Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s third film suffers from melodramatic performances and trite tropes, but it stands out for its noble message, and Rajinikanth’s power-packed cameo

Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s third directorial film, Lal Salaam is a serious sports drama that delves into the web of politics and business that entangles local cricket, often dividing people in the name of religion. Like Vetrimaaran (Viduthalai: 1, Vada Chennai, Asuran), who has perfected the style of narrating the crux of the film through voiceover, Aishwarya, too, guides the audience through voiceover on important occasions.

While the first half of the film, set in 1993 in a rural village in Tamil Nadu, has too many loose ends and predictable sequences, she manages to connect the dots in the second half, where the director actually delivers with engaging screenplay and interesting proceedings. What really works in the second half is the analogy between the fictional small town, Morrabad, and the incident that shook the entire nation in the early 1990s — the Bombay riots of 1992.

Unity in the face of communal clash

Thirunavukarasu or Thiru (Vishnu Vishal) is an angry young cricket player, who was trained under the Three Stars cricket team, predominantly composed of players from the Muslim community. But later, he joins MCC, another local team, where players from Hindu community are in majority. Whenever MCC and Three Stars clash in Murrabad, people liken the competition to an India and Pakistan face-off. The Three Stars team brings in Shamsuddin (Vikranth), a professional cricketer from Mumbai, with an aim to put a full stop to their losing streak.

Shamsuddin is the son of Mumbai’s big businessman Moideen Bhai (Rajinikanth). Though Thiru and Shamsuddin are childhood friends, just like their dads (Livingston plays Thiru’s father), both of them are at loggerheads. Unfortunately, their past rift creates a huge problem during one of their cricket matches that results in communal clash, fuelled by the political forces who manipulate both. The rest of the film illustrates how circumstances bring people together: how the villagers unify, putting aside all their differences, forms the crux of the story.

Thalaiva packs a punch

Performance-wise, Vishnu has done justice to his character; though subtle, he convincingly pulls off the role of a raw and rustic rural youngster with ease. Compared to Vishnu, Vikranth has limited screen space, but the actor is apt for his role in the film; he scores in an emotional sequence in the second half. Superstar Rajinikanth is seen in an extended cameo; his character delivers a powerful message on secularism and unity among people. He has two impactful heroic moments but he sheds his superstar image in Lal Salaam to uplift the central storyline.

Superstar Rajinikanth is seen in an extended cameo; his character delivers a powerful message on secularism and unity among people.

His powerful dialogue about secularism during the Mumbai riot sequence is very relevant, especially in the current political climate. Rajinikanth’s performance and characterisation remind us of Sivaji Ganesan’s mass sequences in the late 80s and 1990s, when he was at the peak of superstardom. Though there are senior actors like Senthil, Thambi Ramaiah, Nirosha and Jeevitha, their performances are melodramatic and over-the-top.

The visual vocabulary

Cinematographer Vishnu Rangasamy employs strategic interplay of warm and cold tones, the overall visual tone of the film remains a bit muted; it merely serves the storyline without imbuing it with the transformative power it could possess. Besides, one also gets the sense that it doesn’t quite suit the grand production values and budget for the Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s comeback film in eight years, which has garnered a lot of attention.

AR Rahman’s celestial music suits the rural theme of the film; his background score in the second half lifts the spirit of the film. Lal Salaam stands out for its core theme, noble message and engaging second half. A poignant commentary on the misuse of religion for political ends, it would have been a better film had it steered clear of the trite tropes that it surrenders to at crucial moments

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