I finally saw Robot! I think it might be one of those movies that you miss out too much if you don’t watch it at the exact right moment. Watching it now, just a few years later, the special effects seem dated, the song sequences not so great, and even Rajni Sir’s performance is not as good as it could be. Remember, I am coming off of seeing him in Kabali, where he not only played his age, he played a layered real complicated version of himself. I mean, this performance is great, the best part of the movie for sure, but I kept thinking “why are you doing this when I know you could do so much better?”
I have a complicated relationship with Shankar. Jeans was the second Tamil film I saw (after Kandukonden Kandukonden). And I found it very sweet. Boys has maybe my 5th favorite Rahman soundtrack (Rang De Basanti, Bombay, Saathiya/Alai Payuthay, OK Kanmani, Boys). But Indian brought up a lot of distaste in me. This film I don’t like or hate (except for one part of it that I will get into in the SPOILERS), I am more just puzzled by it. What was it that made it such a hit?
I think what bothers me about Shankar is the immaturity of the characters. Or, alternatively, doesn’t bother me, depending on the script. In Boys, the immaturity was the point. It’s right there in the title, this is about “boys”. They have a foolish idea of relationships, of life, of everything else. And I thought Shankar was really smart in how he showed that, how our hero fell in love at first sight for no real reason, how our heroine indicated her interest by fighting with him and laughing at him, before finally giving in, also for no real reason. But then I watched Indian, and this movie, and he seems to have a similar superficial idea of relationships in these films, where we are supposed to respect the characters as noble heroes, mature people, grown ups. Watching this film in particular, with both Rajnikanth and Aishwarya being middle-aged actors (middle aged meaning over 35), and playing characters who are supposed to be middle-aged or only slightly younger (again, meaning over 35), the way they interacted with each other, it felt like watching a college professor suddenly switch to talking in baby talk. It worked really well for the parts where the Robot was interacting with the world, because like the characters in Boys, he was supposed to be somewhat immature. But not when our real regular lead characters were acting the same way.
Relationships and characters are always my favorite part of movies, it is what interests me most. But I can enjoy other parts of films as well, I love Singham partly for the strong female character, but mostly for the action scenes. Same with Dabangg. In this film, the relationship stuff takes up slightly more screen time than it would normally in an action movie. But the moments when it is not onscreen have their own flaws. Not related to the script, just the CGI. I like all the ideas, they were all really smart. But having missed it in theaters, and watching it after years of rapid CGI advances, the special effects just don’t excite me.
That’s not entirely the fault of technical advances. There is also the intelligence of how special effects are used. King Kong, for instance, the first one, is still exciting to watch. Because it wasn’t about the technical advances, it was about the ambition of the story. And I suspect Bahubali 1 and 2 will be the same, it’s not about if the CGI looks jumpy, or unfinished in a few half seconds, it’s about the pure imagination of it.
And now my imaginary Robot/Enthiran fan is saying “yes, but didn’t you see the imagination of the sequences in this film! Who would have thought of thousands of Rajnikanth’s onscreen together? Or building them together to make one massive weapon? Or the earlier touches, the eyes projecting answers onto the page of a test?” And this is where you get into personal taste. To me, those scenes felt like going with the first idea that occurred to him, instead of working harder and finding something that would resonate with the characters, would have a deeper meaning beyond pure spectacle. To compare it with Bahubali, all the animals in that film are CGI. But there is a reason that the introduction animal for Rana’s character is a massive bull, versus an elephant for Prabhas’ character. He didn’t just say “big CGI animal to look impressive and make the audience gasp”, he said “big CGI animal here, but now I have to spend two months figuring out exactly the right kind of animal to use so that it isn’t just spectacle for spectacle.”
Again, tell me if I am wrong! I have a deep faith that popular films are popular for a reason, that the mass of the audience does have a reason for their choices. Sometimes I disagree with that reason, but I always want to try to find it. And honestly, in this film, I’m just not seeing it! Rajnikanth is wonderful, Rahman is wonderful, the CGI is amazing, but all of that together, to me, does not add up to record smashing box office. Just to really really good box office. So, what am I missing?
(I know there’s got to be more reasons it was popular than just the songs)
Here, I’ll write out the whole film as I saw it, and you can tell me what deeper level I am not seeing.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We start with a terrible work life balance. Rajnikanth is in his lab, ignoring phone calls from Aish while he works on his robot. He finally manages to make the romance start to work, and then goes to meet Aish who is ready to break their relationship, until he plays a game of “if I have to return everything, then you will have to take back all the kisses I have given you”, and she kisses him.
Here’s my problem. Both in the lab and in the romance, everything just feels so childish. Not childlike, like in Eega, where it is a simple idea simply presented. But actually childish, annoying, immature. I don’t like that his struggles in the lab are shown by a robot humorously falling apart, and I don’t like that his romance is resolved just by tricking Aish into kissing him. And it doesn’t feel like this is a game they are both in on, it feels like he is actually tricking her! A grown woman! So stupid that she falls for this argument, and so weak that merely sharing a kiss with the man she had made a reasoned decision to leave will convince her to stay. I don’t necessarily have a solution or a better way for either of these two scenes. I just know that they felt too over the top for me.
(Although the love song afterwards is lovely)
Everything feels too over the top. Rajnikanth takes his robot to meet with the government and they “test” it by asking it a series of questions, like this is some kind of entrance exam. Rajnikanth has to teach the robot to understand humanity, and the robot finally does after assisting in a birth. And most of all, Aishwarya has to study for an exam, so Rajnikanth lends her the robot!!!!
I guess it’s the probably of too big and too small at the same time. We are told that this robot has near infinite powers. Oh, and also he can help you cheat on an exam. In Ra.One, our robot was primarily controlled by a little boy. Same is true in ET, The Iron Giant, the Netflix series Stranger Things, plenty of other films with a similar plot. It allows for these kinds of fun shenanigans, where the audience is kind of in on the joke, that this silly kid doesn’t even consider the near infinite power of their new friend, because they are just a kid. But in this case, they aren’t children! Rajnikanth, more than anyone else, should understand the power he controls in his robot. But he still treats the robot as his own small helper.
Maybe it’s the short-sightedness that bothers me? In multiple ways. I don’t like that our hero and heroine use the robot for their own selfish ends without seeming to feel any awareness that this is a selfish use of power. And I don’t like it that, in the second half, the robot is destroyed because he declares affection for Aishwarya. His destruction is shortsighted in two ways, both as an amazing scientific advance, and as an overreaction to an expression of affection towards “his” girl.
Oh, and I almost forgot the biggest example of shortsightedness! The Robot rushes into a burning building to save a young woman who is in the bath. She is naked, he brings her outside, so of course she runs into traffic and kills herself. And the Robot is blamed for this??????? To my mind, considering her momentary embarrassment of appearing without clothes is the shortsighted view, saving her life is the bigger goal. And this gets into all kinds of questions about a woman’s body being seen as a public possession, rather than hers alone. If it is her body, than it does not matter if it is seen or not, it is still hers. No one can take that away from her.
I said in my Indian post that I have a real hard time with the way it handles the scene of female freedom fighters being stripped, and then all committing mass suicide. This is the same thing, but worse. The last one had an implied message that it is “good” to kill yourself rather than live with dishonor. But it was only implied. This film makes it explicit, says that the Robot did wrong by saving her life, he should have let her die. And more than that, it is Rajnikanth’s right to make that decision on her behalf. What if, for instance, I am a woman in a place with no female doctor? Should I die rather than have a male examination? And should someone else have the right to make that decision for me?
Most of all what bothers me is that this is not a theoretical situation being shown here. The rest of the film, sure, I’m not going to dig too seriously into all the many many many gender issues with Aishwarya’s character, because it is clearly just a movie and her character is not meant to be “real”. In 2002, at a school in Mecca, 15 young girls died because the police did not let them leave and rescue workers were not allowed in, because the girls were not dressed “modestly” enough. There is a difference in degrees between the situation in this film and that one, but it is only a difference in degrees, the argument and situation are the same. And in both cases, the answer apparently is “let her die rather than affront our sense of modesty. And we, the male public, get to make that decision on her behalf.”
That scene is part of general issues when the movie tries to dig into the meaning of humanity and science and so on. The essential ideas of the script in those ways are interesting, a robot who does not follow Asimov’s 3 laws because he was made for war. But therefore must learn a higher level of consciousness, similar to a human, in order to make decisions for himself. But the presentation just does not work for me, the insights into humanity are too superficial, and the scenes where we see the robot’s powers aren’t interesting enough. Well, except for the scene when he has an argument with a mosquito, that I loved! That is the kind of just plain clever use of CGI that I was talking about. And it also works as a kind of meta statement on the whole first half, there are all kinds of sayings about using an axe to kill a bug kind of thing. And that’s what they are doing, using this massively powerful robot to do all these silly little things. But mostly I found the first half not quite deep enough to justify the ideas it is trying to present.
The second half, when deeper ideas are thrown out the window entirely, that was a lot more fun! But also a lot more CGI-full. And started off with the idea that just because the robot declares his affection for Aishwarya, suddenly Rajnikanth hates him. Is it such a sin to love the woman he loves? Is Aishwarya his possession? Is desiring her somehow an attack on Rajnikanth, or indeed anything to do with Rajnikanth? NO! Okay, that part I don’t like.
But I love it when the plot just gets insanely over the top and the evil Robot kidnaps Aishwarya, builds his own robot army and robot palace, and generally loses his mind. I don’t like it that they came up with a pseudo-science way for the robot to rape Aishwarya, because that just seemed needlessly titillating, like the audience would somehow get off (either in righteous anger or in slightly ashamed arousal) at the thought of rape. Similar to how, in both this and Indian, the idea of a naked woman was treated as both something to be righteously angry about, and also to go “he-he-he-he-he, naked ladies!” Okay, that part bugs me. But building a Robot army and then having them all join together to become enormous guns or drills or whatever else, that is cool!
And the very ending, that is cool too. I read some complaints somewhere that the Robot turns “good” out of nowhere. But it is the same ending as Khalnayak and dozens of other films. In their own way, the Robot and Rajnikanth are brothers, the good brother and the bad brother. And as is often the case, we end with a court trial where the bad brother feels responsible for the problems of the good brother and has a last minute change of heart. And we end with a slight sorrow at the fate of the “bad” brother, who has to be sacrificed so the “good” brother can live. After all of the CGI and futuristic science in this film, we return in the end to a traditional Indian film court scene.