Darbar Movie Review: An enthusiastic Rajinikanth propels this passable ‘bad cop’ film
One more generic Rajini film that tries to cash in on nostalgia, but, gets salvaged by the actor's performance
My biggest relief about Darbar is that it dispelled concerns I had that they may have got Rajinikanth to play an unsuitably young man again. His character, Aaditya Arunasalam, thankfully, is the single father of a woman of marriable age. I mean, sure, he still gets a cursory love angle with a woman many years younger than him, but the film is almost apologetic about this age difference between its male star and its heroine. “Idhellaam indha vayasula panradha?” asks Aaditya himself, embarrassed about making advances on Nayanthara’s character, Lily. “Illa dhaan, enna panradhu?” retorts his colleague, played by the omnipresent Yogi Babu, who, with this dialogue, could be talking on behalf of both the director and the actor, conveying perhaps a sense of coercion they feel about including such a love angle. This probably explains why Lily has very little to do (the choice of such characters feel like a calculated move from Nayanthara to use as fuel for the less star-centric films she does). You could pose the fair question that it’s perhaps unfair to point out the age difference between two characters in love, and ask why it’s wrong of an older man to covet a younger woman. This question is especially pertinent in a film like this where the woman isn’t shown to be entranced by this ageless hero, and one in which the hero’s advance is marked by some tentativeness. This film is aware of this, and gets Aaditya’s daughter, Valli (a totally likeable Nivetha Thomas), to say it’s not fair that society makes it difficult for older people to find love. These are interesting portions in Darbar. But enough about this romantic love that Darbar isn’t really about. How’s Rajinikanth as a cop, you ask?
Director: AR Murugadoss
Cast: Rajinikanth, Nivetha Thomas, Yogi Babu, Nayanthara
This cop, with a daughter, looks at some women at his station, and says, “Ennama pombalaingalaam inga vandhurkinga?” But that question is a problem with the writing, not so much with Rajinikanth’s portrayal of a police commissioner, which I did not mind in Darbar at all. His Aaditya Arunasalam is a fairly hands-on cop, defined by his willingness to put himself in harm’s way first. But I suppose that’s because he’s a bit like Breaking Bad’s Walter White in a sense. He is not in danger; he is the danger. Notice that opening underwhelming introduction scene as he descends on rowdies from above, literally—this ‘god of commercial cinema’ armed with a trademark Murugadoss weapon (of which there’s a more inventive variety that comes later on in the film). Aaditya is shown to be revelling in these murders—that are shot like video game kills. He calls himself a “baaad cop” (a reference to Annamalai, of course). The newspapers, meanwhile, more accurately, call him a ‘mad cop’. Murugadoss goes on to provide him with reasons why he’s become so bloodthirsty, why he’s a sanctioned killer with a katana. And yet, it’s important to note the glee with which these murders are shot, especially in times like these. Circumstances may have resulted in this policeman becoming unhinged, but it’s important to recognise that a policeman who kills people, even criminals, with impunity is a ‘mad cop’. It is important, I think, to be suspicious of the politics of a film like this because well before tragedy strikes Aaditya’s life, he’s already shown to put bullets into a prisoner for standing proxy for another. But of course, Murugadoss knows this isn’t enough justification; so he suddenly seems to cook up a story about this proxy prisoner is a murderer… of the elderly, no less. It’s quite evidently manipulative.
But this isn’t to deny the enjoyable stretches in this film that show writing effort in quite a few places. Darbar is a template film of a cop who bays for revenge after suffering a profound personal loss. But it’s not mindless. The other cops back Aaditya not because it’s a character played by Rajinikanth; there’s a solid reason. Aaditya himself pursues Lily not because he’s smitten by her looks first; there’s a reason. Aaditya’s daughter, Valli, has a reason for why she wants him to get married again. There’s even a solid reason for why the climax fight takes place where it does. Things come full circle there, and it’s a revenge not just for one policeman, but for the department as a whole. In our climax fight sequences, typically, the hero and villain are shown to hurtle through walls, fall through floors. It happens in Darbar too, but there’s a reason for why the building is fragile, a reason fundamental enough to this story. Or hey, how about the post-interval song, Dumm Dumm, which feels like an item being checked off on a list? And yet, Murugadoss writes in an investigative angle into this song, and goes on to use the events of this song to bring about another development. Even an offhanded line like Aaditya revealing that he grew up without a mother almost acts as an explanation for why he perhaps takes to violence so easily. I really liked all this effort.
And yet, frustratingly, this effort isn’t consistent across this film. A Human Rights officer acts simply as a flashback device, and not convincingly at all. Aaditya wrongs a Deputy Chief Minister but to no consequences at all. Some of the investigation and the results seem far too convenient. Usage of cocaine gets determined because a boy points out he saw white powder under a girl’s nose. Aaditya makes an important breakthrough when he overhears a case of a stolen bike, and he makes the bizarre association with a person’s parentage. The film’s idea of a romantic conversation is to have Lily tell Aaditya that her favourite colour is yellow, her favourite food is pav bhaji… The biggest disappointment of all is the villain of this film, played by Suneil Shetty. While it’s interesting that the hero—sorry, the anti-hero—and the villain don’t meet for the longest time, it’s inexcusable how little interest the latter creates. He has a gun but he prefers a fist-fight instead. He may not have watched too many Tamil films but I have; so it’s quite frustrating to see these age-old ideas get regurgitated in a 2020 film. This same film has an enterprising interval block, but its tepid end seems strangely uninspired.
It’s a film entirely riding on two performances: one of Nivetha Thomas who brings an endearing quality to her character and sells a bond with Aaditya that seems deeper than its screentime. The film piggybacks on this all-important angle. The other performance is that of the man himself. It’s satisfying to behold an enthusiastic, energetic Rajinikanth. The dialogue delivery isn’t as energetic as it once was, the body language not as dynamic, but there are still enough reminders. That walk, that glint in his eyes as he smiles, that eyebrow raise to convey anger, that rapid blinking to indicate grief… it’s all there. With Petta, and now Darbar, there’s evidence that the directors won’t leave any stone unturned in cashing in on all this nostalgia. Aaditya’s daughter is named Valli. There’s a track called ‘Thani Vazhi’. As though ‘bad cop’ didn’t make it plenty clear, Aaditya says of himself, “Ketta payyan sir naan”. Anirudh continues to draw from familiar background tracks from Rajinikanth hits, and an extended bit comes in that enjoyable, quintessential Rajini fight sequence at a railway station. Even some of the song choreography, like the underwhelmingly shot ‘Summa Kizhi’, draws from old songs like ‘Naan Autokaaran’ or ‘Vandhenda Paalkaaran’ where the camera tries to keep up with a Rajinikanth who walks rapidly, as he delivers moral advice contained in the lyrics (here, he goes, ‘Nermai unakkirundha style-o style-u’…).
Personally, merely drawing my attention to Rajinikanth’s body language in old films or their dialogues, is not fun any more. Petta did it, after a while, and I’d reflected in that review that it’s time to move on. If callbacks need to be made at all, the really satisfying ones are those that remind me of the performer he was, of the sort of mood only he could create on screen. That’s why one of my favourite scenes in this film is when he makes Nayanthara’s Lily split a restaurant bill of less than Rs. 500, and goes on to get chided by his daughter for being as miserly on a date. Watch that entire romance montage as he channels his inner child, a rare trait for an actor, and is all goofy and jumping around in laughter and love. Is someone ever going to make a love story with him again? As time runs out, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of frustration. Can we stop milking the past and move on with whatever time left?