Nani's Gang Leader Movie Review: A fascinating premise that deserved a more satisfying film
A charming what-if let down by overbearing male presence and weak payoffs
Director Vikram Kumar tries to do catchy things at almost every juncture in his films. These may not come together as appealingly in Nani’s Gang Leader as they may have in other films of his, but you can see that the writing is a product of decent thought. Even the smoking disclaimer before the film is differently conceived. The director, it seems, is never short of catchy, imaginative what-if premises. What if the events in a creepy teleserial begin to come true (13B)? What if a son had to travel back in time to stop his parents from being murdered (24)? What if a man and woman cannot get together because they are still not over the love of their lives—younger versions of each other (Hello)? Nani’s Gang Leader is the result of a what-if too: What if a group of lonely, grieving women were helped by a failed author to avenge the fallen men in their lives? It’s fascinating in theory, but where the moments—those crucial building blocks—come together to prop up the what-if in his previous films, they don’t quite do the same in Gang Leader.
Director: Vikram Kumar
Cast: Nani, Lakshmi, Saranya, Priyanka Arul Mohan
It’s the makers’ job to sell the believability of a premise. At the outset, it’s hard to buy some key developments in Gang Leader. You don’t buy that Saraswathi (Lakshmi) unites a group of strange women—and a girl child—as easily. You don’t buy that these women join her murderous mission as easily. You don’t buy the need to approach a fiction writer, Pencil Partharasarathy (Nani). You don’t buy the rapidity of his integration into their group. These checkpoints aren’t the problem. The conveniently rushed journeys are. It’s the director channeling his inner Steve Austin: “Cause I said so.”
It doesn’t stop you though from noticing that Gang Leader is a film with enterprising, cutesy concepts. The idea of a plagiarising writer drawing inspiration from Hollywood films for a real-life mission, explodes with promise, but the pay-offs on screen aren’t as satisfying. Films like Kill Bill, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and No Country for Old Men are name-dropped. The modus operandi of the opening robbery scene—and of course, the use of sophisticated machinery—is reminiscent of The Dark Knight. There are Telugu film references too in Gang Leader. NTR songs like ‘Jayammu Nischayammura’ (Sabhash Ramudu) and ‘Nee Toli Choopulone’ (Justice Chowdary) are put to amusing use. Also, you could argue, in a sense, that the one-liner—of a gang leader who is forced by circumstances to kill for revenge—is the same as Chiranjeevi’s super-successful 1991 film of the same name. However, Partharasarathy is docile in comparison. He is a writer first; not a fighter. The framed quote in his room goes, “Pencil is mightier than the sword.” He is a man pushed into taking up violence, and that’s perhaps why he is wearing a mask of Chiranjeevi in a scene.
Gang Leader pokes healthy fun at the thriller genre, and I enjoyed these bits. When it rains heavily, Parthasarathy indicates to the others that the impending death of villains is usually symbolised by changes in weather. When plotting, he affixes post-it notes and photographs on a notice board because that’s how thriller film heroes figure out solutions. Even the bit where his gang goads the villain from a neighbourhood building before realising how difficult it is to make a getaway, is lighthearted ribbing of genre tropes.
The thriller this film’s premise most reminded me about is Steve McQueen’s Widows, which is also about a group of women uniting for a dangerous mission after the death of the men in their lives. However, where Widows emphasises the strength and the adaptability of the main women, Gang Leader has them rely almost entirely on the supposed smarts of a man, Pencil Parthasarathy. One minute, he’s carrying an old woman to the top of a building. Another minute, he’s caring for a child and organising a touching birthday celebration. He’s also charting out plans, deciphering clues, doing the sort of police work detectives would envy. You almost forget that he was originally approached for ‘sahaayam’, not to appropriate the entire project. Even when these women get slow-mo shots as they walk in swagger, wearing sunglasses, you dimly realise they were asked to do it by Parthasarathy. Help can come from any gender, but when a man becomes the central player in a film about grieving women, it begins to suggest that the onus of rescuing women is on men.
And while accomplishing all these tasks, he also has time to hit on a grieving woman, Priya (Priyanka Arul Mohan). He’s a piece of work, this Parthasarathy. He plagiarises for a living, puts his friend, a publisher, through great financial discomfort, calls upon him at a time of great need and treats him like vermin. He also happily manipulates him by constantly mentioning he’s an orphan. The biggest evidence of his contemptible behaviour is his profound lack of empathy for Priya, the girl he sets his eyes on. He’s throwing her secret lustful stares, rejoicing when she accidentally sits on his hand; he’s desperately hoping that she loses the ring—a vestige of her relationship with her dead fiance—but never once seems to understand that the absence of the ring doesn’t somehow magically cause her baggage to disappear. Not once does he talk to her about her loss; not once, in fact, does he talk to the other women either about their losses. Towards the end, he claims to have been cured of his selfishness, but given how he takes it upon himself to save them for his own benefit, it doesn’t quite seem like he’s really transformed. I’d like to pose a what-if in this matter. What if the protagonist had been a woman? At least, the sisterhood would have been easier to believe in comparison to these women reposing blind faith in a male charlatan.
The film admittedly is with lots of small, enjoyable ideas. Parthasarathy’s habit of clicking away at his pen when absorbed in thought. His tendency to envision future possibilities by writing about them. A man being left-handed resulting in a mass moment. A clever interval shot. A twist about a dog, another about a watchman… These are all clever thoughtful bits—and would have worked better in a consistently good film. Gang Leader, however, is the sort of film that can’t resist milking a homosexual’s supposed lust for humour. There’s also a line somewhere that has Partharasarathy shaming a ‘dark, unattractive person’.
I quite liked Nani in the film, and it seems even Vikram Kumar does, given how he tries to cater to him. Parthasarathy says he doesn’t hit the gym or wear a perfume. “I’m all natural,” he says, a hat-tip to his sobriquet, Natural Star. The villain, played by Karthikeya, is a caricature. It’s a problem with the character, not so much with the performance. He’s all evil. He’s a racer; he apparently left his mother’s womb months earlier than he should have owing to his love for being quick. The ‘quick’ jokes write themselves. In this overlong film stretching more than 150 minutes, he even gets a cursory flashback that rings disappointingly simplistic.
And from out of nowhere, you get a bizarre fight sequence that hardly fits into the scheme of this film. ‘Garage tools fight’, they might have labelled it in the script. The fight choreography is around this concept, but the problem isn’t the packaging of it. The problem is its existence. The best bits of Gang Leader are when it keeps things emotional, when it channels everyday observations. Like when Parthasarathy asks the women to wear their sunglasses and they say they forgot to bring it. Like when Saraswathi talks of old people being neglected in a matter-of-fact way. Like when she whips out a knife from hiding and Varalakshmi (Saranya) realises what has been poking her till then. These are lovely everyday touches in a film whose premise should have resulted in a far more satisfying emotional experience.