The Birdman cometh
Released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, it is reportedly releasing on 10,500 screens worldwide, beating Baahubali 2's 9,000 screen record
South Indian cinema is regularly raising the bar for Indian cinema, leaving Bollywood in the dust. We had barely got over the spectacular Baahubali and Baahubali 2 from Telugu cinema, now we have the jaw-dropping Tamil spectacle, Shankar Shanmugham's 2.0, shot entirely in 3D, said to be India's most expensive film at a budget of over Rs 500 crore. Aiming to be an all-India film, it unites Tamil superstar Rajinikanth and music composer AR Rahman with Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. It is produced by Lyca Productions, headed by Allirajah Subaskaran, a British tycoon of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, in association with Karan Johar's Dharma Productions, and AA Films. And it draws technical talent from across the world. Released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, it is reportedly releasing on 10,500 screens worldwide, beating Baahubali 2's 9,000 screen record.
Bollywood is, by comparison, a predominantly hermetic world unto itself — produced, directed and acted by talent within its own bubble and some talent from elsewhere in India. What I love about big South Indian cinema is that it is often not concerned with merely Bollywood — it is happy to co-opt it, sure. But its ambitions are way beyond the Hindi belt — Shankar initially approached Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the villain; the special effects team includes Legacy Effects (Avatar, The Avengers); the action team includes Kenny Bates (Transformers, Mission Impossible); and Mary Vogt is special costume designer (Batman Returns, Crazy Rich Asians). Take that, Bollywallahs.
A sci-fi fantasy, 2.0 takes off from where Shankar's Enthiran (Robot) of 2010 left off. In Enthiran, after scientist Dr Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) invested his lookalike-robot Chitti with feelings, the latter also fell in love with Dr Vaseegaran's girlfriend (Aishwarya Rai). In 2.0, Dr Vaseegaran's humanoid assistant is Nila (Amy Jackson), and he resurrects the robot Chitti 2.0 to fight the villain. All those special effects wrap up an environmental message about saving sparrows and other birds, and therefore ourselves. The villain is the ubiquitous cell phone, that we can't live without, but which is destroying bird life, as well as harming humans, due to excessive radiation. Ornithologist Pakshirajan (Akshay Kumar), who fails to persuade politicians to control their use, goes rogue and becomes a — gasp! — giant vulture made of everyone's cell phones. The film pulls off remarkable special effects throughout with finesse, and especially in the climax, when the two giants, Chitti 2.0 and Pakshirajan, slug it out, much larger than the stadium they fight in.
Even as it dazzles and entertains, 2.0 never feels fully convincing as a story. The screenplay is flawed: Dr Vaseegaran is a good guy fighting the bad guy. But the bad guy is saving sparrows, and us, from too much cell phone radiation. Surely that's a good guy? Of course, he turns rogue when nobody listens to him, but his character, and our loyalties, remain conflicted. Also, American film juggernauts are SFX vehicles with heroes that generically 'save the world.' Here, the VFX fantasy is based on a realistic premise that we are actively engaged with, and the two approaches in the same film make it wobble a bit. We are not very emotionally invested in the film, even when Kumar, everyone's favourite message-carrier pigeon these days, plays a jholawala who lays white flowers on the graves of dead sparrows. Aargh!
But Rajinikanth shows he still has what it takes, with multiple avatars, including Chitti and Mini-me versions, while Kumar does a good job, despite the poor characterisation, especially with the remarkable make-up, costumes and SFX. Sadly, Nila, despite being invested with artificial intelligence, is little more than a Barbie doll in a spacesuit. Nirav Shah's cinematography is versatile and must have been demanding; and Muthuraj's production design is strong. The film is too long at 2 hours, 28 minutes: we could have done with less technical mumbo-jumbo and more emotional investment in the characters. Enthiran had also raised philosophical questions about what it means to be human, and was loads of fun, too. Nevertheless, for its sheer vision and world-class technical achievements, there is no question that 2.0 is a landmark in Indian cinema. Go see it.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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