Ten months since its U.S. release, S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language epic RRR is still going strong, between its sold-out, star-studded IMAX screenings, and its recent Golden Globe win for Best Original Song. It’s the first time an Indian film has seen this level of fanfare in the west—cinema from the subcontinent rarely receives the same reception (or critical consideration) as its South Korean, Iranian, Chinese, and Japanese counterparts—but despite RRR’s western popularity, similar South Indian films didn’t make nearly the same splash in the months following its release. Vikram, a gritty Tamil-language spy thriller with over-the-top antics, was one of the best Indian films of 2022, but it went largely ignored in North America, while Kannada-language K.G.F. Chapter 2, which even out-grossed RRR domestically, barely made a stateside peep outside of the Indian diaspora.
There’s every chance RRR could be a one-hit wonder for Indian films internationally (at least, until Rajamouli’s next effort), but there is also a constant stream of Indian movies releasing in American theaters every other week. Some, like H. Vinoth’s ludicrous Tamil heist thriller Thunivu—which released on Wednesday, to coincide with the Tamil festival of Pongal—feature the kind of maximalist stylizations that, while they may be common in mainstream Indian movies, are still a novelty to viewers in the west. With that in mind, there’s perhaps no better way to kick off 2023 than by catching Thunivu in theaters, hopefully amongst a sold-out crowd of Indian and Indian American viewers already familiar with its leading star, Ajith Kumar, simply known as Ajith. Because in Thunivu, he plays the coolest, most magnetic bank robber this side of the Ocean’s trilogy, and the film itself is a mile-a-minute Russian nesting doll of visual and narrative excess.
Thunivu was first announced a mere 11 months ago, under the working title AK61, since it was Ajith’s 61st film. The actor has been a mainstay of Tamil cinema since the early ’90s, and even at the age of 51, he doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon. The film kicks off by laying the foundation for a complicated bank heist in Chennai, involving dirty cops, hyper-capable criminals and a whole host of misdirects. While this plot initially goes to plan, a wrench is tossed into its gears when, as if out of nowhere, Ajith appears like a phantom—to much applause, if you’re with the right audience—and foils the ongoing heist, while his blaring, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop theme song asks: “Who da gangstaa?”
“It’s him! It's him!” the lyrics respond, without offering any further details about his character—not even a name. The fact that he’s played by Ajith is exciting enough.
Only, Ajith isn’t playing a hero in Thunivu, as he so often does elsewhere. As it turns out, his mysterious character is there to pull off a heist of his own. For reasons initially unknown, this involves phone calls taunting the cops outside (among them, a senior officer played by the actor Samuthirakani, who played Venkateswarulu in RRR), and it even sees Ajith teaming up with the original crew who tried to rob the bank in the first place. And, just for the fun of it, the actor gleefully struts and dances his way through entire scenes like he’s just been stabbed with a needle filled with pure, undiluted charisma.
Just for the fun of it, the actor gleefully struts and dances his way through entire scenes like he’s just been stabbed with a needle filled with pure, undiluted charisma.
Ajith’s neat, salt-and-pepper hairdo and his long white beard are hardly the look of a typical, youthful action star. But with this look, coupled with his casual white clothing ensemble and his silver earrings, he makes aging feel like a superpower (and a particularly sexy one at that). The film is unrelentingly opaque with its plotting—every few minutes, new double, triple and even quadruple crosses come to light—but having a working understanding of what’s happening at any moment would betray the point of the whole endeavor. Ajith, who seems largely unbothered by the growing police presence outside, seems almost supernaturally capable, a criminal mastermind who not only has top-down knowledge of every piece on the chessboard (including the movie’s colorful ensemble, from the existing bank robbers, to the specific police officers and reporters outside), but he also knows exactly where to stand to avoid sniper fire. He even appears to have planted bombs just outside the bank, rigged to go off like clockwork, at the exact moments he might need to cause a major distraction.
This serves two key functions. One, Ajith barely breaks a sweat for the first half of Thunivu’s 146-minute runtime. It makes the film especially indulgent, as Ajith leads both five-dimensional mind games and hilariously choreographed action scenes, which involve everything from the middle-aged star spin-kicking cops in mid-air, to reloading a shotgun while using it as melee weapon, as cinematographer Nirav Shah’s camera spins around him with tornado pacing. Two, it makes the actual threats to Ajith feel all the more dangerous when they do eventually arise, because as it turns out, there are even more threatening forces at play, for which this seemingly omniscient mastermind is unprepared.
The title, when literally translated, means “fortitude,” though it quickly gets folded into Ajith’s mantra of “No guts, no glory,” which offers only the most fleeting clue as to his motivations. His methods border on terrorism (he casually places explosive vests on innocent bank employees), but at every breakneck turn, the plot reveals some new player or element of backstory that helps reveal the bigger picture of his plan. It’s a silly film with a serious heart, involving a rather pointed, Robin Hood-esque third act driven by real and beating systemic frustrations (even though Ajith’s personal connection to this seemingly fraudulent financial institution is tenuous at best). The bank in question is dubbed “Your Bank,” a simple in-world company name with the most on-the-nose implications as to the movie’s wider socio-economic messaging. But for the most part, any real-world themes are swiftly forgotten whenever the fireworks begin. A mix of digital and practical debris fills the screen during shootouts, and whenever there’s an explosion—it happens quite often—the flimsy-looking sets crumble in delightful fashion.
Most delightful of all, however, is the movie’s gonzo structure. Its plot turns may pile up faster than the human brain can process them, but when it comes time to reveal who exactly Ajith is playing and what his incentives are, Thunivu enters a series of lengthy flashbacks at semi-regular intervals in order to pull back this curtain. One of these flashbacks is a sentimental spy thriller nestled within the larger film. Another is a whistleblower drama that doesn’t feature Ajith at all, and two of them are choreographed musical sequences composed by M. Ghibran, in which Ajith explains his character and motivation through song and dance. One of these is even further cross-cut with a chaotic jet ski chase through Bangkok. It’s a shame the title Everything Everywhere All At Once was already taken.
It’s a shame the title Everything Everywhere All At Once was already taken.
Of course, a film this densely packed with plot and action (often unfolding at once) runs the risk of being overwrought, but this only happens when the story briefly leaves the confines of its bank robbery setting, late into its runtime. For the most part, Vinoth’s action-packed Ajith vehicle remains a dizzying, gleefully enjoyable crime caper with some grin-inducing kills, led by one of the most suave and mischievous criminal performances by the long-time Tamil star, who rattles off one-liners with machine-gun pacing. His mere presence is more than enough to carry the film; he is, after all, “da gangstaa.”
Published on January 13, 2023