Much like the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MG Ramachandran, who used cinema to play a do-gooder, propagating Dravidian doctrine, Rajinikanth has often essayed characters with strong political overtones. Of course, there is a difference between these two men. While Ramachandran or MGR, as he was popularly known, believed in a certain political ideology and pursued his ambition to become part of a political system, Rajinikanth has no such ambition. At least, he has never spelt it out, though every time a film of his opens, the social saviour he portrays pushes both politicians and his huge, huge number of fans into a guessing game.
His latest movie, Lingaa directed by KS Ravikumar, which hit theatres on Friday, is probably the most political of his recent works. Essaying two characters (father and grandson, living in two different periods), who unfortunately look so much alike, Rajinikanth, on the one hand, is a civil engineer (with a British degree), a civil servant as well as a maharaja of a small southern principality - and on the other, a petty thief.
It is 1939, and the British are a harassed lot. The war in Europe and the growing movement for freedom in India under Gandhi are driving them nuts, and social welfare is the last thing on their mind. When the people of a parched land (who stop passing trains to collect water from the steam engines) ask for a dam to harness a river that will end both flooding and famine, the British brush them aside.
But Raja Lingeswaran (Rajinikanth) steps in, and with the help of his own money and expertise as well the labour from the land raises the dam. But like so many good men, Lingeswaran is forced out of the village and the temple he built there locked for all time when a village traitor schemes with the British and fools the people.
Cut to the present day, and we see the Raja's grandson, Lingaa (also Rajinikanth), as a petty thief who picks jewels off people's necks. Contrasting with this degeneration is the village, which has realised its folly and is bent on getting Lingaa back if only to reopen the temple, whose deity, Shiva Lingam, is worth a fortune. Lingaa arrives all right, but as a thief with an eye on the stone - and at a time when corrupt Indian politicians have replaced the British. One of them wants to destroy the same dam that the Raja built to last a thousand years, and Lingaa's change of heart and subsequent confrontation with the politician gets us a liberal dose of Rajinikanth's daredevilry -- interspersed as it is with an irritating number of songs and dances, some in dream sequences! AR Rahman's music does not help either to stop Lingaa from stumbling on its plot track.
Although, Lingaa arguably is one the better films of Rajinikanth in a long time, the actor remains a slave to his trademark mannerisms - which do not allow him to sink into the character. Here he does not flick a cigarette in the air (that will be politically incorrect now, will it not be?), but twirls his hair and moustache. And there is hardly a difference between Raja Lingeswaran and Lingaa.
And both Sonakshi Sinha, who abandons her home and village to be with the Raja as he is banished, and Anushka Shetty as a television anchor-girlfriend of Lingaa are characters on the periphery. Naturally, with a superstar like Rajinikanth in frame after frame, the others around shrink into inconsequential specks. Though Ravi Kumar appears to have taken pains to ensure that many of Sinha's shots are not close-ups, it will be apparent to any Tamil that her lip sync is far from perfect. The pitfall of doing a movie whose language is absolutely unfamiliar.
Santhanam remains the hero's (Lingaa) sidekick, portraying the same character for the zillionth time. But, yes, Radha Ravi (whose father, MR, Radha, was a great screen villain) in a small role - as the father of Sinha's Bharathi - caught one's eye.