GOD OF ALL THINGS
By Joyojeet Pal
During the release of Sivaji in 2007, I dutifully showed up for the first day first show outside San Francisco. The tickets for the first show had been sold out within ten minutes of the day they were open for purchase. I gratefully made an underhand deal with the theatre owner for a folding chair in to be placed in front of the first row of seats for $20. At the theatre, I realized I wasn’t the only joker willing to do this, there was a long line flush with Veshtis and already screaming fans, on one side of the box office waiting for their portable chairs. Worse, I signed up my fiancée, who spoke no word of Tamil, and was clearly disconcerted by the ominous signs of what seemed likely to follow. Further, the film was late, with all of us waiting in line. The wait gave me no sense of disgust or irritation at the prospect of my likely neck-craning experience, rather increased the excitement of anticipation.
A black hummer limousine lined up alongside the theatre entrance rather unexpectedly, and a chill ran down my spine – perhaps Rajnikanth was making a surprise visit to the American film release. I had a choice now. I could stay in line gallantly with a woman already in doubt over whether this experience ought to dissuade her from marrying me. Alternately, I could make a dash for the limo. The choice was a no-brainer. In a flash, I was screaming for I was not sure what. The crowd moved to a frenzy as the door of the car opened, and a shiny black boot emerged. The cheering was deafening, as he stepped out and stood up. He was a somewhat overweight Tamil dude with a big moustache and a huge grin. I had a moment of panic, had Rajnikanth changed so much that I could not recognize him. Worse, had Rajnikanth taken to wearing a toupee in real life? My doubts were put to rest when the first coconut smashed to the ground sending shrapnel wounds ripping through a few lungis. The man slowly raised over his head shiny flat aluminum cans.
The film reels had arrived.
Out of nowhere, about ten more coconuts smashed to the ground, and one guy showed up with a watermelon with a fire on it, which also proceeded to find its demise at the reel carrier’s feet. As the reel made its way into the theatre, and I headed back to a red-faced companion, the cheering continued as flummoxed Californians driving past wondered why the typically staid software engineers with pleated pants and/or plaits had suddenly hit upon the hullabaloo. The limousine driver had meanwhile been ticketed by the police. Everyone in line was offered a small packet of prasad to enter. Inside, once people had settled into their portable chairs, everything was cheered for – from advertisements for a local Indian insurance company to the latest brand of Dosa batter.
The shouting builds rapidly as Rajnikanth started his shadowy appearances – some part of him, face covered, a silhouette, his back turned – anything but his face straight in the camera. At last, the camera stops at his face. This is the climax, the moment everyone has waited for – the “entry scene.” The cheering crescendos and to a riotous peak as the camera pauses on his face, and he salutes his fans. In Tamil Nadu, there would probably be a fan club member holding a knife to the throat of the projectionist to make sure it was paused as an Aarti (prayer ceremony) was conducted by a front bencher. There was one here too.
Now then, flash forward three years later, let me do an objective review of Enthiran. A Rajnikanth film in the first week is a full theatrical experience. For most Indians, Rajnikanth evokes one of two extreme reactions – one is a sense of comic exaggeration, forwarded jokes about his stunts, mimicry of his on-screen antics, and most importantly, a latent mockery of south Indian cinematic culture. For the other side, the man is a star beyond comparison – a versatile screen performer who has sustained his appeal through generations, always entertains and plays by a rule nearly ubiquitous to his brand of cinema -- no art for art’s sake here.
Enthiran plays to both audiences. If you’re from the school who wants to see Rajni, the man of the people save the world, yes, he will. And if you wanted to laugh at Rajni running faster than a train, well, here he will. The film opens with scientist Dr. Vasi (Rajni) en route to developing a robot to defend the country. Built on his own image, the robot Chitti has electromagnetic powers, superhuman strength, and the ability to memorize entire books in moments, but has no feelings. The robot is the greatest ever built, and its ‘neural schema’ is a guarded secret that Vasi’s colleague Dr Bohra (Danny) is trying to get his hands on.
Vasi’s girlfriend Sana (Aishwarya) uses Chitti as her guide during her medical examinations, and an apt bodyguard for the occasional slight by a street rowdy. For Vasi the challenge at hand is getting the government to approve Chitti for public use. Dr. Bohra places a range of obstacles in his way, the most important of which is giving Chitti ‘feelings’ and a sense of judgment. When Chitti is struck by a flash of lightning, the robot suddenly develops a personality, and gradually, feelings. Then, the plot thickens.
Enthiran is a first in many ways. Within the constraints of what one can do with the plot and characterizations of a Rajnikanth film, director Shankar does reasonably well. First up, the film has no “entry scene”, which is huge, considering that these are practically the starting point of the formula. Second, there is no real sidekick and comedy track, and Rajni hardly has any punch one-liners. Third, and most important, the film makes no overt attempt to fashion him as a son-of-the soil. A typical feature of likening the screen Rajni to the mass audience would be a song with lyrics oriented to the working classes such as "Devuda" in Chandramukhi, or a characterization as a man of the people, such as the coolie interregnum in Sivaji.
In Enthiran, the focus is on creating for a Tamil audience a fantasy extravaganza with a balanced diet of the familiar and unfamiliar. The scientist Vasi is indeed chased by Aishwarya Rai, but the bearded older man isn’t the typical Rajni-esque frame of masculinity. He at least once in the film, runs away from a potential fistfight. Even the thought would be blasphemous back in the day. Having both the scientist and the robot alter ego on screen also means there is greater range of options for the characterizations. On one hand, we have the Rajni who flies about shooting out of his fingers, but we also have a metrosexual who gets a manicure, the Rajni who can cook, paint mehendi for women, teach aerobics, put together a fashion show for older ladies. We have an asexual Rajni who makes a case for a relationship in claiming, “There is much more to a relationship than sex, aren’t there millions of impotent men in India who need to be in love?”
One standard plot dampener of the ‘mass film’ is engendered in the hero’s invincibility, guaranteeing that any conflict with any other character is certainly going to be one-sided. Here, Shankar cleverly uses the only nemesis that is a worthy match for the screen Rajnikant, Rajnikanth himself. In Sivaji, the ‘look’ of old Rajni with his moppish side-parting was a significant part of the packaging. In Enthiran, Rajnikanth the villain of '70s films is brought alive. The songs and the action sequences are critical parts of the spectacle, taking up practically half the running length of the film. The special effects for the action sequences are good, but undeniably tedious, especially as the film inches closer to the 3-hour mark, a standard for Shankar’s films.
Both the music and the visual composition of the song sequences are excellent. While the songs have been getting more and more imaginative with location (we are transported to Macchu Picchu in Peru for one of the songs) the general mood remains constant through lyrics such as “My untouched ripened fruit….I am the tree, You are my woodpecker”.
For films like Enthiran, nothing is an accident. Every line is precisely in place because the filmmakers were convinced of its acceptability to the audience. There are a few recidivist stereotypes, a disturbing one of which is a bathing woman who Rajni rescues from a fire, naked. The shame of public nudity (captured on cellphones by apparently thrilled bystanders) leads the woman to suicide.
Interestingly, the idea of technology as the exemplar of Tamil modernity is a standard theme throughout the film. Rajni’s computing connection took off with the talking laptop in Sivaji. Outside of the obvious computing theme related to the robot, with Rajni as the Artificial Intelligence researcher, the iPhone is quite proudly advertised a couple of times in the film. Even more fascinating is the DMK “Tamil integration” propaganda song that is slipped into the interval. Here, two of the most prominent images are of a woman as a computer engineer, and a screenshot of Google in Tamil.
Every film is a sensory experience, and creating a hierarchical division of where one film stands ahead of another as a legitimate cinema is vanity at best. For each viewer, the preferred sensory experience is different, the Saw series and an Adoor film can be equally or disturbingly stimulating, or unbearable to two different viewers – but both know roughly what to expect within that genre.
All this said, there is a short answer to whether you should watch Enthiran. With a Rajnikanth film, it is precisely clear what one can expect – a larger-than-life spectacle. If this is your cup of tea, and you know the running length will hit 3 hours, then you absolutely must. Enthiran is a good Rajnikanth film that I highly recommend for anyone who knows what that means. Rajnikanth is known to be fairly modest in his public life. At the release of Enthiran’s music, he made the by now viral self-effacing speech lauding Aishwarya Rai for her generosity in being willing to act opposite a decrepit old man.
In Enthiran, the robot makes an unusual analogy to the timelessness of Rajni’s own screen persona, when Chitti tells Sana, “He will get bald, old, and die. I will be young always.” Bald and rarely dressed in anything but a creased kurta, his real life face ironically antithetical, in an industry where even ageing character artistes rarely step out without wigs.
That is Rajnikanth: the man who can look like that in real life, and still pull off being Enthiran on screen.