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Indian Cinema, Tamil Cinema

Lingaa (India 2014)

Rajinikanth as the Raja in 1939

Rajinikanth as the Raja in 1939

On December 12th Lingaa was released on 4,000 screens worldwide. This release by one of global cinema’s biggest stars was not mentioned by the mainstream press in the UK. The film begins with the legend ‘Super Star . . . Rajni’. And there is no other superstar quite like Rajnikanth (also spelt Rajinikanth), here with a new film on the very day of his 64th birthday. Hospitalised a couple of years ago, Rajni has returned in 2014 with two films. After the ‘motion capture’ film Kochadaiiyaan comes this classic masala film in which Rajni, under layers of make-up and accompanied by a swarm of body doubles, plays two roles as he did in Endhiran, dancing and performing stunts as of old.

Lingaa is interesting for several reasons, not least the marriage of traditional Indian popular film conventions with extensive CGI and some self-reflexive jokes about Rajni himself and this kind of audience-pleasing film. In fact, many of the Indian reviews make the point that the film is as much about Rajni as about the character he plays – at one point the character blows out a candle on his own birthday cake. How many stars are able to co-ordinate birthdate and release date like this?

The narrative involves a contemporary crisis moment for a group of villages near a huge dam in the hills around Madurai in Tamil Nadu (although the film was shot in Karnakata). A devious local politician has a plan to destroy the dam for his own purposes. If I’m not quite clear how this is supposed to work, blame Cineworld’s projection standards since for the first 15 minutes or so the English subtitles weren’t properly on screen and I could only read the occasional line. But just as I was resigning my self to three hours of guesswork, the problem was solved. The elderly village guardian of the temple announces that the only way to defeat the politician’s plans is to find the grandson of the Raja who built the dam during 1939-44 and who locked the temple gates when he was driven out by the British. (The temple was built to protect the dam and at its centre is a lingaam – a phallus) Unfortunately, the grandson has become a sophisticated criminal specialising in heists and he is disinclined to recognise the grandfather who in his opinion condemned the family to poverty.

The grandson is found and persuaded to return to the village and a long flashback details how and why the dam was built. In the final section the grandson saves the day. Both grandfather and grandson are played by Rajni with two different (but visually similar) young female leads playing the modern village girl who is a reality TV presenter (Lakshmi – Anushka Shetty) ensnaring the criminal and the 1939 village girl who helps Lingeswaran to build the dam (Bharathi – Sonakshi Sinha). Rajni reportedly said that dancing with the two much younger women was more difficult than the action scenes, but his unique personality comes across even through the layers of make-up and hair pieces.

Rajini minus the make-up with his two leading ladies, Anushka Shetty (left) and Sonakshi Sinha at the audio launch for the film.

Rajini minus the make-up with his two leading ladies, Anushka Shetty (left) and Sonakshi Sinha at the audio launch for the film.

If Lingaa is subjected to too much scrutiny it doesn’t hold up. There are numerous ‘mistakes’ in chronology and the casting of the evil young British collector (and the other British roles) doesn’t work at all. But the film is enormous fun and it has great vitality. In the trailer below you’ll spot the musical numbers that play with scenes from Mission Impossible and Pirates of the Caribbean. The modern day criminal has a small group of henchmen/stooges and I was constantly reminded of 1940s Hollywood and the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope ‘Road films’. At one point one of the stooges demands that the action be speeded up as “there is another show coming on soon” (Lingaa runs to over three hours with its Intermission). At another point there is a joke about A.R. Rahman’s music. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is one of Rahman’s best scores but perhaps it will grow on me.

Lingaa has first appeared in Tamil and Telugu versions, the two biggest South Indian language cinemas which together rival Hindi cinema. The Hindi version will appear on December 26. Overall this will be the biggest pan-Indian release of 2014. Rajni also has a large fanbase in South-East Asia as well as the diasporas in Europe and North America. He is also well-loved in Japan. The film has been generally well-received as good value entertainment. But it does also have some interesting political statements. A highlight is the speech that the Raja delivers to the workers from the villages after British attempts to undermine progress. He exhorts them all as Indians, irrespective of caste or creed, to work together for India, a potent message during the Second World War and the rise of the Independence movements. This same message crops up during an attack on a train carrying Lingeswaran during his earlier period as a British Collector (he is a Cambridge-trained engineer and a senior member of the Indian Civil Service). The attack has echoes of Zhang Yimou’s wu xia films – The Curse of the Golden Flower).

Most of all Lingaa is about Rajni and the fans are already turning out in their droves. Early reports are that the film has joined the ‘100 crores club’ after just 3 days worldwide. (That’s around £10 million if my arithmetic is correct.)

Rajnikanth is one of the Indian cinema stars featured in Chapter 10 of The Global Film Book which also discusses the previous Rajni starrer Endhiran.

Official trailer (Tamil version):

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