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August 24 2019
'2.0': The robot redux
24 November 2018

'2.0' is a sequel to the mind-numbing 'Enthiran'. It comes eight years after the original

The Tamil word unfailingly employed for film director Shanmugam Shankar is brammandam — a word that conveys his cosmic cinematic ambitions and the galactic budgetary demands it involves. Like the $75 million or thereabouts and the three years it took to produce his 2.0,making it the most expensive Indian film ever. A whopping third of the film’s monies have gone towards computer generated visual effects. Others might break that record, but you can safely bet on Shankar reclaiming it with Brian Laraesque nonchalance.

In fact, in the context of Tamil cinema, a strong case can be made for Shankar as the Bradman of box office vasool. No director, or even stars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ajith or Vijay, come close to his commercial success strike rate. Of the 11 films he’s directed to date (not counting 2.0), the revenues have matched his ambition for the spectacular. Even I, the 2015 Vikram-starrer, perhaps his weakest box office taking, raked in a reported $31 million, generating 100% returns. Shankar is the closest you can get to box office multi-bagger. Or even celluloid sovereign guarantee.

 

It’s a staggering achievement for a man with no family antecedents in the film industry, and with storytelling skills so ordinary.

What is even more remarkable is that while Shankar, 55, might be all about brammandam or cosmic, the cosmos of his themes is rather finite. It’s the battle against corruption. And sci-fi. After each crusading anti-corruption film (Gentleman, Indian, Mudhalvan, Anniyan, Sivaji) comes a run-of-the-mill love story (Kaadhalan, Jeans, Boys). Shankar expertly uses this sine-wave of subjects like alternate current to give his directorial brand more power and reach.

Poster face

In 2012, when I watched the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption protests peak at Ramlila Maidan with film stars such as Aamir Khan endorsing it, I wondered why Shankar hadn’t been co-opted, if not made one of the movement’s poster faces. From those protests was born the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). At the height of the party’s internal leadership squabbles a couple of years after its formation, which required arbitration by eminent and independent anti-corruption figureheads, I wondered even more why Shankar wasn’t the apex arbiter of rightness.

After all, every bit of the social, moral, financial and political cleansing that the party sought to effect had been proposed and disposed in Shankar films. In Mudhalvan, a public-minded news TV cameraman whose only ambition was to join BBC and CNN, gets a crack at being the highest executive of a state because he accidentally asks tough questions of a sitting chief minister. Arjun Sarja asMudhalvan changes the entire system of governance and public service delivery in a single day. And with time to spare to woo a woman. Whereas in real-life Delhi, the anti-corruption champion sings a sore-throated number with only muffler and cough syrup to keep him going.

Everyman superheroes

Shankar is the original radical ideologue; all these new anti-graft politicians are mere copycats. The mohalla committees and the gathering of vox populithrough SMS seem a watered-down version of the virtuous and murderous justice dispensed by Indian or Anniyan. And Shankar’s Everyman superheroes deliver justice through methods steeped in Indian tradition and iconography. No guillotines for us, thank you.

The septuagenarian Senapathy (Kamal Haasan), a soldier in Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army, uses only his twisted index and middle fingers (think a deadly form of acupuncture of Siddha origins) to kill the corrupt. He doesn’t even spare his son who wishes to get ahead through means illegal.

Anniyan’s (Vikram) modus operandi is a bit different. He is younger and built like a bull. And when he is overcome by his evil split personality, he doesn’t need training in martial arts or other forms of oriental self-defence techniques. Anniyan delivers punishment in accordance with the Vaishnavite epic Garuda Purana. Or at least so we are told by Shankar.

Through his dozen films, it’s discernible that Shankar is a big fan of the idea of ‘social’ surprise. Two of his films — Gentleman (his debut) and Anniyan — deal with Brahmin militarism.

Gentleman’s Kiccha, the outwardly docile Brahmin (not by birth) home-made snacks manufacturer operating out of an agraharam or Brahmin ghetto around a temple, fights for equity in education. The morally ramrod-straight but dud Iyengar lawyer Ambi morphs into the violent Anniyan at night, although he somehow forgives his Iyengar love interest and ends up marrying her, despite her breaking the law on several occasions.

Concept first

The troughs on the Shankar sine-wave are marked by ‘love stories’. Why Kaadhalan after GentlemanJeans after IndianBoys after Mudhalvan? Is it because the Tamil audience loves a ‘concept’ more than most? It’s an interesting term. Without a concept, nothing sells in Tamil Nadu: dance reality shoes to movies to television adverts for edible oils to white veshtis, everything is built around a ‘concept’.

Thus, for instance, foreign locales may have been regular stomping ground for Tamil cinema since the days of MGR, but Shankar makes travel the ‘concept’ of his films. In one Tamil film song (Jeans), he showed audiences the eight wonders of the world and Aishwarya Rai (the 50 kg Taj Mahal). Shankar showed us the ‘concept’ of unhackable (even by expert mimicry exponents) voice-based data security systems; he told us how to conduct online hawala transactions (Sivaji); he told us how machines can develop sentience (Enthiran).

Literature and cinema

A sizeable part of Shankar’s marketing revolves around the fact that he forms the most effective bridge between Tamil literature and cinema. That’s a ‘concept’. Gentleman’s dialogues were written by Balakumaran, a provocative Tamil novelist not counted as a literary figure by serious littérateurs. Boys(2003) was co-written by ‘Sujatha’ Rangarajan. While Rangarajan is no newcomer to scriptwriting and is by any measure a formidable figure in avant garde Tamil literature, I decided to stop engaging with his works after Boys. He was, to my mind, defiling his literary credentials while burnishing Shankar’s as a filmmaker.

Sci-fi Enthiran, too, was based on Rangarajan’s works. It has the most bloodcurdlingly idiotic scenes ever shot by an Indian director. In it, Rajinikanth as Chitti, the robot body-double of his human creator, develops romantic feelings towards Aishwarya Rai. He breaks into Rai’s room in the middle of the night and asks for a kiss. Rai fobs him off saying she will do it if he finds the mosquito that bit her. Chitti uses all his robotic powers and artificial intelligence to suss out that very mosquito (who is identified as Ranguski by fellow mosquitoes — a nod to Rangarajan and to neurologist Joseph Babinski, we are guessing), and gets it to apologise to her.

2.0 is a sequel to this same, mind-numbing Enthiran. It comes eight years after the original.

The film’s tagline, going by the teaser, already watched some 45 million times on YouTube is this: ‘World is not only for humans.’ It’s a bit too late now, but hope springs eternal, etc. So one can only hope that when the film releases the coming Thursday, we will find that Shankar’s cosmos has now expanded to include also those who enjoy a good story, told well.

The Bengaluru-based writer, translator, classical music addict and fountain pen freak makes the world’s best rasam.

 

 

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