There are two kinds of "shooting" in Karthik Subbaraj's new movie: the kind you do with the gun, and the kind you do with a movie camera. At one point, there's a standoff between these two kinds of shooting: a man points his gun at a man who points a camera back at him. Jigarthanda DoubleX is not about which man "wins". But if you have seen Part 1, I don't think you'll be surprised to learn what this film's message is. It's this: Cinema is the most powerful weapon we have. And the beauty – the real beauty – of this message is that it is not presented as a stagy speech, or as mere words. It is presented as… a piece of cinema. It is played out on a big screen, as a film within a film. If the message is about the medium, this medium is how the message is conveyed. The meta-ness is exhilarating.
There are several films within Jigarthanda DoubleX, and let's first look at the most obvious one: the sequel to the 2014 film starring Siddharth, Bobby Simha and Lakshmi Menon. The parallels are many. There's the name "Sethu", the famous brother-sister song from Pasamalar, the central “story” that a criminal's autobiography is being made into a movie. There's an instance of double-crossing, and the true intent of the filmmaker remains unknown to the gangster – again, just like in Part 1. There's cinema being created under a false pretext, and then, there's the magic of cinema itself. When a filmmaker says "Action!", he feels something coursing through him, like electricity. His actor feels something, too. But these references apart, DoubleX is not really an extension of Jigarthanda. You see why Karthik calls it "a sequel in spirit".
The opening scenes set up a forest-dwelling Veerappan-like criminal who kills elephants for tusks. To make things worse for the tribals who live there, we have a ganja-smoking State-appointed cop with zero conscience. To counter this man, this menace, this bad cop, it's not just enough to bring in a good cop. A line of dialogue suggests that something much more is needed, almost like a messiah. And that messiah is… cinema. The people speaking these lines don't know that yet, and neither do we – because Karthik diverts us by mimicking the dynamics of the earlier film. He introduces us to a tribal-rowdy named Caesar and a filmmaker named Kirubai, played by Raghava Lawrence and SJ Suryah. The third "hero" in this film is Clint Eastwood, who's there from start to finish as an almost spiritual presence. The scene that has Caesar in a shootout in front of the "Let Red go" bit from For a Few Dollars More… it's cine-geek heaven!
Everything in DoubleX loops back to Cinema. Kirubai wants to become a cop. Thanks to cinema, he becomes a dispenser of justice and brings down the bad guys. Caesar is a gunda. Thanks to cinema, his story is diverted into the forest, and there he regains his humanity. The politician played by Ilavarasu says he wants to be the CM. Much later, thanks to cinema, he realises that there are other ways to serve people. There's also the sense that things are fair in cinema in a way they aren't in real life. Look at Clint Eastwood in his films – he never shoots an unarmed man. Even the echo of a scene from Part 1 where a man is burnt alive has to do with cinema. Here, a man is covered with celluloid reels and set on fire.
There are fun and games. A bit about a veena made me laugh out loud, as did the mispronunciation of "pan-India" as "Pandya". And I loved the MacGuffin: we are made to think that this is about the creation of a dark-skinned hero (and given Karthik's Rajinikanth fandom, I really thought it would be a veiled story of Rajinikanth). But no! That's where the story begins, sure, but that's not where it ends. The ending is – again – about cinema. It is about a reel-life leading man becoming a real-life hero. But this is not a fun-and-games movie. It is far more serious in tone than its predecessor, and it is Karthik’s most political movie to date. You could point to Mercury and say that that film, too, was about an issue. But there, the issue was folded into a larger “genre” story. Here, the issue is right out in front, and this is one of the rare times I have seen a “message movie” work in Tamil cinema.
On the surface, we have seen many Tamil films speak out about issues and against the government, but not in this way, not with so much love for cinema, and not with so much craft. Karthik has always been a dynamic filmmaker, but here, with his fantastic cinematographer Thirunavukkarasu, he creates deep frames filled with life. There’s always something happening in some corner, and Shafique Mohamed Ali’s editing sweeps us from frame to frame without the dynamism being lost. We seem to be in constant motion. Then, of course, we have Santhosh Narayanan’s score, which takes its cues from Spaghetti Westerns. There are many films that do not need a score at all, but something as visually and dramatically flamboyant as DoubleX is impossible to imagine without the whistling and the trumpets and the cheeky little harmonica.
What could have been better? Shine Tom Chacko is a star with political ambitions. Nimisha Sajayan is Caesar's wife. They don't get much to do. A plot point about epileptic fits is very clever in terms of how it comes back into the story, but the person never experiences this condition again and I wondered why. After the film is over, you see the Big Picture of the narrative – but while watching it, I kept fidgeting a bit, wondering where it was heading. Of course, that, ultimately, is part of the charm. But maybe these diversions could have been smoother. But these are small complaints in the face of this massive achievement, which is also an ode to Nature, to the tribal way of life. When an oracle says that these men will get what they want but not in the way they expect, it's a reminder of the unpredictability of life itself. It is a throwaway scene, but it is so profound.
When you see a wild animal give birth, when you see the mothers of the herd helping the infant, and when you see forests on the verge of vanishing, you may realise that your petty squabbles and revenge fantasies are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. Karthik has rarely been so deeply emotional in his cinema, and his leading men have rarely been better. SJ Suryah keeps finding new ways to exploit his innate “actorliness”, and here we get a poignant shade of the actor. As for Raghava Lawrence, I can’t say I have seen him in anything requiring him to act, but he’s wonderful here. You cannot imagine another performer in his place. DoubleX ends with the promise of a sequel, but whatever the plot of that film is, I am sure it will continue the tradition of showcasing its creator’s love for cinema, for art.