Going by the promo and pre-release interviews of Lal Salaam, if you’re gearing up for a socio-political sports drama that tells a story of how religious intolerance and hatred enter a cricketing field, you might have been misled a bit. Yes, there are a few scenes set at a cricket ground, the lead characters played by Vishnu Vishal and Vikranth are cricketers, and yes, the film doesn’t miss to voice against religious discrimination or segregation in sports; however, cricket is the most negligible aspect of Lal Salaam and nothing actually pertaining to the sport propels the story.
Aishwarya Rajinikanth’s film is a through-and-through social drama that attempts to demonstrate how the politics of a few sinister men can throw a wedge between two communities, causing irreparable despair and never-ending social unrest. Vishnu Rangasamy’s story is written with an earnest desire to throw an empathetic, novel lens over a tricky subject. For instance, in the fictional town of Murrabad, where Muslims and Hindus have lived in harmony, reasons that have nothing to do with religion but more to do with ego and personal vengeance create religious unrest. The architect behind everything that transpires is a politician’s son-in-law who uses the personal enmity between two young men and local cricketers — Thirunaavukkarasu (Vishnu Vishal) and Shamsuddin (Vikranth) — to turn the Hindus against the Muslims for political benefit. Using the more vulnerable of these characters, Thiru, as the tool to navigate the story naturally brings in a lot of drama.
Lal Salaam (Tamil)
However, you only wish the writer pushed himself a bit more or that the story found its way to the hands of better screenwriters or a more composed filmmaker. Not to be mistaken, to much credit, the Aishwarya we see in Lal Salaam is a more mature, serious and daring filmmaker than who she was 9 years ago. Several moments show spark, real filmmaking desire to make an investing drama, but unfortunately, none of the ideas in the story come together to make a cohesive film. There is an utter lack of subtlety in writing, an overreliance on melodrama and Aishwarya’s baffling use of voice-over adding to all the woes.
For over 40-50 minutes in the beginning, you are left astounded by how choppy it all seems. Scenes move like blocks, with just Thiru being the thread that runs through them. In an ineffective attempt to tell the story non-linearly, we begin to see the aftereffects of a riot that is said to have been triggered following a clash at a cricket ground when Thiru allegedly attacked Shamsuddin. Thiru has no other option but to surrender to the police, but one can never be sure if he’d be safe even under the eyes of the law, as we are told that the henchmen of Moideen Bhai (Rajinikanth), Shamsuddin’s father and business tycoon in Mumbai, are circling above him like vultures.
After six months in prison, Thiru gets released and he realises that his life has now changed forever, with even his own mother and fellow townsmen admonishing him for his actions. Just as you wait eagerly to see what truly transpired, we get an unnecessary romance subplot between Thiru and his lady love Nandini that serves nothing more than merely becoming a reason for something happening at a later point in the story. This is the biggest issue with the screenplay; the central conflict is kept concealed for so long and when it comes, you are left scratching your head wondering if this technique was needed.
All of that time could have been used to show more about Shamsuddin, a character whose perspective hardly comes through. In fact, Shamsuddin suffers as many or more consequences as Thiru, but he becomes a mere cog in the wheel, only helping to propel his father’s arc.
Moideen Bhai is the shadow that runs parallel throughout the film, and if anything, it’s this extended cameo from Rajinikanth that truly works for Lal Salaam. Aishwarya uses her father’s magnetic screen presence, flair, and unshakingly compelling dialogue delivery to her best. Keeping the preachiness apart, watching Rajinikanth hit back at bigots who ask Indian Muslims, “to go to Pakistan,” is surely a treat. This was a necessary respite for Lal Salaam because though the film wishes to reflect real problems, the world it takes place is tailor-made for how the screenwriters wish to move the story, and therefore, everything is extremely convenient. And to remember that all that effort was for such a shallow examination of religious intolerance and sectarianism is truly disappointing.
Even Rahman’s use of background scores disappoints you; in every single moment, no matter how organically built, every single emotion gets highlighted with music. What has worked as a big plus for Lal Salaam is its casting; if Vishnu and Vikranth bring their best to their respective roles, the actor to look forward to is Senthil who plays a lonely temple priest.
Lal Salaam is the kind of film you wish you liked for how noble its intentions are. But that’s all you are left to feel for a film that doesn’t try enough to give you more, anything refreshing or anything novel.
Lal Salaam is currently running in theatres