Lal Salaam Movie Review: This film about heightened emotions needed to evoke more emotion
The utility of its messaging notwithstanding, Lal Salaam comes off looking unfocussed, struggling to handle the weight of its topics
Rajinikanth, in Lal Salaam, plays a good Muslim, a man who despite being at the receiving end of violence, won’t stray from kindness. Perhaps his character pays homage to every member of a minority group who has ever felt persecuted but won’t allow their fear to kill the good within them? Retaining decency in the face of danger is not an easy choice, but is greatness, or even goodness, ever easy? Rajinikanth, in food, clothes and speech, is every bit a Muslim man in this film, and at one point towards the end, he even plainly points out that for Indian Muslims, India is and will always be their home country. “Madhaththayum, nambikkayum manasula vei; manidha neyaththa adhukku mela vei!” In these times of polarisation, it’s impossible not to notice the utility of a star like Rajinikanth batting for the minority, talking about how all gods are one, and how it’s important to turn the focus from fury to friendship. This social utility is perhaps Lal Salaam’s greatest strength.
Director: Aishwarya Rajinikanth
Cast: Vikranth, Vishnu Vishal, Rajinikanth, Thambi Ramaiah, Senthil
Unfortunately, there are few others. In fact, for the longest time, I was left rather confused by the seeming lack of direction and purpose, which partly is on account of all the back-and-forth in the screenplay. The film is ostensibly about Hindu-Muslim enmity in a village called Murarbaad, but I kept waiting to really connect with its characters, to emote their pain and pleasure. We get something about politicians sowing hatred within the peaceful Murarbaad; something about two cricket teams spearheaded by Thiru (Vishnu Vishal) and Shamsu (Vikranth, who I quite liked in this film); something about the importance of local rituals and their power to unite (what about their power to divide though?); there’s a lot of needless cricket footage crammed in and specifics about match score that don’t add much; and there’s, of course, the luminous presence of Rajinikanth too. This is all a lot, even at a little more than 150 minutes. Perhaps that’s why we often hear the narrator come in rather awkwardly to guide us through the goings-on. “There are two teams called MCC and 3 Star. 3 Star has never tasted defeat. You see, Thiru is the only non-Muslim player in the team…” And on and on.
So, what’s the film about, really? If the answer is ‘all of the above’, well, that often translates to ‘none of the above’. Perhaps that’s why we don’t really get a deeper view of politicians and the many ways through which they disrupt peace for selfish gain. Perhaps that’s why that hint of feistiness Thiru’s girlfriend seems to show at the beginning amounts to nothing more than a distracting duet. Perhaps that’s why there are no great cricketing joys to be felt too, despite all the bloated footage. For all the focus on Moideen (Rajinikanth, who plays way more than a cameo), I would have still liked to learn how this man, who’s quick to violence to defend his son, keeps peace after knowing that irreversible damage has been inflicted on his family. If his reason is that he feels strongly about Thiru, I’d have definitely liked to have felt it at some point in the film. Even the Thiru-Shamsu reunion doesn’t work as powerfully as it should. This is a film about tempers and emotions running high, and yet, it feels strangely sedate, strangely unemotional.
The uneven performances don’t help either. Even Rajinikanth, for all his charisma, seems a bit off in those cutesy portions when he’s throwing food in celebration or practising bowling in the house. Or perhaps it’s because those portions don’t really feel well-integrated into this film? I enjoyed watching Vikranth in this film and bought his frustration and rage. I liked actor Senthil too, who, in a brief appearance, comes across as a warm, radiant presence (even if his fate feels extremely obvious). And this too is a problem with Lal Salaam. What happens to Senthil’s character ought to affect you on some level, but when it actually plays out, rather predictably, rather manipulatively, I felt neither shock nor sympathy. I did, however, feel some emotion—vexation—each time Thiru’s mother came on to use every second at her disposal to ham it up and cry her heart off.
The strongest portion of Lal Salaam is when it gets most intimate. Like when Senthil’s character yearns to spend time with his family. Or like when horror hits Shamsu, and we are introduced to the changing dynamics and mood of the Moideen household. Finally, it felt like the film was homing in on the real emotions of these characters; finally, it felt like Moideen was father and Shamsu was son, and both, crucially, were characters, not cutouts anymore. But the film quickly jerks us away from this to show heroic shots of the aggressor Thiru playing cricket and winning at it. He is securing prizes; and saving up money—even while the hangover of Shamsu’s tragedy is hovering over the film. The film and the music by Rahman eggs us to celebrate Thiru—and it’s all a bit hard to follow, which is a feeling I couldn’t shake off throughout this film.
There are interesting little touches though. I liked the brief deception that Moideen Bhai engages in to bring some peace to his son. I liked the woman dressed as a deity—and how she’s often used to communicate the pleasure and displeasure of a goddess. I liked that a scene, shot very much to suggest divine possession on some level, doesn’t result in cathartic violence, but simply helps coerce a bad man into surrendering himself to the police. I liked some of the powerful dialogues, including “Maanam mariyadhai vida nyaayam, dharmam innum mukkiyam.” But these are fleeting pleasures, and a film, in which Rajinikanth seems quite willing to shed his star image in pursuit of story-related pleasures, in pursuit of progressive politics, deserved to be more emotional, and more powerful.