‘LKG’ Review: Kindergarten-Level Primer On Tamil Nadu Politics, Society, Cinema, And Youth

Is it satire? Is it serious? Or is it RJ Balaji’s stepping stone into politics? Nobody knows, not even the filmmakers, it would appear.

LKG is the story of Lalgudi Karuppaiyya Gandhi, a small town politician with big political ambitions. Set in post-Jayalalithaa Tamilnadu, LKG traces the journey of a shrewd ward-councillor towards becoming the state’s chief minister. This journey, while largely predictable and fairly lazy, isn’t entirely unwatchable.

The first act of LKG rings rooted and real. LKG is the councillor of Lalgudi. He is popular, informed, helpful, grounded, and reliable. RJ Balaji fits perfectly into this role: he is believable as LKG, even charming in his idiosyncrasies. He wears a black shirt with saffron veshti — “I want the votes of both the theist and the atheist”, he explains. He counts every single vote and takes pleasure in having won them. 

His biggest fear is turning into his father, the rare good politician, whom LKG sees as a loser. Nanjil Sampath — the Thirukkural-spouting father —  is beautiful as the neglected man. He embodies the vulnerabilities in LKG’s life, making him more human. LKG, however, as if fighting to not become his father, is manipulative and corrupt. But we begin by believing that he’s perhaps the least of all evils.

As LKG desires bigger things, we’re told that his small-town rootedness isn’t enough. He needs the help of a large campaign management company to play the big game. Enter Sarala Munisamy (who prefers to be called Sara M Samy), played by Priya Anand, a campaign manager so out of place and ordinary that I nearly began worrying for LKG’s career. 

Priya Anand appears as corporate as Kajol appeared in Velai Illa Pattadhaari 2 (2017): she is intended to be modern and ambitious, but ends up looking uncomfortable and uninteresting. Not because the actress is unskilled, but because the character is written without empathy — her role is reduced to spouting strange jargons and lazy generalisations, without any boost of intelligence or insight.

Sara makes LKG take PEET (Politics Eligibility and Entrance Test) where she asks him lame questions and he gives her wrong answers. She changes his thoughtful clothing into commonplace white-and-white. She introduces him to ‘meme culture’ and turns him into a laughing stock. From there, a bunch of absurdities take him to meet the CM and his life takes off.

It is here that the film gets confusing — LKG now turns into the story about Lalgudi Karuppaiyya Gandhi’s fight to win the election against Ramaraj Pandian, a veteran and widely respected politician. By the nature of the narrative, LKG is the underdog who follows the hero’s journey: he is the Lalgudi David fighting the Ramaraj Goliath. It is only natural that we root for LKG. Yet, he is no better than the evil Goliath he seems to be fighting. He’s as cunning and indifferent as the entire political environment he is in.

As a result, the film leaves the audience with every modern voter’s existential crisis: Kadaiseela yaarukku thaanda vote podradhu? (In the end, who the hell do we vote for?). The moral of the story is that the voter needs to be diligent and careful while voting. Meh.

RJ Balaji and friends (credited as writers of the film) safely follow the template of political films these days — think NOTA (2018), Sarkar (2018) and the like. They position the protagonist’s young age as qualification, include real-life events in the screenplay, cautiously critique the central government, use Internet-wielding youngsters for plot-twists, throw mud at corporates, discredit the media and blame the public of being corrupt.

The difference is that, unlike the idealistic nature of the other films, LKG is cynical in both its outlook and outcome.

It takes a dig at every place, at everyone it possibly can. While most of it punches up, there is also a significant part of the film that’s misogynistic and homophobic. There is a scene where they discuss a highway between Lalgudi and Luz Corner. RJ Balaji says, “already moonu road irukku saar” (there are already three roads that cover this journey). As if that didn’t meet their humour metre, his sidekick Mayilsamy says, “Oru pondaatiye kaapaatha mudiyala, moonu pondaatti kekkudhaa” (you’re unable to protect one wife, why do you need three?).

While discussing LKG’s sacrifices for the sake of politics, dialogues fall back on lazy tropes like bunching “kudi, cigarette-u and ponnunga” (alcohol, smoking and women) together to proclaim that he’s never indulged in any of them. 

There’s a moment in the film that implies that LKG may have fallen in love with Sara. Minutes later, he’s called by the CM for a meeting and he tells her, “Thank god, you rejected my proposal. Now, I don’t have to buy property in your name, I can keep all the money to myself”. The attempted joke here is that LKG isn’t your regular fare with a force-fitted love track. Which is true. Yet, the film ends up being your regular unfunny fare in implying that women marry for and usurp men’s money!

There is a sequence with Manobala, playing an actor, that’s scarily homophobic and transphobic at the same time. In it, LKG spreads a rumour that Ramaraj Pandian was earlier a woman. When Pandian goes to meet Manobala to seek his endorsement for the upcoming election, Manobala feels him up and tries to seduce him. (Sidenote: Manobala must stop acting as the sleazeball. He should know better than that!)Pandian leaves in disgust and anger, only to later flash a female reporter to prove his manhood.

For the most part, LKG is not misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic. During those times, it’s lazy. There is a female TV anchor who speaks ‘local Tamil’ off camera and coy Tanglish on air, a trope comedian Vivek milked to its maximum nearly 15 years ago! There is an introduction sequence for Ramaraj Pandian, where he sings to tame a bull, and punches a rowdy to the moon! If we hadn’t yet noticed, Sarala helpfully suggests, “enna saar, Ramaraj pandian-a pathi ketta, neenga actor Ramarajan-a pathi solringa?” (Why are you telling me about actor Ramarajan, when I ask of Ramaraj Pandian).

These scenes play out like a skit in a Mad Ads competition in a college fest, one dig followed by another. There are digs at “unga toothpaste-la uppirukka?” (is there salt in your toothpaste?) and Abbas selling toilet cleaner, for good measure. Much of the film’s humour or even political acumen is dependent on funny events of the recent past. So, if the mere sight of RJ Balaji standing by a river holding planks of thermocol throws you into a fit of laughter, LKG is for you. 

But if you’re seeking a deeper, more scathing satirical insight into the politics of Tamilnadu, please join the line.

Previously published in Huffington Post India.