and different locations and cheering crowds and all sorts of things.  But then you get down to the actual plot, and it’s just kind of nothing.  One of the Vijays has a plan.  He carries out his plan.  Happy Ending.  That’s it.

The romances are really really nothing.  Samantha and Kajal, I have liked them both in other movies, but they are given truly nothing to work with here.  They each get an 8th of a plot, a meet cute and a love song and nothing else.  Nithya really has something to work with, but then she also can really make something of anything, she is just that good.  It tells me that it isn’t that the director has a problem with female characters or anything like that, he just has a problem making space for a character that isn’t Vijay.

This is also probably not the best first Vijay film for me to watch.  In some review, maybe Baasha, I talked about how the early films of a star, they are still sort of “wooing” the audience, making love to the camera and slowly winning us over.  But in the later films, they don’t bother with that any more, they assume we are already in love with them.  This film has the same problem as Baasha, or Dilwale, or Happy New Year, or Wanted.  It is playing to the fans, not the new audience (me).  I am sure Vijay is a wonderful actor and all of that, but this was not the best film for me to start with.  Feel free to recommend alternatives in the comments!

However, while I may not be all about Vijay the actor, I am all about Vijay the politician!  I will watch his (seemingly inevitable) political career with great interest.

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24 thoughts on “Tuesday Tamil: Mersal Review (No SPOILERS), Very Very Political

  1. One Vijay movie with nice melodious songs is youth. In general Vijay is very poor at romancing his heroines(seems to be very shy type) the heroines stand out as if they just walked into the film set by chance. Vijay is doing his own thing, the heroines are doing their own thing. Anyhow it all works with the Tamil audience !!

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    • I started watching them about 13 years ago, I read literally every book on Indian film available to me, I went back to school and got a Masters in film studies with a focus on India, I still read a new book every few months, I’ve been tracking the film news for 13 years and watching every new release, and I am always trying to learn more.

      Basically, it’s my profession and my passion, so I treat it seriously and always try to improve. Kind of a funny way to look at films, but that’s what they are for me.

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        • I do customer support for a software company. Lots of patiently explaining things either over the phone or chat or email. If support is slow for whatever reason, I can write for myself at work, if it is busy, there’s no time to do anything else. My boss is great, my commute is great, it’s a nice job, but it’s not my passion.

          On Tue, Oct 31, 2017 at 9:32 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I’d recommend thuppaki and ghilli. Thuppaki was remade as Holiday, and I think Akshay was not a patch on Vijay. Ghilli is one of Vijay’s biggest hits. It’s a remake of Mahesh Babu’s okkadu. It’s a really fun movie with catchy songs, and Prakash Raj is in his element.

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  3. ‘Tamil diaspora in most places are still super tied in to local Tamil Nadu politics’

    If my family is any indication, the answer is Yes! I saw this on the first day and the Azhaporan song went over really well. I would say Theri (same director, less political, much better romance with Samantha, and an adorable little girl who happens to be Meena’s daughter) and Kaththi (A.R. Muragadas directed, not so great on the romance but political and another film which calls out politicians directly) are good Vijay movies. He really started his career with romantic films though and Poove Unakkaga and Kadhalukku Mariyathai are my favorites.

    Re the politics of this film, a little background. Vijay’s dad was a pretty successful director in the 80s and also very close to DMK. His films were mostly of the angry young man rises up against a corrupt government/soceital ill variety. They had a falling out a few years ago when Karunanidhi’s family got into production and were blocking theatres. They also have Sun TV which is the most popular channel which meant constant ads for their films versus other film releasing. When AIDMK came into power, it didn’t get too much better. One of Vijay’s film, Thalaivaa, was not banned exactly but random groups no one had heard of before issued threats and the government said they couldnt guarantee the safety of movie goers. Incidently, that was the same year Kamal’s Vishvaroopam was banned in Tamil Nadu for similarly vague reasons. This pattern repeats for both of these actors with most of their films facing some random out of the blue issue or other. Part of that is political parties wanting to exercise control over a powerful medium and part of it is smaller, lesser known political organizations trying to get free press.

    I actually don’t think Vijay will come into politics anytime soon-i’d give it A few years at least if it happens. A lot of his films, even early in his career, have a distinct political tinge which I think is an influence of his father. He’s also pretty vocal about issues. Most of his recent films have that pattern of let me entertain you and oh by the way here’s this really important issue too. I went into Mersal expecting something political and I think most Tamil movie viewers did the same. I will say Mersal seems to have connected really well. Anecdotally, I have family members who generally aren’t really big movie goers in TN that really loved this movie and felt like it spoke to them somehow. I think the box office returns in TN ehere this film is setting records kind of show this too.

    This is kind of interesting though because Rajini, Kamal and Vijay -the three biggest stars of Tamil cinema- all have either shown political aspirations and/Or are expected to be a voice in politics in some manner or other. Which just goes to show how tied together movies and politics are in TN.

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    • Like all things, once again Tamil/southern cinema is more similar to Hindi film than American film, but still it’s own thing. The idea of political parties routinely boycotting and making issues of films is not a thing in the same way in America. But on the other hand, I don’t think Hindi film has had such a direct relationship to the leading powers, bad or good, as the Tamil industry has. It kind of feels like the major political parties find it beneath them to get into these kinds of fights? Smaller groups are constantly calling for boycotts or whatever, but it doesn’t happen with the Chief Minister banning a film (after it passes the censor board) for no clear reason. And of course the flipside, the Hindi filmmakers are a lot more cowardly. They will put in a backward comment, or a cross-religious romance, but they won’t insert an actual political speech calling out the ruling party straight into the film.

      Since you are so nice about giving me a Tamil politics primer, who is running things now? After Jayalalithaa? Was there a clear successor that any other major personality would have to run against, or is there a vacuum in term of charismatic leaders?

      On Tue, Oct 31, 2017 at 11:11 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • There’s a vacuum. Jayalalitha’s death is rife with conspiracy and AIDMK has split between two factions with neither side having a well liked leader. The two sides jostled for power for awhile before there was a BJP brokered political compromise that left most people very disillusioned.

        TN hasn’t had a national political party (BJP, Congress or even communists) lead the state in over 60 years. The general sentiment was the local parties may be corrupt but we know them, they’ve done some things well and they’ve managed to protect our interests from the national parties. I think a lot of the anguish about the current government is the feeling that they’ve ceded too much control to the central government. In January this year there was wide spread protests over Jallikattu being banned. The ban was part of the issue but I think it was a larger sense of no one in power is listening to us. There were more protests recently when a poor student committed suicide-there was a sudden change in testing requirements for medical school admissions and she didn’t make it despite excellent scores.
        In both of these cases, you had politicians looking either uncaring or ineffectual and you had filmi people who were actively involved/protesting/supporting.
        This situation does actually open the door a little because for years TN politics was dominated by Jayalalitha and Katunanidhi so there is a vacuum. Karunanidhi’s son, Stalin, is the successor for DMK but he doesn’t quite seem to have the charisma of his father. There are other parties too but not too many well known, widely liked options for leadership which is probably why actors get pulled in. If you feel like those in charge don’t get it and here you have actors who seem more in tune with the normal people.

        Rajini (who hinted about politics for years but never made solid entry) and Kamal (who didn’t seem to show much interest in running for office) have both more or less declared their intention to join politics. Rajini is widely seen as being saffron friendly and Kamal is probably more leftist in a traditional western sense. These just guesses on my part-neither has a stated platform that I know of. DMK or one of the other parties could make a resurgence and I suppose there’s a always a chance for someone new to come out of left field but that seems unlikely.
        (Sorry for the essays!)

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        • Very very helpful!!!! Really, all I know comes from one chapter in Guha’s history of India, and Iruvar. And then the sudden massive surge of interest in my Iruvar review after Jayalithaa died (which is how I learned she had died, when I was trying to solve the mystery of the new readers).

          So, AIADMK is the “new” party that MGR founded? Is that correct? When he broke off from Prakash Raj, in my Iruvar understanding. And then Jayalithaa was Aish, the younger co-star who also became his political partner. MGR died, Jayalithaa was his political heir and continued on but wasn’t as strong as he was and the DMK began to be powerful again.

          And this all began way way back when there was a strong push for Tamil-the-language to still be used?

          Also, I am torn because I think I like Rajnikanth the movie star better, but I might prefer Kamal’s politics!

          On Tue, Oct 31, 2017 at 1:39 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yup. When DMK first got into power, it was Annadurai (Nasser in Iruvar if I remember correctly) leading. After he died, there was some friction. DMK leaders felt like too much attention was being given to MGR. Karunanifhi actually tried to launch his son as an actor as a counter balance to MGR which didn’t take. MGR then split off from DMK AND started AIADMK which is literally All India Annadurai’s DMK. On paper, there is no difference between these two parties. Both are based on Dravidian ideologies, pro Tamil, secular, populist and social democracies. In practice though, each party was influenced by the leaders. For example, DMK initially was very anti Brahmin which I don’t think is the case with AIADMK.

            Jayalalitha deserves a movie in her own right though I doubt it’ll ever get made. She had an actress, stage mom that pushed her into acting where she caught the eye of MGR. Its a widely accepted as fact but is technically a rumor that she was his mistress. When he died, the party split and his wife actually took office. She didn’t last and eventually Jayalalitha won control of the party. I dont know nearly enough of the details but it was apparently a hard fought victory. That was in the late eighties/early 90s and since then power has switched between DMK and AIADMK.
            I have some serious issues with Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi as politicians but I will say that both of them were very astute politically. I’ve heard it theorized that Jayalalitha was widely supported by women because in a society where women don’t have a lot of power, it was empowering to see a woman who did. Jayalalitha literally had powerful men prostrate before her publicly. She encouraged obsequiousness among her supporters and she had a political image of being the iron lady- if she wanted something, she made it happen. She also actively changed her image going from a glamorous actress to amma…mother. Karunanidhi has been around since the beginning. He kind showed how powerful regional parties could be and he was a driving force of Tamil nationalism. He gave away free tv’s to everyone which seems silly but DMK has 2 networks Sun TV and Kalaignar TV both broadcasting directly into the homes of everyone in the state. Actually, there’s a line in Mersal about that. How we are the state that gives free tv’s, grinders and mixers to everyone so why cant we give free healthcare. Both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi have major corruption charges against them. It was kind of 1 party gets in power, has allegations of corruption, loses next election and repeat this with the other party.

            So I had this conversation with family members about why no other party has really risen in TN given the massive corruption issues against both parties and my take away is that it’s a pragmatic approach to politics. They don’t expect any political party to be completely corruption free so given that they go for their best options. My cousin pointed out to me that TN isn’t doing too badly on most fronts. There’s really not a lot of religious fighting, on most development metrics TN ranks in the top 3 or 4, the GDP is the second highest I believe, its fairly safe-in other words, if it’s not broke why fix it? Especially when the alternatives don’t really look that great. I think the biggest thing is that both parties sort of shielded (not the best word choice but I’ll go with it) TN from the national issues. For example, I’ve asked people about the Emergency period and the general response was they were largely unaffected. People protested but overall, normal people just went on with their lives. Religious dog whistling doesn’t really work too welll in TN. With Mersal, the TN BJP said the movie was anti Hindu (because they build a hospital instead of a temple) and Vijay is Joseph Vijay and the general response in the state was so what. Calling someone anti Tamil would probably work better than calling them anti Hindu or anti National. The tradeoff though when politics is hyperlocalized, I think there’s a lot more caste based violence/issues.

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          • This is so helpful!!!! So, in Iruvar terms, Aishwarya and Prakash Raj traded off power after Mohanlal died (with Revathy briefly making a bid for power), Aishwarya is now dead with no clear heir, and Prakash Raj is still going but is trying to groom his son to take over.

            In real world terms, what you describe about Jayalithaa reminds me of Indira Gandhi or any other super strong long term leader like that. They stronger they get, the more control they have, the more popular they get because people like that image for them. But then the worse it is when they are gone. Because there was no gentle hand off of power, everything was in the hands of one person.

            It’s really interesting that all the potential politician/actors held off while she was in power, but are now making moves towards power. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but it sounds like exciting times might be coming in both Tamil film and politics.

            On Tue, Oct 31, 2017 at 4:12 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • This is the reason I love your blog Margaret. I get to hear a common man version of things : Not so clear about exact facts but highly confirmative about intentions of various factions and groups in the society. Thank you and the original commentator for that.

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  4. I don’t know for sure but I have read in the past that Vijay has plans to enter politics and that he uses his movies as propaganda for his aspiring political career.

    I’m not a Tamilian so I never even heard of Vijay until about three years ago. Growing up, the only Tamil actors that I’ve heard of were Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Suriya, and Vikram. So when I first heard of Vijay, it was when I watched Thuppakki which was directed by AR Murugadoss. The basic impression I’ve heard about Vijay amongst Telugu people that know him is that he became a star by remaking Mahesh Babu’s movies. I think he remade both Okkadu and Pokiri. I’ve watched about 4 or 5 of his movies by now but Thuppakki is still my favorite Vijay movie. Kaththi and Theri are decent as well but Thuppakki is the best out of what I’ve seen.

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    • Well, I have already seen Holiday (thus spoiling Thuppakki), and I haven’t seen Okkadu yet, so I can’t watch that remake which is supposed to be his other good one. Maybe I will try Kaththi. That’s not a remake of anything, right? Or is it?

      On Tue, Oct 31, 2017 at 11:18 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Mahesh is so phenomenal in Okkadu, that I cannot in good faith recommend any remake. I’m not sure if it still new to you know since it was remade as Arjun Kapoor’s Tevar. But you should watch Okkadu sometime. The problem with this movie’s remakes is that they just translated the popular massy elements of the film. Whereas the original has many more undertones. The soundtrack is slightly classical. Action is more sophisticated (Probably copied, but still). It paints a beautiful vivid picture of Hindu-Muslim unity in the oldest parts of Hyderabad. It is comparable to Kahaani in terms of using the city as a character in the film, something which the typically glossy Telugu films don’t usually do.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. There were some factual errors in political dialogues. There is no gst tax for alcohol since alcohol is taxed by state governments. States impose very high tax for alcohol(in kerala its around 150%, more than 100 in other states too) .if its included in gst list as the hero demands tax will reduce to 28%.price will reduce and state govts will lose a major source of revenue.
    Also what i heard from netizens in singapore is that there is no free medical care for them. There are some mandatory insurance schemes.and a part of Monthly income is deducted as mandatory savings by govt for medical expenses.
    All these made me think that neither vijay nor director is serious about politics .they are just using dialogues from some popular internet memes without necessary fact check.
    many typical vijay films r based on this formula. It will be addressing a social problem.He will be fighting against a villain who represents a social evil. There will be long dialogue in the end addressing audience criticizing government or system and asking to change. inbetween there will be enough catchy songs dance romance comedy and action.Previous film bhairavaa was about corruption in educational instututions. theri was about violence against women. Kathi was addressing farmer suicides and was fighting against corporates.

    What bothered me in this film was generalizing doctors except our hero as evil. And generalizing medical check ups or C section as some fradulent practices. Mass stars like vijay can influence people. And they may become suspicious about doctors and treatments. Some times in a required emergency situation . Also they may vandalize a hospital if treatment goes wrong(like the opening scene of ayalum njanum thammil).

    Thuppakki is my favourite vijay film and his best preformance.Followed by Kathi(both films by a r murugados). Pokkiri and gilli are also good ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! super helpful information. I also had that moment of concern when he was criticizing the medical establishment. It was an interesting pairing with the Nivin movie that sort of showed the end result of that attitude. that they were so resistant to even go to a doctor, even though they knew she might be sick.

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  6. Your Iruvar analogies are spot on. The more I learn about TN politics the more I realize that beyond the ideologies, it is very driven by personality politics. Periyar (if you ever get the time, look into him because he is fascinating!) was one of the founders of the Dravidian ideologies and he was a personality. In the 20s, he was giving speeches about how marriage and motherhood were institutions designed to disenfranchise women.He was a very vocal atheist and anti-casteist. I’m para-phrasing here but he said things like ‘God was invented by a fool, propagated by scoundrels and worshiped by barbarians.’ I can’t imagine any Indian politician (or American one for that matter) getting away with a quote like that today. Annadurai was an excellent speaker and wrote popular novels. Karunanidhi in his day was also a big personality. He had a real way with words to such an extent that films he wrote the script for were advertised as dialog by Karunanidhi-even above the actors. MGR’s personality was forged on screen but still looms large to this day. Jayalalitha – again had a very powerful presence. What normal politician could really compete with that? Which again I think is why actors get pulled into politics.
    Before though, there was always someone waiting in the wings – Karunanidhi and MGR after Anna and Jayalalitha after MGR. Unfortunately, neither Jayalalitha or Karunanidhi were very good about cultivating leadership for the next generation. They actively kept potential leaders down (both in their own parties and outsiders) and so we now have a vacuum and a very interesting times ahead.

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    • Strangely, with your end comments, I started thinking about the watch for the next superstar in the Hindi industry! The 3 Khans haven’t left space for anyone else to come up. If they were to suddenly stop making films, there would be a scramble to figure out who could replace them.

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