Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Subcontinent Singularity

Let's get this out of the way first, Enthiran: The Robot is not Bollywood. This is a Tamil-language movie with Tamil stars. So I'll be using the term Bollywood to refer to the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, and Indian cinema for the shared culture of Bollywood and Tamil film.

Also, if you're planning on seeing Enthiran: The Robot on the big screen (which is really the only way to see it), it's still playing in American theaters. A matinee here in Austin will cost you $18, but I assure you it is worth every last penny (last week there was a dubbed Hindi version which only cost $12, but you want to hear it in the original Tamil, don't you?). Considering that Robot is three hours long, think of it as getting two thrilling sci-fi movies for the price of one.

Historically, Indian cinema has not had good luck with sci-fi. There have been a number of notable flops, big-budget productions that hoped to jumpstart the genre, but either went over the heads of the audience, or failed to make a connection. I'm thinking in particular of Taarzan the Wonder Car

and the movie which was the best excuse for a floating robotic dance platform in history, the highly underrated Love Story 2050

But Koi... Mil Gaya and it's sequel, Krrish, did well, which proved that it wasn't impossible to make commercially successful Indian sci-fi.

Perhaps the lesson that Enthiran: The Robot took from those movies is you have to include a super hero power fantasy. The first half of Robot is nothing but the robot displaying ridiculous go-go gadget style powers. He beats up bullies, saves people from burning buildings, talks to mosquitoes (really), and in general acts like a robotic E.T.

That is until the second half of this three-hour movie, when the robot undergoes a character inversion that won't surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity with Indian classical literature. The previously cute robot shows how its super powers are actually the basis for the most terrifying vision of the singularity in recent memory.

The musical sequences of Robot take full advantage of the science fiction premise. We get electro-bhangra beats with vocoder Tamil rap. The dance sequences feature the flashiest of futuristic metallic headgear. Except notably the Kilimanjaro song, which is inexplicably filmed on location in Machu Picchu, with backup dancers wearing the sorts of traditional costumes the Incas would have worn if their entire empire was contained within the Vegas Strip.

Super Star Rajni (AKA Rajinikanth) carries this film with his cool, playing both the robot and its creator (your classic Indian cinema dual role). Super Star Rajni's success is based on a particular grinning strut, a Rick Perry coif (a wig apparently), and some of the best karate in Indian cinema. He is one of those Asian actors who has the reputation of being the biggest star you never heard of. We've seen the pattern with Hong Kong actors, where a star like Jackie Chan or Chow Yun-Fat builds a career over decades, but never successfully ports to the English-language market.

If you miss this Tamil version of the future, you still have the chance to catch Super Star Rajni's CGI animated vehicle, Sultan the Warrior. Coming soon to an international cinema near you.

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