In some ways, this was a movie just waiting to be made. Shankar is a director with a proven ability to create box office magic with movies involving middle-class supermen fighting corruption. Rajni is a star who has made a career out of playing such roles. The only question that remains is: do we get to see Rajni in a Shankar movie, or Shankar directing a Rajni movie? A little bit of both, thankfully.
Shankar is a director with an ability to think really big. His plots usually involve the sort of skulduggery you'd dream up after your third straight tequila, and believe to be plausible after the fifth. His technique is simple and time-worn: First, set up situations where the man on the street is victimized by greed and corruption at various levels - deserving students having to pay high capitation fees, doctors refusing to treat poor patients, politicos and government officials demanding bribes for everything and so on. Now, once you've gotten the audience baying for blood, have the hero blow up the logjam through some decidedly unconventional and swift methods. Usually, these methods involve some illegality - murder, robbery, blackmail and the like - but they are always directed at the established bad guys. What makes it work is the way he ratchets up the tone of the proceedings from the get-go. For Rajni, this sort of filmmaking is the perfect vehicle.
Aside: For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tamil cinema, Shankar is the man who made (either the original, or the remake as well) Nayak, Hindustani, The Gentleman and Aparichit. If you've seen any or all of these, you'll know what I mean in the above paragraph.
However, such an endeavour is not without its risks. Shankar's biggest weakness is a tendency to overdo things on occasion. Usually, this happens in the hero's tragic flashback - someone close to him gets badly burned or electrocuted, and the apathy of the people around him is what lights his fire. Rajni's weakness is a tendency to have his movies revolve entirely around him. Even while making something like Chandramukhi, he took the low-key Mohanlal role in the Malayalam original and added mucho baggage to it. Baggage of the sort his adoring fans have come to expect from every one of his outings. Maybe it's his fault, maybe it's the makers'. It doesn't matter.
Both these aspects - the synergies and the double-flaws - are on full display in Sivaji. Clocking in at around three hours, the movie takes its time to tell a story of a rich man who becomes poor trying to do good, then rich again by beating the crooks at their game, then arrested, then out, then... you know the drill, I'm sure.
Much of it could have been told in less than two and a half hours, and some of it needn't have been told at all. Large portions of the first half, especially the scenes dealing with Rajni wooing Shreya and her family, could have been done away with. It's unfunny, loud, occasionally crude and mostly cringe-worthy. The most shocking part of it all is that one of Rajni's best attributes - excellent comic timing - has deserted him here. What salvages it somewhat is a triumphant return to form by Vivek. He manages to lampoon just about everybody, including the man who has taken his place on the popularity charts in the last few years - Vadivelu.
The song sequences are about as hopeless as the music (A. R. Rehman having an off-day of mammoth proportions), and watching Rajni flap the odd limb at high speed in an effort to approximate dancing is painful at best. And don't even get me started on the costume design.
The only scenes that work in the first half are the serious ones involving his fight to realize is dream of providing free education and medical care to the poor. In this he comes across a dangerous adversary, a corrupt kingmaker named Adiseshan. The biggest problem with Rajni movies in recent times has been finding a worthy foe with sufficient screen presence. What Shankar and Suman have accomplished here is fantastic: aided in large part by a low-key Rajni performance in the first half, Suman creates an Adiseshan who is as soft-spoken as he is menacing. By the time we reach the halfway point, he's made us want to figure out how Rajni would destroy him.
The second half is where it all comes together. Rajni and Shankar both stop fooling around and get down to business, and the effect is electric. Pure masala, peppered with inside jokes that would have seasoned Tamil film goers in splits. And the coup de grace: a Rajni in the final scenes looking and acting like the old Rajni from Thai Veedu, Thanga Magan and Moondru Mugam. Fantastic stuff! There's a dodgy little sequence involving an amalgam of medical science and biblical resurrection, but I'm inclined to forgive that in light of what follows.
On the whole, this is far less of a movie than it could have been, thanks to some disastrous choices in the first half, but delivers its share of vintage Rajni entertainment in the second half. Worth a dekko? Hell yeah! The Rajni you see in the last fifteen minutes alone is worth the price of admission.
ps: The title was inspired by a comment by my friend Gora. For the uninitiated, Kenai is a Tamil word that broadly translates to "imbecile".