When mainstream filmmakers dedicate "mass" films to women and they have a larger-than-life male star in the cast, you walk in with the tacit understanding that the film will be more about him than the women in question. This is the case in every film industry in the country, including Bollywood where Akshay Kumar has successfully turned mansplaining into a genre. We must keep pushing for this framework to change but in the meantime, considering my job is to watch loosu ponnus on screen nearly every Friday, I will take the Bigils of the world.
Atlee and Vijay's third collaboration is about a gangster father in North Madras and his football-loving son. The film begins with a protest that escalates only to serve as an introduction for Michael (Vijay) who literally performs "podra vediya" when he appears on screen (the lead-up to this rather reminded me of Rajinikanth's entry in Kaala). Tamil directors have depicted North Madras in different ways. For the most part, the area is only ever shown as a haven for criminals where everyone speaks an exaggerated 'Madras bashai'. It was Pa Ranjith who broke through the stereotypes in Madras, humanising the people and telling their stories with dignity. Atlee's North Madras sways between these two ends of the spectrum. While Rayappan's (Vijay in the father role) dream for his son to escape the cycle of violence and his sense of community is something you'd see in a Ranjith film, the director also makes his characters (everyone except the two Vijays simply answer to 'thug') speak the caricatured dialect that Tamil cinema has long associated with the area in a disparaging way.
Nevertheless, Atlee builds an engaging first half where he manages to weave in conflicts, fights, comedy (Yogi Babu as Donald) and a bit of romance. Nayanthara appears in bridal white like she did in Raja Rani and this time too, she isn't happy about who she's marrying. The situation is rather like the Ross-Rachel wedding fiasco from Friends (I'm aware that I'm comparing the film to several others, but err...it is an Atlee strength to take 'inspirations' from several places and create a palatable kichidi) and the light comedy works. Nayanthara as Angel Asirvadham of North Madras looks like she just stepped out of a high-end beauty parlour in south Delhi, but well, you can't be resisting such illusions if you want to continue watching our "mass" films. It's thanks to her 'Lady Superstar' tag that she gets some of the in-jokes referring to her previous films - a privilege usually reserved for the hero.
Vijay does well in both the roles and it's a pleasant surprise to see him playing someone with a stutter, a speech defect that has been the subject of comedy in our cinema for ages. In the first half, there's very little about women's football. Rayappan (Vijay) is clearly inspired from Nayagan (which was inspired from The Godfather - Rayappan keeps the voice) but the story takes a different route in the second half when we finally get to see why it was "dedicated to all women". It's true that in an earnest effort to showcase the "maadharey" progressively, the film goes overboard at times, trying to stuff every possible issue into the screenplay. However, some of these scenes are indeed powerful, particularly the one with Reba Monica John when she strides across the field to confront her stalker.
Varsha Bollamma's story arc is also quite interesting, playing a footballer from a conservative Tamil Brahmin family who's restrained to the madisar. Keeping in mind that this is a Vijay film, the mansplaining is not as much as one would expect it to be in a star vehicle. Atlee breaks some gender stereotypes but clings to some others stubbornly (Angel delivers an impressive speech on how a woman's identity is not merely her husband's name...but later in the film, all the players wear a man's name on their uniform, why oh why?). Motherhood is valorised but at least, it is some consolation that the woman is allowed to have other goals (literally speaking too). The dark-skinned, overweight Padiyamma has a hero's moment but not before she's compared to a bull and thoroughly body-shamed. So yes, the "women's empowerment" is full of buts - BUT as I said, I will take it because the bar is currently so low.
To Atlee's credit, he allows the women players their moment in the sun in the field despite none of the matches really having any nail-biting tension in them. They pretty much follow the obvious pattern of the opposition playing dirty while the hero's underdog team takes the victory away from them. The VFX is fairly convincing though football fans maybe bemused by the number of stellar Ronaldo-level goals being scored in each match.
Jackie Shroff, Kathir, Vivek, Indhuja, Daniel Balaji, Rohini and the rest of the cast deliver what's expected of them. AR Rahman's music didn't leave much of an impact on me when the album came out, but it's far more effective in the film, especially when Vijay's dancing. The final leg seems unnecessarily stretched out and the film may have worked better if Atlee had curbed the speechifying a bit in the second half. Nevertheless, Bigil manages to be a treat for Vijay fans while also being a mostly refreshing break for someone sick of loosu ponnus - and that doesn't happen too often. Podra vediya!
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.