Well, here’s another Shankar movie that I am all torn about. Shankar is just not my director.
Shankar is a collection of Pros and Cons for me. For Pros:
- Hires a talented variety of actors
- Inspires original performances in those actors
- Is ambitious and imaginative in the concepts of his films
- Often works with AR Rahman
- His characters tend to be woefully superficial, especially in their relationships to each other
- Female modesty and unquestioning faithfulness is valorized
- Morals of the plot are often illogical and simplistic
- Films only work if you consciously stop thinking about them in any way.
It’s the last Con that is hardest for me. A film you can’t think about and still enjoy is different from a stupid film. Happy New Year is a stupid film, but I can watch it and recognize and discuss and consider all it’s stupidities, I can open my eyes to everything that is wrong with it, and I can still enjoy it. A Shankar film is different, it has a high concept running through it and if you question even one moment, pull on one plot thread, suddenly the whole thing falls apart. The high concept falls down and you are left with nothing. The flaw is that it is too well made, in a way, there is no one piece that can be separated out from the whole, meaning one flaw becomes all flaws and the film itself is worthless.
If I look at Boys and question “Why are they so upset in this scene, why can’t they just date for a while without being married?”, suddenly that calls into question the whole idea of the film, every single part of it is based on this desperate urgency to fall in love forever and ever as teenagers. If I look at Jeans and question “why can’t they just tell their father the truth and deal with it?” then the whole plot falls apart. And if I look at this film and ask “what does it matter what people look like?”, then it all falls apart.
The question is, always, did Shankar mean for it to fall apart? This film and Boys come closest to making me think that yes, he did. Because the conflict resolves by the main characters deciding to just not care about it. It still doesn’t work for me, because I was questioning the conflict all along and wondering why the characters were so slow to get there. But at least I feel like the director understood what he was making, understood that he was showing flaws in his underlying argument all along and he was in control of it.
But then there are other things that make me think no, he didn’t understand what he was showing. It’s an accident, a coincidence, and ultimately the film IS supporting a flawed philosophy. For instance, in Indian there were moments when Kamal 2 seemed to be in the right, the film seemed to be agreeing with him and he was doing good things. But then in the end, Kamal 1 is shown to be always right in every way and therefore Kamal 2 is a fool. So, is Shankar purposefully trying to make the audience question, trying to make them leave the theater debating between Kamals 1 and 2? Or is he just so out of control of his script, so blind, that he didn’t see what he had created?
(Is Kamal 2 supposed to be so strong here in order to challenge Kamal 1’s dominance? Or is it an accident?)
Or maybe it is the collaborators? Rahman here, along with choreographers Bosco-Ceasar, create a ridiculous ode to consumerism with Amy Jackson’s introduction, that calls into question the whole way beauty is sold as a commodity. But was that coming from Shankar, or was that something that just sort of sprang up from the artists he worked with?
Shankar, based on the handful of films I have seen, has an interesting relationship to his collaberators. Rahman pretty much goes off and does his own thing, creating these amazing songs that are only tangentially related to the rest of the film (“Poovukal” and Jeans? Why?). His heroines tend to be pretty faces, usually dubbed. But his heroes are interesting, allowed to make the roles distinctly their own. I suspect Shankar is somewhat loose in how he directs his actors, based on how different the hero roles are depending on who is playing them.
(Lovely amazing spectacular song, really has nothing much to do with the rest of the film)
In this case, Vikram does an amazing job creating a rough distinctive difficult sensitive angry human kind of a hero. Too human for the plot almost, I can’t quite make his outsize torment and joy and anger and pride and glee match with the story that is being told. Am I supposed to be sympathizing with him all the time, or is he supposed to disgust me? I am not sure!
Amy Jackson is fine, but I was impressed enough to dig up who did her dubbing. I don’t even speak Telugu, but I could still tell that the dubbing artist was phenomenal. I’ve seen Amy in Hindi films where she isn’t dubbed, and she has a pleasant onscreen feel but is generally terrible. In this, it was like a whole other performance, I actually looked forward to her coming onscreen, and a large part of that was due to the dialogue. Really, almost all of it. Raveena Ravi is the dubbing artist and she had her first onscreen role in Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu and now I kind of want to track down that film just for her performance. And I am finally excited about 2.0 because she is dubbing for Amy Jackson again.
All of this, the performances and songs and everything, just keep running up against the hard to grasp central concept. Which means before I go any further, I have to get into SPOILERS.
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I’m gonna tell the plot frontwards first, just so we all have it in our heads, and then dig into the backwards way the film shows it. Vikram, our hero, is a body builder with a crush on Amy Jackson, a top model. He is hired to be background in one of her ads and faints when he first sees her, he is so excited. Meanwhile, Amy is struggling because Upen Patel, her common ad campaign partner, keeps hitting on her. She turns him down once and for all and he refuses to work with her again. To salvage her next campaign, she has to find a replacement and picks Vikram. Vikram loves her enough to give up his chance at the Mr. India competition in order to shoot the ad, and to trust her judgement when she has make-up artist Ojas Rajani make him over so he will look like a model instead of a low class body builder. The ad campaign goes poorly at first because Vikram won’t relax, but then Amy pretends to be in love with him and he relaxes. She feels guilty after he learns the truth, but he forgives her and it makes her fall in love with him. The return from the shoot in love, and their ad is an immediate hit. Their lives are perfect. But they have enemies, the wealthy businessman whose drink Vikram refused to endorse after there were rumors it was adulterated. Ojas Rajani, who fell in love with Vikram and was turned down by him. Upen Patel, whose career has fallen as Vikram’s rose. M. Kamaraj, Vikram’s old body building rival. And finally, Suresh Gopi. Amy’s guardian/honorary uncle who has been in love with her since she was a little girl (creepy!) and subtley scaring off all over men. They work together to attack and kidnap Vikram, and shoot him with a virus that makes his hair and teeth fall out, bumps appear under his skin, and a hunch grow on his back. Suresh Gopi, as the family doctor, lies to Vikram that he has an incurible genetic condition and will die. Vikram fakes his own death, and Suresh takes the opportunity to convince grief stricken Amy that the best thing would be for her to marry him.
But meanwhile, Vikram has learned the truth after his friend takes him to another doctor who tells him he merely has a virus and is not dying. Vikram determines to save Amy, and also get revenge on those who hurt him. He confronts them directly and they laugh at him and beat up his now weak body. So instead, he crafts elaborate revenge plots with the help of his old friend Santhanam. He sets M. Kamaraj on fire, turning his body into total scar tissue. He hides hair growth formulas in Ojas’ cosmetics, causing hair to grow thickly all over her body. He fights Upen Patel and ends up electrocuting him and cutting off his arm. And finally he confronts and infects Suresh Gopi with the same virus, the “I” virus. At the same time, he has kidnapped Amy from her wedding and chained her up in his remote hide out. She eventually tricks him and has him at her mercy, but then learns his real identity. She declares that she still loves him, is just happy he is alive and doesn’t care about anything else. After his revenge is completed, he and Amy retreat to the country home they were building, and through natural remedies, she eventually brings him back to something closer to normal health and appearance.
It’s such an odd mixture of things I really love and things I really hate! I really love that Amy confronts Vikram’s middle-class distaste for Ojas as a transsexual and tells him to just see her as a woman. And I love that the film treats her as a legitimate object of Amy’s jealousy during the shoot in China, when Vikram is trying to forget Amy’s betrayal by being kind to Ojas. But I really really hate that Vikram rejects Ojas advances by threatening to put a boot through her face. And I really really hate that Ojas turns evil.
And I really really really hate that the revenge is to force hair to grow all over her body. Speaking as a woman, a woman by birth, body hair is a thing that happens. And which all women struggle with. To turn it into something disgusting, monster-like, is a bit of a disturbing statement on the female standard of perfect beauty that all should maintain or else we become so horrifying that we deserve to be locked away.
Unless, are these statements on purpose? Is the film saying not that Ojas is disgusting when her body hair is out of control, but that Ojas has twisted priorities in thinking this matters? That possible meaning is there. The songs all revolve around ad campaigns, showing how Amy herself is sold as a commodity, beauty and sex and love have all been turned into something shallow that you can buy, given a higher priority than “real” things. Is Vikram punishing his enemies by ruining their bodies in order to show that bodies don’t really matter, to fight back against this commercialization?
But if that is the case, then Vikram does not actually have any justification for his vengeance. The virus he was given makes him hideous, but does not seem to cause him any pain, and is not deadly. If appearance does not matter, if he is trying to teach his enemies that, then why is he even angry with them? Shouldn’t he have accepted that about himself?
And then there is the other possibility, that the film is blindly accepting appearance above all. Vikram falls in love with Amy because she is beautiful, his life’s goal that he nobly gives up for her sake is to have a perfect body. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to do the music release for the film which means you are really serious about promoting body building, and that tone carries through to the film itself. Vikram and Amy, as two beautiful people selling products to make you beautiful as well, are set up as having the perfect happy life that is then destroyed. Heck, Vikram, a model, is the last bastion of decency in the world, refusing to promote the toxic soft drink after business and government both fail to protect the public.
(There’s also this song, in which Amy is literally objectified. Is there a greater meaning here? There doesn’t seem to be, the film moves forward without addressing it)
There is a narrative concept of beautiful appearance being a short hand for being good inside. Cinderella and the ugly stepsisters, Snow White is the fairest of them all, and so on and so on. Vikram falls in love with Amy’s appearance because he senses it reflects her pure soul. Once he meets her in person, he is kind and respectful to her, wants to get to know her for real, not just enjoy her body, or even just gaze at her adoringly. And once Vikram is made over to be beautiful too, then Amy can love him back, can see the good on the inside thanks to the beauty on the outside. Beautiful people are good people. Ugly/less beautiful people, Upen Patel who is a less good male model and M. Kamaraj who was a less good body builder, and Ojas and Ramkumar Ganesan who are made physically abhorrent even in the pre-attack states.
(But then you have the constant hilarious song send ups of ad campaigns. So maybe it is making a conscious statement? It’s just so confusing!)
This is never a great message, that being pretty means being good and being ugly means you are bad. But in a Shankar film in particular it is unpleasant because Shankar heroes tend to be…..smug? Is that the right word? So sure they are correct and seeing proof of their correctness everywhere. And it encourages the audience to have a similar attitude, to go out in the world in complete surety of the lesson the film is teaching. Transsexuals are evil and disgusting. It’s normal to desire beautiful women you haven’t even met yet, they will inevitably reward your devotion by returning it. And most of all, if you feel slighted, you should go to any lengths to exact revenge, vengeance is noble and joyful and good, even if it means burning a man alive, it is a good thing and we should laugh at our enemies. Not hate them, that would be healthier, but laugh at them and delight in their pain. I don’t like this, and it is something I have seen and not liked in most Shankar films. At least the action variety, the advantage of the Shankar romances is that there isn’t necessarily an enemy to defeat.
Oh, and there’s also the Beauty and the Beast romance problem. The original story of Beauty and the Beast was written to encourage women to learn to love the one they’re with. Even if he disgusts you, even if he appears to be a beast, find something to love. It’s encouraging Stockholm syndrome. And more dangerously, it’s encouraging men that if they kidnap the woman they love and terrify her, eventually she will give in and learn to love them.
(What a lovely healthy poster image! Such a great lesson for boys!)
This isn’t the first time Vikram has played this scene. No, I still haven’t seen Sethu, but I have seen the remake Tere Naam. So I know that the plot involves kidnapping the heroine and expressing his pain until she feels it and is won over against her will and better judgement. And so in this movie, we have the post-transformation Vikram kidnapping Amy Jackson and keeping her in a dank dark cave in chains. There is no plot reason for this, he could have just as easily kept her in a nice hotel room in comfy handcuffs. No, it is only here because the director fell in love with the “romance” of the image of a girl in a cave in chains and the man who disgusts who but has her in his power. Which, frankly, is not a romantic image for me!!!!!
(This is also why I love the original King Kong. Kong loves Fae Wray and is heartbroken and so on and so forth. But the film never tries to make the heroine feel responsible for this, or like she should like him just because he loves her. She’s scared, she wants someone else, and she isn’t going to feel different)
There’s twist that makes it “all right”. First that Amy manages to escape and turn the tables on Vikram, holding him at her mercy. And then that of course she is fine with everything once she knows who he really is, that she retroactively gives permission for the whole kidnapping and chaining thing. But on the other hand, there is still the romanticized image of the beautiful woman chained up and forced to be with the horrible beast.
And there’s other romanticized images. We are told, explicitly in the dialogue, that Suresh Gopi has been in love with Amy since she was 10. But the flashback we see of that is the grown Amy Jackson in a school girl uniform. Sexualizing a 10 year old girl in a real ugly way, and making Suresh’s desires “understandable” in way they wouldn’t be if it was an actual 10 year old playing that scene. We see Amy falling for Vikram when she observes him rejecting Ojas and threatening violence against her, romanticizing the sort of unquestioned heterosexuality that will react with instinctive violence when threatened by non-purely hero feelings. All of these images are there, no matter what the rest of the plot says, and they are presented lovingly and beautifully, it is a truly beautiful movie, which means that millions of young man will leave this film and dream of capturing their own beautiful woman, of molesting their own ten year old little girl, of killing their own transsexual.
But on the other hand, the songs are really good! And the performances are ridiculous and fun and over the top, and the fight scenes are great, there is a lot of pure excess to enjoy here. And no judgement on anyone who enjoys it. I will just sit over here in my corner and continue to puzzle over the mystery that is Shankar’s shallow-deep films.