Rajni


To be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t go in expecting to like Enthiran very much. Somehow, the idea of Shankar making a SciFi movie with Rajni didn’t set my pulse racing the way it might for a whole bunch of other people.

Then I saw the robot that the scientist (Rajni) created in his image and likeness. And the first words it spoke were “Hello, world!”

Can’t be a self-respecting CompSci geek and not give the film a whole lot of brownie points after a line like that, can I? (Enough brownie points to forgive the fact that neural seems to have been misspelt as nueral at one point. Then again, the fact that they actually brought neural networks into the whole thing buys some credit all by itself.)

It actually got better as it went on, believe it or not. Rajni was in absolutely top form as the robot, using a deadpan expression and voice to great effect. Rajni as the scientist had more of a straight role, but the character wasn’t entirely devoid of nuance.

Apart from the mostly lighthearted episodes detailing a robot adapting to the world around it (an absolutely hilarious conversation with a traffic cop is among the highlights), there is also a more serious plotline that discusses some interesting issues. If a robot is designed to be capable of harming human beings (so that it can be employed in wartime, for instance), then who is to say who it might harm? And if one wishes to imbue it with consciousness and morality and feelings, who is to say that it will continue to do your bidding?

Aside: The biblical references in the plot are so obvious, they might as well have called the robot Adam instead of Chitti. Not to mention the fact that a courtroom sequence seems to have been shot in a church.

So anyway, the film is going swimmingly well and I am having the time of my life watching it, when Shankar apparently decides that the film lacks punch and decides to make it into an action movie. I see where he’s coming from — it’s a Rajni Movie with untold millions riding on it — but surely there could’ve been a more economical and character-driven way of doing it? It is in the third act, when the film decides to become an action extravaganza, that everything goes horribly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong — Rajni as a villain is very effective. He does the badass stuff with such relish that it’s a whole lot of fun to watch. But the action sequences themselves are so implausible that they make us stop caring. By the time a score of policemen open fire on a car at close range without hitting anyone, the film has well and truly gone off the rails. You have no idea how frustrating it was to watch this sort of crap, especially given how much good stuff had come before.

I guess what it boils down to is this. When the story focused on the characters, it was compelling. When it became about an army of humans fighting against an army of robots, it became, well, mechanical. The machine lost, in more ways than one.

ps: In the shameless self-promotion category: one reason why I enjoyed the movie so much was that it reminded me of two of my own blog posts. You can read them here and here.

 

I am sure there are a lot of Padaiyappa fans out there. Ditto for  Chandramukhi, Kuselan and Sivaji. I even know someone who claims to like Baba — for reasons too numerous to mention, I am disinclined to hold it against him, though. But as far as I am concerned, the last great Rajni movie that came out was Baasha.

There are numerous reasons for this, the most important of which is that it carries very little additional baggage. Sivaji had a romantic subplot that pretty much epitomized silliness. Padaiyappa was just too long, almost like someone stole a megaserial script from Radhika’s vault, gave the main character a penis and amped up the star power. Kuselan came close, but sometimes felt like a nice little story jostling for space with Rajni’s stardom. Chandramukhi faced a similar problem — it took a nice little supporting role and gave it more than its due simply because of who was playing it.

Baasha doesn’t do any of these things. It wants to be a great masala movie as much as it wants to be a star vehicle — as a result, although Rajni is present all over it, it doesn’t feel excessive. I think one big reason is the script. I cannot think of too many instances where a remake turned out to be infinitely better than the original simply by introducing a bit of nonlinearity in the storytelling.

For all its commercial success, Hum isn’t a particularly great movie. It starts well — the pervasive sense of fear about Bhaktavar (playing magnificiently by Danny Denzongpa) is well created, and when Tiger (AB) breaks the shackles, it is quite effective. But once he escapes and begins a new life, it all becomes very ho-hum. You know that his past will come back to haunt him, so all that is left is to see how and when. By adding a considerable bit of buffoonery involving two Kader Khans, the tension is brought down a couple more notches. By the time Bhaktavar came back, it was all I could do not to yawn.

Take Baasha on the other hand. Its central choice is very simple: Take the first act of Hum and push it down the order. Start with a man trying to lead a quiet life, with little hints that indicate that there might be more to him than it seems. The man you see is the typical do-gooder hero, but you are never allowed to take that for granted. For one thing, there are moments when he is about to lose his cool and his “other” identity seems to surface briefly, only to be quelled. There is also a moment when he reveals it to someone, but you don’t hear what is said, only the panicked reaction to it. Throughout the first half, the tension mounts. Just to ratchet it up even more, there is a sequence where he allows himself to be beaten up by a goon just to avoid a conflict.

All this might work well enough even with some other actor, but what really sells it is the fact that we know who Rajni is. Every time you see him controlling himself or going out of the way to avoid conflict, you’re not just wondering why the character would do this. You’re wondering why Rajni would do this. The movie takes his image as an invincible hero and asks him to rein it in, so that the audience is primed for the moment when he finally cuts loose.

This comes at around the midpoint of the movie, when the aforementioned goon goes too far and hurts his sister. This is, as far as movies of this ilk are concerned, The Unforgivable Sin. In what has since become a  tradition in action sequences involving a hero facing off against multiple goons, the first man unfortunate enough to make a move is hit so spectacularly hard that he doesn’t get up again.

I watched this movie in a little single-screen theatre in Chennai and when that blow landed, the entire audience erupted in cheers. The cheering didn’t die down until the fight sequence got over. And you know what, I could perfectly understand the feeling. Because I was whooping and hollering along with them.

ps: Shankar seems to have understood this strategy quite well. Throughout the first half of Sivaji, Rajni takes what is dished out to him. It is in the second half that he starts hitting back. Now, if he hadn’t made Rajni play such a lovesick twit in the first half, it would’ve worked sooo much better.

pps: Can you come up with instances where the remake turned out to be much better than the original? Might make for a good (if short) list.

ppps: And no, Hum Aapke Hain Koun doesn’t count, even if it made more money. I thought Nadiya Ke Paar was the better movie by far.


Disclaimer: I haven’t watched Katha Parayumbol. I plan to at the earliest available opportunity. However, I plan to evaluate Kuselan on its own terms.

Literally everyone I spoke to who had watched Kuselan told me the same thing: It’s not a Rajni movie. Most of their voices were laced with a tinge of disappointment. Apparently, the box office agrees with that assessment. While it is entirely possible that ticket sales will pick up over time, the fate of the movie, I hear, is not so promising thus far.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want it to be a Rajni movie.

Now, I enjoy Rajni’s brand of entertainment — insofar as I am treated to an undiluted product, such as with Baasha. And I can see why Rajni would be the perfect choice for this story of a poor barber and his childhood friend who became a  superstar. Given the sort of adulation the man enjoys among the masses in Tamil Nadu, you pretty much couldn’t have cast anyone else in the role. But the way I see it, the only way this movie could possibly have worked is if Rajni’s involvement had been kept a secret until the release date.That way, one might have been able to minimize the Rajni Movie expectations, and also make a movie whose center of gravity isn’t skewed by his presence.

Which is a pity, because Kuselan is a fairly good movie about the barber, stuck inside a half-hearted attempt to be a movie about the superstar as well. The former is about how the barber’s already impoverished life changes, and not quite for the better, when it becomes known throughout the village that he is a childhood friend of the superstar who is filming a movie nearby. Just about everyone around him wants a favour (meeting the man, getting him to attend a school function, making a movie with him), and is willing to trade favours for it. The barber himself is loath to accept or dole out favours.

His fear is that the star may not recognize him, or even if he did, might think that he is there asking for a favour. Without really being in-your-face about it, Pasupathy portrays the barber Balu as a self-effacing yet strongly principled man who is suddenly faced with a dilemma not of his own making. The scenes that detail this conflict are interestingly done — they concentrate so much on other people’s perception of the friendship (and what it can do for them), that you never really get a sense of how well the barber knew the star. There is also the usual quota of skeptics who believe that the barber is trying to hitch his wagon to an infinitely more famous one. And as the hangers-on begin to find that Balu is not going to be able to do anything for them, they turn against him.

That the superstar would finally recognize his old friend was a no-brainer. But I was surprised by how much it moved me. I attribute it to two things: Pasupathy and my grandfather.

The former is easy to explain. Over the years, Pasupathy has grown into a fantastic character actor. I loved him in Virumaandi, despaired when he was reduced to playing generic villains shotung Aaeeii at heroes every five minutes, relieved when he did movies like Majaa (otherwise unremarkable) and Veyil (much better choice)… Kuselan represents probably his best work to date. The movie is painted in broad strokes, and the material feels overwritten and overplayed for the most part. But there is never a moment when he isn’t believable. His performance elevates the movie.

As for the latter, it was my grandfather who told me the story of Kuselan when I was a kid. He used to draw it out in loving detail, and although I knew how it ended, it delighted me every time. Maybe Arundhati Roy was right: the secret to the great stories is that there are no secrets.

I have not spoken of the superstar so far. He is named Ashok Kumar in the movie, but it is obvious that Rajni is playing himself, or at least the version of himself that people want to see. There are all kinds of self-referential quips and inside jokes. (My favourite is a scene featuring a photograph of Rajni from his debut movie, while the title track from Aboorva Raagangal plays in the background. At that point in the movie, the words shruti bhedam come to mind automatically.) There is even a sort of interview where he responds to a lot of questions that people have about him — his visits to the Himalayas, his veiled statements about his political aspirations…

The good thing is, his performance itself comes across as relaxed and refreshing. You see a man at ease with both his stardom and his humanity. There is a moment right at the end when Balu tells him that he felt, in some way, inferior because of his obvious lack of success. The way he responds to that statement surprised me — it was unexpected, yet absolutely perfect.

What derails the movie a little bit is all the baggage that comes with him being in the movie. There are a few song sequences that have no place in the narrative. That they feature a gorgeous-looking Nayantara is something of a bonus. But much of that material could have been trimmed and the movie would have been all the better for it.

However, while these things made me want to go at the celluloid with a pair of scissors, on the whole, I quite liked the movie. The trick, I guess, is to read the title carefully. Look for Kuselan and you will find enough to like.

In some ways, this was a movie just waiting to be made. Shankar is a director with a proven ability to create box office magic with movies involving middle-class supermen fighting corruption. Rajni is a star who has made a career out of playing such roles. The only question that remains is: do we get to see Rajni in a Shankar movie, or Shankar directing a Rajni movie? A little bit of both, thankfully.

Shankar is a director with an ability to think really big. His plots usually involve the sort of skulduggery you’d dream up after your third straight tequila, and believe to be plausible after the fifth. His technique is simple and time-worn: First, set up situations where the man on the street is victimized by greed and corruption at various levels – deserving students having to pay high capitation fees, doctors refusing to treat poor patients, politicos and government officials demanding bribes for everything and so on. Now, once you’ve gotten the audience baying for blood, have the hero blow up the logjam through some decidedly unconventional and swift methods. Usually, these methods involve some illegality – murder, robbery, blackmail and the like – but they are always directed at the established bad guys. What makes it work is the way he ratchets up the tone of the proceedings from the get-go. For Rajni, this sort of filmmaking is the perfect vehicle.

Aside: For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tamil cinema, Shankar is the man who made (either the original, or the remake as well) Nayak, Hindustani, The Gentleman and Aparichit. If you’ve seen any or all of these, you’ll know what I mean in the above paragraph.

However, such an endeavour is not without its risks. Shankar’s biggest weakness is a tendency to overdo things on occasion. Usually, this happens in the hero’s tragic flashback – someone close to him gets badly burned or electrocuted, and the apathy of the people around him is what lights his fire. Rajni’s weakness is a tendency to have his movies revolve entirely around him. Even while making something like Chandramukhi, he took the low-key Mohanlal role in the Malayalam original and added mucho baggage to it. Baggage of the sort his adoring fans have come to expect from every one of his outings. Maybe it’s his fault, maybe it’s the makers’. It doesn’t matter.

Both these aspects – the synergies and the double-flaws – are on full display in Sivaji. Clocking in at around three hours, the movie takes its time to tell a story of a rich man who becomes poor trying to do good, then rich again by beating the crooks at their game, then arrested, then out, then… you know the drill, I’m sure.

Much of it could have been told in less than two and a half hours, and some of it needn’t have been told at all. Large portions of the first half, especially the scenes dealing with Rajni wooing Shreya and her family, could have been done away with. It’s unfunny, loud, occasionally crude and mostly cringe-worthy. The most shocking part of it all is that one of Rajni’s best attributes – excellent comic timing – has deserted him here. What salvages it somewhat is a triumphant return to form by Vivek. He manages to lampoon just about everybody, including the man who has taken his place on the popularity charts in the last few years – Vadivelu.

The song sequences are about as hopeless as the music (A. R. Rehman having an off-day of mammoth proportions), and watching Rajni flap the odd limb at high speed in an effort to approximate dancing is painful at best. And don’t even get me started on the costume design.

The only scenes that work in the first half are the serious ones involving his fight to realize is dream of providing free education and medical care to the poor. In this he comes across a dangerous adversary, a corrupt kingmaker named Adiseshan. The biggest problem with Rajni movies in recent times has been finding a worthy foe with sufficient screen presence. What Shankar and Suman have accomplished here is fantastic: aided in large part by a low-key Rajni performance in the first half, Suman creates an Adiseshan who is as soft-spoken as he is menacing. By the time we reach the halfway point, he’s made us want to figure out how Rajni would destroy him.

The second half is where it all comes together. Rajni and Shankar both stop fooling around and get down to business, and the effect is electric. Pure masala, peppered with inside jokes that would have seasoned Tamil film goers in splits. And the coup de grace: a Rajni in the final scenes looking and acting like the old Rajni from Thai Veedu, Thanga Magan and Moondru Mugam. Fantastic stuff! There’s a dodgy little sequence involving an amalgam of medical science and biblical resurrection, but I’m inclined to forgive that in light of what follows.

On the whole, this is far less of a movie than it could have been, thanks to some disastrous choices in the first half, but delivers its share of vintage Rajni entertainment in the second half. Worth a dekko? Hell yeah! The Rajni you see in the last fifteen minutes alone is worth the price of admission.

ps: The title was inspired by a comment by my friend Gora. For the uninitiated, Kenai is a Tamil word that broadly translates to “imbecile”.

In the beginning, there was Rajnikanth the actor. He wasn’t the best actor anyone had ever seen, but he was quite okay. His biggest gift was an undeniable screen presence. The man had style to burn, and it shone through even when he had a bit of a paunch, a leather belt that could hide Adnan Sami no matter how you draped it, and dance moves that seemed inspired by epileptic robots.

Somewhere along the way, he figured out what his best attributes where, amped up the style, smoothed out a few rough edges, added comic timing to his arsenal and set out to conquer the world. He became Rajni the star. He managed to do it often enough and consistently well, and the public ate it all up. Hence Rajni the Super Star. Whatever happened after that was just momentum.

The bad news is, I’m not entirely sure he can stop it anymore. In order to ensure box office success, the man ends up having to do a whole bunch of stuff that his age and physique no longer permit him to do. The fight sequences in Sivaji alone should get the editor of the movie a national award. Watching him dance is an almost painful experience. It’s like he’s come full circle, except the robots no longer have epilepsy, they have arthritis.

When you think about it, not too long ago, one could write roughly the same story about Amitabh Bachchan. If this were the Matrix and AB was Neo, the Oracle might’ve told him at some point that he needed something, maybe death, to take him to the next level. And so it was, that Mrityudaata proved to be his Mrityudaata. A few more filmmakers nailed that particular coffin in movies like Lal Badshah.

And then the man resurrected himself, french beard and all, and became a bankable star again. So bankable, in fact, that scripts like Cheeni Kum and Nishabd and Ekalavya get written now because there’s someone like him to star in them. (I said star in them, mind you, not just act in them. AB is a damn good actor, no doubt. But so are Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor. Would these movies have gotten made with them?)

The bottomline is, Neo woke up from the dead and can now stop bullets in mid-air. So can AB. Rajni on the other hand is still dodging them. Action sequences to the contrary notwithstanding.

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