Sunday, June 15, 2008

DASAVATHARAM: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Kamal Haasan, Asin
Director: K.S. Ravikumar
Runtime: 180 min. (citation needed)
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Sci-fi

Dasavtharam opens with a sequence that is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It is spectacular alright, but there’s a level of devotional fervor, a level of raw uninhibited emotion, a level of larger than life mysticism that is seldom experienced in prologues. Rangaraja Nambi, one of the ten parts Haasan plays, is a twelfth century Vaishnava and his God has been challenged by the local Chola king who wants Lord Shiva to rule over the land. The Vishnu idol is pulled out of the temple but not before Nambi making thorough mincemeat of the king’s men. And when he decides not to renounce his God, the king orders to sink the idol and the devotee, both chained together.
You would think that this is going to be a watershed film in the history of Indian cinema, especially after such an explosion of an opening, like something you might have never seen before. Unfortunately it isn’t, and rather than march along like an epic, it scoots like a mish-mash of an action-chase film with doses of romance and comedy, all the while registering nothing more than a whimper. Mind you, it has a burst of a thousand ideas. Rather, the film seems to have been made to cater to these ideas and concepts and beliefs so much so that it is overflowing with them. Haasan, the writer here, and Ravikumar, the director opt for an uneasy blend - a cerebral, thought-provoking story crossed with a mindless, comic self-parody. It is as if the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, as if it acknowledges the fact that this is all in the end just a movie. I do not agree with that style one wee bit, considering the subject at hand.
The plot I believe has been a closely guarded secret for a long time, and I wouldn’t be the one to reveal it here. Only that it concerns a vial carrying a dangerous virus, which if unleashed might kill millions, and the chaos theory. You know, the one which theorizes that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in one corner of the world can lead to a hurricane thousands of miles away in another part, if, the tiny turbulence due to the fluttering causes a critical combination of air pressure changes. (Source: http://www.answers.com/). And yes, there’re ten Haasan’s in the film in what feels like a spot the Haasan contest, alluding to the ten avatars of Vishnu.
And that is what disappointed me. It is a nice entertainer, but when you summon Vishnu and his avatars, a mythological concept that has such immense weight – from the wrath of the Narsimha, to the rage-filled Parashurama, to the wily Krishna – I believe you owe it to explore it. The ten Haasans is actually just a novel interesting idea, and for much of the part it has nothing much to do with the ten avatars. You might as well have ten different actors play the part and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Any similarities are purely coincidental, or maybe seem as an act of welcome accident. Like the way Nambi might be viewed as an allusion to Kurma, the tortoise that appeared to provide a base at the Ocean churning. I’ve been visiting sites and I have learnt that the ten versions on paper were supposed to be – a Brahmin, a Dwarf, a Scientist, a Fighter, a Black Man, a Tourist Guide, an Old Woman, a Robber, a Young Lady, and an Emperor. Now this looks more like a rendition of the ten avatars, and most of these aren’t present in the final film.
What depressed me beyond that disappointment though was the way the ten versions have been handled. They aren’t ten larger-than-life figures but pawns of fate, or maybe of God, and that was indeed the intention. Here the story feels weak and artificial. It has been constructed around the ten characters with a deliberate attempt to cram all of them somehow even if their inclusion makes no difference. As if, the writer first thought of the character, and then made the detour from the story to include him in the action too. In a way, you know, it works out quite well as far as the theme is concerned, that everything happens for a reason.
The characters themselves though, aren’t anything to write home about. Except for the central version, the scientist Govind Ramasaamy, everyone else is just an excuse to show off the versatility of the man. And the abilities of the make-up crew, which is patchy at best. The other versions seem like masks with overgrown faces, they look horrendous. But curiously when I stared at some of them for a considerable length of time to find out what’s wrong, whenever the film allowed me of course, I could find no reason. All the parts are bang on, it is just the sum total makes them look like one of them clowns who are going to tag along with The Joker in the year’s biggest film The Dark Knight. I don’t know, was it intentional, and maybe it was because the film has an overall comic tone, some of the time ridiculing itself, and this was just another of those gimmicks.
Another saddening feature is the over-reliance on special effects. The film looks rich and splendid whenever it doesn’t use them, like in the monastery which is such a simple and beautiful set. Especially the song Mukunda. I loved the simplicity of the song. The trouble arises when the F/X come in, and they make their presence felt most of the time. Scrubby is what they are, and the film seems to decay into a haze every time. Especially when two versions share the same frame. I would love to learn what the complication was, and it has to be something much more than the standard trick that involves the shooting of double roles. But why on earth do chase sequences in Indian films rely on effects, rather than innovative use of camera angles and editing techniques. Any notions that they cost heavy ought to be put to rest – watch the economy with they were shot in Mad Max. Simple magic of angles. And it is way better than anything any of those Matrix films could muster, for it feels real. I learn, and I need confirmation on this, that the opening sequence cost somewhere to the tune of Rs. 3 Crores. The whole Chola temple set was built, and how I wish they used the rest of the Rs. 162 Crores in the same way.
Do not wonder about the performances. It has Haasan here. Asin’s part of the bargain is to scream like a simpleton and I’m not sure I would have tolerated that character had it been any other actress. Her greatest asset, apart from being a good actress, is her natural ability to batter that initial resistance we have for any character when we’re only observing and analyzing the behavior.
I might have given off an impression that this is a bad film. It certainly isn’t one, and it is perfectly decent entertainer. It experiments, and it takes a few risks and I would want to clap for that alone. But there’s a resident feeling inside me that says the film isn’t ambitious enough. What it could have been was an epic mythological conflict. What it could have been was India’s very own superhero-team, like Watchmen. What it could have been was a passionate argument on God. What it could have been was the exploration of a man’s life, our lives, and how it is all a cumulative entity of the versions we change into every moment. What it could have been was one of the greatest films in our history, a film to which I could have said I loved it. But I didn’t, though I liked it. For viewers who do not understand Tamil, the film does offer subtitles. The dialogues are wonderful, more than wonderful, and they are often hilarious. And as in the opening sequence, where it is needed, they’re epic in scope too. The Hindi version comes two weeks later, and I would advise you not to wait for it, for the magic in those voices can never be replaced. And I would suggest watching how a film that I believe started of as a grand venture turned out just to be an entertainer.

You know what I wish, there’s a separate version somewhere out there which I’ve missed. Honest. You know why? Because the version in the image I supply to you below doesn’t exist in the film. Neither does a Negro, which I hope you’ll be kind enough to image-search through Google.