At the end of "Kaaviya Thalaivan", there's a side in you that wants to laud the effort of auteur G. Vasanthabalan, who has always strived to give us good cinema, especially for recreating a bygone era in grand style on screen. Then, there's another side that will ask why all his films with great potential don't get their due treatment.
Think of Vasanthabalan, you're reminded of the dialogue where Vedhika asks Siddharth after they perform together for the first time on stage - did I act well? Siddharth, nonchalantly, replies "you're beautiful. Isn't that enough for a woman to impress audiences?" Of course, the context of this dialogue is different but somehow it felt like the director was asking us how we liked his film? To which, you only have words like "beautiful", "grand" and "inspiring", but you'd never say it's a great film, at least the majority won't.
You'd salute the effort that has gone into its making, but never the final product.
The film focuses on a Tamil drama troupe in the pre-independence period. Led by Thavathiru Sivadas Swamigal (Nassar), it throws the spotlight on two of his best students - Kaaliappa (Siddharth) and Gomathi (Prithviraj), and the rivalry between them.
There's heavy reference of Mahabharat in "Kaaviya Thalaivan", which is the story of Drona (Nassar) and his gifted students Arjun (Prithviraj) and Ekalavya (Siddharth). In the epic tale, Ekalavya never learnt under the mentorship of Drona. He learnt by secretly watching Drona (who was also his spiritual guru) teach his students. But Ekalavya was never allowed to be the best archer because he belonged to the lower caste (and archery was meant for Kshatriyas). That's why Drona asks for his thumb as Guru Dakshina.
What if the tables were turned? What if Drona had trained both Arjun and Ekalavya together? What if Arjun and Ekalavya were pitted against each other due to jealousy? The answers to these questions can be found in the film. Just like how Ekalavya belonged to the lower caste, here, Siddharth is shown as a beggar who gets into Nassar's drama group because of his impeccable singing skills. When Nassar picks Siddharth over Prithviraj for a lead role, the latter asks his guru if the former is his Ekalavya.
In the second half, Siddharth's character is partly based on his own role from "Rang De Basanti". He turns into a nationalist, for reasons not quite well explained, and he uses the theatre medium to stage nationalist dramas. In fact, he goes on to play the same role (Bhagat Singh) from his Hindi film.
Similarly, Vedhika's role is inspired from Meerabai. In fact, there's a shot where we see Vedhika posing as the popular poetess. Like how Meera, although married, believed that she belonged to Lord Krishna, Vedhika believes she belongs to Siddharth and she abandons her family to settle down with him.
It's tough to understand why Vasanthabalan brings the independence struggle angle into the story. Is it just because the film is set in the pre-independence era? Instead, he should've concentrated on avoiding some extremely predictable moments towards the end - like that twist in the story, which explains the opening scene why we see Prithviraj staring into the mirror with a gun in his hand.
Kaaviya Thalaivan works in parts like Rahman's music, which doesn't do full justice to the period in which the story is set. In a beautiful scene, Vedhika's mother requests Nassar to take his daughter as one of his mentees. Nassar explains that there's no room for a woman in his all-boys' company. But he's subsequently impressed by the girl's singing and dancing skills. She joins the troupe and becomes its crucial member. In this scene, Vasanthabalan's intent was to show that this (cinema) is not a male-dominated industry, and occasionally, even a highly talented woman is welcomed. Scenes like these are a treat to watch in the film, which is otherwise let down by its writing and the urge for a melodramatic end.
Nevertheless, "Kaaviya Thalaivan" makes you want to cheer for Vasanthabalan for extracting some of the best performances from actors whose talent we've always underestimated. You also want to cheer for the makers for being gutsy and backing this offbeat attempt.