Why 2.0 did not work for me

That large bird surveilling the city’s sky looked vicious. It felt that real when seen through the 3D glasses, that I even fended a few times from my seat. The mere sight of a sea of mobiles ringing together, before hacking into a victim was perversely a beautiful sight to behold, notwithstanding the underlying element of gore. I watched it in a theatre, the seats of which vibrated every time these killer phones came alive in unison. The production value was top notch, though I could’ve done with a little less of being in the face. It’s a visual experience as much an aural one. 2.0 had all the kitschy elements you find in a Michael Bay tent pole. But something was amiss. No denying the spectacle it was, but it was a kind of soulless affair which keeps throwing things at us in the hope that something would stick. And the same can be said about Shankar’s 2.0 version, post Anniyan.

Take for instance, the Chennai we see. After Kadhal Desam’s cutting edge PCOs and ice cream bearing trees, it’s probably the most wildly imaginative depiction of Chennai. The roads are bordered with glass castles and skyscrapers, constantly beautifying the city’s skyline, with only police stations,Thirukazhikundrum and Lalita Jewellery outlets looking like precincts of good old Chennai. Glad that they kept talking months without years. The Chennai in 2.0 reminded me of heroines from the director’s movies. They might be called Thenmozhi, Susheela, Sana, Diya, Madhu. And these women might be village belles, Mylapore bound TamBrams, a break inspector’s daughter, if not S.Ve.Sekar’s. But one thing that unites them all is the fact that they look absolutely alien to us and belong in a set in Mumbai.

All the Shankar tropes are in place here as well: system wronging an individual. Individual making futile attempts to fix the system. System ignoring individual. Individual turning into a vigilante force who choreographs really cool looking murders, while not breaking into statistical sermons. Just that this time around, the hero isn’t the said individual, but the villain. Suddenly we’re left with a moral conundrum of whose side to take: that of a smart ass humanoid saying corny things or a bird loving dead man who has been wronged. This screws up with our reflexes, when blows are traded. We don’t know to wolf whistle or feel bad. And it doesn’t help that the scientist who makes all these humanoids is one of the blandest cardboard characters ever conceived.

Ideally these futuristic exodus movies will have a modest human as the story’s hero, thrust in the middle of things beyond his control or comprehension. He would be scurrying— through gladiatorial bouts between towering creatures as skyscrapers tumble and tectonic plates open up —from one set piece to another. It is through this character’s travails and his eventual triumph, that we empathize and become invested in these out worldly happenings. This is what, in my opinion went wrong with 2.0. After a point, the movie becomes all about the one upmanship between a robot and a ghost. Robot throws things. Ghost throws things back. Ghost transforms into fancy things. Robot transforms into fancier things. There’s absolutely no human perspective. Rinse. Repeat. And apparently we’re supposed to make do with reaction shots of random junior artists and smaller/fancier robots turning up to save this robot. As a result, we feel no real connection. We don’t really care who comes on top. And quickly we begin to feel like being trapped inside a video game, which just wouldn’t stop.

Another aspect in Shankar films I’ve been peeved off late are the juvenile dialogues.
If it was “Six ku aprom Seven da, Sivaji ku aprom yavan da?” or “Ivanga ellam city la top ten rowdies” in Sivaji, it is, “Number one. Number two lam papa vilaiyatu. Naan eppome Super one.” or “King of birds, king of robots is coming” here.
Writing with children in mind is one thing. Writing childlishly is another. Understood you’ve set out to create a humanoid that plays out to the gallery, but should it speak like an angry fifteen year old every time it’s rubbed the wrong way?

And last but not the least, Rajni. He’s one of those rare actors you watch and instantly realise that it’s almost impossible to hate him. Seeing him look like a kati roll wrapped in aluminium foil or a transsexual DJ in a shady Thailand pub is deeply unsettling.We’re witnessing the evening of his career. But what hurts is the grace without which it is happening. His version 2.0 also like Shankar’s has been a pale shadow of his once illustrious self. The signature sonic gait has slowed considerably. The baritone that had given content for a generation’s T-shirt graffiti is shaky. Age seems to have had the better of him, finally. And it doesn’t help that the directors off late seem hell bent on tainting the halo. Barring Sivaji, Rajnism seems to have got lost in translation in the last decade or so. Be it Chandramukhi where Jothika overshadowed him, the VFX addled Endhiran, the forgettable Lingaa, the unnecessarily over serious socio-political hotchpoch that Kabali was or the angry anti-Hindutva blog that Kaala‘s script was, the spotlight seems to have shifted. He isn’t the guy who does the heavy lifting anymore. It’s either another character, a concept or the director’s ideology which hogs the centre stage, with him being a cog in its service. Not a bad thing at all, for an uninitiated movie buff maybe. But ask the three generations of fans, who’ve been raised in stories that were there in Rajni films and not Rajni there in stories, they would strongly disagree.

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Roast of Kaala

We’ve often seen visual metaphors employed in great movies as a narrative device, to drive home a thought or reflect a state of mind through images alone- like a dried up pond to depict lack of prosperity or an insect caught in a spider web when a character’s caught in a convoluted mess. Then we have the not so subtle ones like a dog seated under a table standing in for an underdog. Kaala falls under this category. Rajni’s Kaala is constantly seen in a black sabari malai costume. He’s constantly sporting a pair of shades and even drives a black jeep while talking things like “Uzhaippin vanam karuppu“(Colour of labour is black). This excess doesn’t stop here, but goes on to become a character defining tool throughout the running time. All white skinned folks that show up onscreen— men, mongrels and idlis —are bad, vulgar, close minded and racist; while the dark skinned ones are hard working good Samaritans, extremely broad minded and liberal. And most importantly, apostles of dravidianism.

The movie feels like those drowsy post lunch history periods in school. In fact it opens with one such anthropological AV, which resembles those state govt sponsored documentaries  that played in single screens to get electrical subsidies.

To the movie’s credit it constantly keeps trying to reinvent the wheel, but often than not keeps finding itself in the “unintentionally funny” territory. Take this for instance, a bunch of nondescript dudes show up to rap jack-shit, every time someone’s murdered graphically. We’re shown a suspended corpse of a young bloke, moments later to only see this motley bunch, agony rap below the very post he’s hung from. Leave the fact that this neither turns out cool nor novel, but the very idea feels very wrong and inappropriate, like the thought of Kamal preceding over a Ganapathi Homam.

Another thing that got me curious was the love track between Rajni and Huma Qureshi. What’s it with Ranjith and the recurring motif of estranged elder couples. If Kabali focused on a separated husband and wife, who later unite to the tune of Mayanadhi, this one pedals the unrequited romance in Kaala’s life. Every time they cross paths— or for that matter even their neighbors or their dried clothes or pets — the Kannama track solicitously cues us to soak in the poetry of their epic tragedy, even if we’re just interested in checking our phones. This track feels like those complimentary welcome drinks that accompany a buffet, to only spoil the appetite.

Fascinating things happen through the course of movie(not in a nice way), that your head keeps oscillating from “what the fuck” to “yaaawwwnnn”. Agreed Dharavi is a microcosm of India, but here every character that pops out on the screen sounds like they’ve stepped out from different Mani Ratnam movies from different eras with weird ethnic accents.
Another such gem is that Hari dada apparently kills Kaala’s dad in front of his eyes in his wedding and still both of them go through an extremely polite meet and greet when they meet decades later. Not often do you see such big hearted compassion in a mainstream feature centred around a thug, who not just forgives, but offers a welcome drink to his father’s killer.

I’m all for looking at ancient folklore through the prism of today’s socio political ecosystem. This is a beautiful way to dust the cob webs, while keeping the core embalmed in relevance. Thalapathy did this. So did Rajneeti. While the protagonists were demigods and demons in their spirits, they came in the skins of flawed mortals. This made for a fascinating marriage between myth and mainstream. Storytelling was the sole focus behind these unions. These interpretations were removed of malice or mischief of any kind. Objectivity was the only scaffolding that held them together. They never were a artifice to drum out personal agenda or a pet prejudice. That’s what was the most hurtful part about Kaala. The Rama-Ravana play that goes with absolute prejudice. Dandakaranya Nagar, regular shots of Rama idol with dramatic musical cues from Conjuring movies. And the self referencing of Rajini as a one headed Ravana. The list goes on.It could’ve been an angry blog or a drunken stupor, but the fact that this was made as a mainstream theatrical greenlit by the mascot of “spiritual politics” has to be the among the biggest ironies of the decade.

The dravidian agenda gets doled out myopically, subverting the Ramayana from being good vs evil or even righteous husband vs his wife’s abductor to North vs South, Class vs Crass and white vs black, like the myth was only about these things leaving it like an orange sucked of all its pulp, to only be called bitter. A progressive Ravana as opposed to a chauvinistic Rama who expects women to touch his feet. The statement against centuries of patriarchy is an absolute necessity, but not in this fashion; not as a gun that pulls another bullet at the heart of the ideological another Hindu god. And the parallel narration of Ramayana in the climax as the Ravana personifying  Kaala, gets decimated head by head reeks of perversion and deep rooted hatred.

Okay, let’s leave aside the problematic sub texts and the reams of political incorrectness, does it at least work as a simple minded Rajni movie? No. The power play between him and the villain is lopsided, but not in the way we’re used to in a Rajini film. Every time he opposes Hari Dada, he gets pummeled down with greater force. He throws ego tantrums, the villain obliterates his family members like rag dolls. He warns the villain, the villain acknowledges with a bomb that reduces his dear hamlet to ashes and charred survivors. He takes the battle to the streets, the villain kills him over a early morning prayer without moving a finger. The moral victory they were going for in the end, comes almost as an ambiguous after thought.
Remember that iconic scene from Padayappa, where he pulls a swing from the ceiling. Now imagine the same scene had that swing fallen on Rajni’s head instead or had one of his sidekicks done it for him. Kaala essentially turns out as either this movie or that.

 

 

 

 

 

The idiot before the box

Feet pointing ceiling wards, I’m tucked in a warm corner of a sofa in my hotel room in Bangalore. Warmth caused from my absolute deposition in similar position without a limb movement since the past one hour. So there’s this Kannada film-Kirik Party that I wanted to check out and as a result of which been in moot with my body; protesting its inertness and it, my audacity to get off the ass. However, with a little assistance from the balmy weather outside, the body wins and I’m left to turn to an old habit for solace-swapping channels.

The television comes alive the image of Rajini in a graceful bell bottom trouser. He’s slapping around his sister, who’s apparently lied to him about her romantic life, that he had come to know about. The scene’s reeking of chauvinism, but the man’s grace more than covers it up. His hair isn’t the messy pigeon nest it came to be a few years later with the superstar moniker, it’s parted from the side gracefully. Arulirunthu Aruvathu Varai is a movie for all seasons. It continues to remain so.

Probably one among either the movie or Rajini cause a sandwich craving.The hand meddles with the Swiggy app and moments later there’s a club sandwich that is room bound from a joint few kilometres apart. The mood changes. So does the channel.

Shahrukh is a bloody heap, yet he’s pummeling an army of blazer clad henchmen with conspicuous looking punks, that almost descend on their collars like hibernating rodents . All of them despite being the “bad” entourage, are thorough gentlemen. They patiently wait for their turns to get at our hero, ensuring he at no point does he have beyond one person to sink his fists into. And our hero gamingly hams along, with an eternal chin quiver. Baazigar is one of those delightful masala movies, where the hero’s moving in slow motion in a scene that is already shot in slow motion. An 8 metre rusted iron rod gets planted into his solar plexus, yet after a brief pause he manages to not only kill the villain with it; but limp a few miles to die on his widowed mother’s chiffon; leaving her with a corpse and a stained sari. The woman’s old, dependent, mentally unstable and now orphaned. But who cares about all that.All that matters is,she’s been avenged by her serial killer deceased son. “THE END” the screen screams before our mind begins to ponder further.

The sandwich makes its appearance and craving settles. Mood changes. So does the channel.

Aamir Khan’s deconstructing the definition of “book” to a painful detail to get back at a professor. He’s supposed to be a geek, but he plays it with the gawkiness of an alien that belonged in PK, nevertheless endearingly. Rancho is one of the most celebrated character of this generation and not without a reason. Watch him spiritedly explain the anecdote behind how the “Aal izz well” phase came into vogue, you know the stuff cult classics are made of.

I’ve watched 3 Idiots a million times like anyone else. So the channel changes before I begin to get sucked in once again.

A septuagenarian is frolicking with a certain sense of authority and a wig, heavier than it; with a girl younger than his molar tooth. The gentleman in point being Rajkumar, who’s apparently got his regime for diabetes mixed up with the choreographer’s vision, to come with something that looks like a form of non verbal exorcism.
I felt violated by the shenanigans. Thankfully most of the sandwich had made it past the digestive system. At least I had the luxury of changing the channel, my heart went out to the poor girl onscreen who was subjected to child abuse.

I get up to make myself a nice drink. Hmmm..the pleasure of solitude, fermented liquid on rocks and the company of a box with infinite entertainment.Channel changes.

Bhai’s bed bound, reeling from some pain. Something we’ve not seen in any of his several court appearances. What’s moved the mountain…rather who?
It’s not the blurry image of the deceased from Bandra pavement nor the blackbuck. It’s his muse, a lanky Anushka who’s apparently confronting the man about their skirmish from sometime back. He’s in tears. She’s gotten to him. It’s a beautiful scene from Sultan where he breaks down before his estranged wife in the most vulnerable point in life. The pain that separated them once, gets them back together.

Too mushy for a Bhai movie. Drink’s hit bottom. The limbs have become pleasantly lethargic. Eyes are in search of sleep. Mood changes. Channel changes.

“If the homo sapiens were in fact homo sapiens…is that why they’re extinct?”
“Joey, homo sapiens are people!”
“Hey, I’m not judging!”
I cracked up like I did the first time. Joey’s dumbness is addictive. To me, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, writers of Friends are demigods, much bigger in stature than Tolkiens and Rowling. While LOTR and Harry Potter had to resort to magic and an alternate world set in fantasy to capture the imagination of their subscribers, Friends mined its epicness from commonplace. There’s no gibberish, no scale and no convoluted subplots and backstories. Just a bunch of friends who live their lives with us. Or atleast made us feel that way. None of them are path-breaking actors by any standards. But tell you what, they needn’t be. Because we don’t know them, as much as the characters they’ve dissolved into before our eyes. So Ross doesn’t behave like Michael Schwimmer. Maybe Schwimmer is a lot like Ross.
That’s the thing about Friends, it gives you a sense that life would be great with every iteration. The dark corner in the bedroom wasn’t eerie anymore. No one was looking back at me from there. It was just my over imaginative head. I needed to rest, a early morning train awaits. The TV needed to as well.

Power off.

A night well spent.
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Kabali- A “what-went-wrong” deconstruction

Now that Kabali is out in the theatres and the fracas around it has settled down, people have started talking beyond the gargantuan hype surrounding the movie; and the feeling seems to largely be mixed- bordering from bafflement to disappointment. And a handful of the die-hard fans of Rajni seem to crying out foul, at the not-so-flattering air inundating the movie.
A marketing blitzkrieg carved out of planes plastered with Rajni’s face and silver coins forged with his impressions, can only go as far as kindling the curiosity of the hoi polloi, to check out the movie over its opening weekend. What transpires in the dark of the theatre, as the movie starts to interact with its audience is far removed from the hype held in the painted plane; that handheld them into the theatre in a frantic spell. The final taste that the chocolate leaves in the mouth is completely independent of the celebrity in the advertisement and the expensive foil wrapping it.

Honest marketing campaigns as they come, achieve the middle ground between preserving the true core of a product, while attempting to augment its reach. When the product rolls out, they manage to create a positive synergy to firm up its equity. This is probably where Kabali seems to have slipped.

Marketing is not an elaborate artifice, but a propaganda with a fiduciary angle to ensure an honest positioning of an underlying product. Hollywood employs this to great effect. Take for instance the case of Robert Downey Jr, easily the biggest star of this generation. The marketing campaign for a simple little movie starring him called, The Judge was diametrically different from the scale and tone of his Avengers movie. It was positioned as an emotional- court drama with a personal conflict at its heart. When it released the audience  didn’t feel deceived, as it catered to the niche it was made for who exactly knew what to expect from it. Imagine their plight had they gone in expecting an Ironman kind of a movie, to only find a vulnerable Downey Jr( sans his Tony Stark quirks) reconcile with a grumpy father in the backdrop of a lackadaisical small town.
Coming back to Kabali, going by the two teasers that went viral  to the numerous promotional initiatives creating the endless halo around the movie, one thing was clear. They were loudly reiterating the movie to be a quintessential Rajni fare with celebratory accoutrement on the lines of a Basha or a Annamalai. There was not an inkling about it being otherwise, as the color and scope fashioning the imagination of the prospective ticket buyer were far removed from an experimental movie that was not run of the mill.

About the countless memes doing rounds about feeling let down by Rajni not playing his larger than life self, that firmed his stratospheric stature. We go to a circus that touts the jumping through the flaming hoops by its exotic tiger as its flagship act. Suddenly the tiger wants to juggle like the monkey, much to the crowd’s bafflement. The attempt as noble as it is, wouldn’t sugarcoat the collective disappointment of the audience that had paid to watch the tiger’s deft defiance through the rings of danger.

Evaluation of a movie from the standpoint of the income and expenses of its producer isn’t an organic assessment of the taste it leaves, lingering in the minds of the audience as they step out of the theatre. For movie making is an art form that thrives beyond the jurisdiction of commerce, the flourish of which doesn’t depend on the coffer of the investors alone.
Kabali to me is an overpriced cola without its fizz, the fizz people were conned into paying for in hordes. I would anytime suggest a helping of Annamalai over the trivia of a painted plane carrying wealthy people masquerading as Thalaivar fans to an uninitiated person; to understand the aura of the phenomenon called Rajinikanth.

Kabali and Uttama Villain- the similarities that we overlooked

Cinema at a surface level is an ostensibly exciting medium that promises to manipulate your imagination for the price of a ticket and the duration of the movie. While most movies leave our minds as we peel away from the seats once the lights come on, few remain to intrigue. Sometimes some of such attempts are made of the fabric that wove another special attempt. Some might be surreptitious spin-offs with gratuitous level alterations to appear unique, while some might be loud-announced inspirations at the outset.

Dissimilar looking things with a little more deconstruction might turn out chalk and chalk, while things appearing identical at the surface level might actually be chalk and cheese beyond the initial deception.

Last week saw the release of the Rajinikanth starrer Kabali amidst much fanfare. But it was surprisingly not a typical Rajini escapist fare, which instead resulted in a lot of debates and observations of subtexts and symbolisms that were overlooked; something that usually happens after the release of every Kamal movie.In introspection, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Kabali and Kamal Haasan’s Uttama Villain that released last year. This piece is my attempt at deconstructing the similarities between both the films.

The Imprisonment-Metaphor and Literal

If Kamal’s Manoranjan was imprisoned in his fame, Rajini’s Kabali is in a facility. Uttama Villain starts with a star who is trapped in a prison of his popularity, too comfortable to notice the mediocre that it has turned him into. Kabali opens with an elderly gangster who has been framed into imprisonment for 25 years now, who in the evening of his life doesn’t have anything to look forward to, beyond the walls of the prison.
It takes the knowledge of a life ending cancer to shake up Manoranjan out of his self imposed imprisonment, while it takes a joint motion of compassion by a bunch of Malaysian diplomats to end Kabali’s term.

The Surprise daughter and the Foster father

In UV, a doctor walks into the life of the protagonist to shine light on a blind spot from a plaintive chapter of his life, an unrequited romance. Mano gets to know about his biological daughter through him, a love child he had hoped to have in the past. With the knowledge of his imminent death comes another surprise of as much gravitas, a relation to yearn for with the little time left.
Kabali sets on a manhunt to take down the men behind the murder of his beloved wife, who was pregnant.  As he narrows in on another suspected scumbag running a brothel to take down, neither does he expect him to be a foster parent;  leave alone to his own daughter,  who he had assumed to have perished along with his pregnant wife years ago. Moments later in a crossfire, the revelation of his life stands personified in his daughter spraying bullets all over the room to save his ass.

The Artifice-Theyyam and Meta movie & Gangster plot and Malaysian Tamil rhetoric

Knowing that his days are numbered,Manoranjan wants to make a memorable movie, that would embalm him in the minds of the people long after his time. He chooses to make an existentialist comedy of errors about an “immortal” theyyam artist who manages to prevail over death, ironical to his reality.
Kabali takes it upon himself to be the voice and at times, fist of the marginalised tamil demography of Malaysia. He swears to bring down the empire of his ideological opponents in a gang that goes by the name of “43”(in dragon font), while running a rehabilitation facility for tamil people in the front end.
UV had a solid core in the self discovery of its dying protagonist and how he unites with his estranged family, that was diluted by the parallel narrative involving the meta movie that was neither funny nor poignant enough to be taken seriously.
Likewise Kabali too has a wonderful premise in the emotional journey of an old gangster who brings back his scattered family together, the impact of which was watered down by the montages of Tamil revolution and the excessive caste rhetorics that neither caused a stir nor organically gelled with the narrative.

The Reunion, Redemption and Departure

By the time UV draws to its end, Manoranjan manages to win his estranged daughter’s love, reconcile with his indifferent family and most importantly finds peace within, at the sight of all his close ones coming together in one warm embrace. He eventually dies , but only after redeeming himself with the completion of his last movie, that he leaves behind to last forever.
Close on the heels of his union with his daughter, Kabali wakes up to another pleasant shock about his wife being alive in India. Soon, all the three unite in one teary-eyed occasion, that wells up their eyes with relief, than joy. Fate continues to be a solicitous hope changer in his life with every incongruous surprise it hurls at him.
He comes back to Malaysia, to single handedly annihilate his arch nemesis-the 43 gang, to only be confronted by irony, in the form of a bullet that left the pistol of an unassuming youngster from his own camp.

When Uttama Villain released last year, it dichotomised the audience by the bipolar reception it met with- into ones who swore by its mastery in their elaborate deconstruction articles to be a timeless classic with a myriad metaphors beneath or simply trashed it to be a preposterous movie that failed to hold their attention. The movie finally ended up as a failure at the box office.
Encore of the same seems to be happening with Kabali, with the movie turning to be  fodder for a lot of debate; atypical of the  vanilla euphoria around a Rajni starrer. For now, we’ll  have to wait and watch as to where it lands from here.