SM on Viswaroopam
I was very excited about Viswaroopam when the first trailer came out, for two reasons. First, it’s a Kamal Haasan film, and I always look forward to those. Second, the trailer showed him dancing Kathak, so I was extra excited that I would get to see him doing classical dance again. I didn’t quite understand the explosions and stuff toward the end. In online discussions following the film’s ban in Tamil Nadu, there were mentions that the film was about global terrorism, and some mention of a terrorist bombing in Coimbatore. So I thought that, given the title, it would show some interconection of all these various terrorist events in India and how they connect to global terrorism.
But that’s not exactly what it is. For one thing, the entire film takes place in New York and Afghanistan, with not one scene in India. It does raise the question, why is an Indian film being made on this topic? The connection to India, via Kamal’s character, seemed forced to me.
However, before listing what all I disliked about the film, let me talk about what I liked. It was indeed the Kathak dance sequence with Kamal. It’s nice to know Kamal still has it in him to dance, but I was absolutely mesmerized by his facial expressions during the dance, the Abhinaya. Especially when he was enacting the role of Radha pining for Krishna, I was reminded of an Odissi performance I had once seen of Kelucharan Mohapatra, when he, too, was enacting Radha in a similar situation. The person who accompanied me said she was reminded of Birju Maharaj’s performance that she had seen once. Watching Kamal’s dance, it was obvious that he was completely living the character, and that’s why his expressions were so perfect. His character was that of a somewhat effete dance teacher, and the way Kamal carried that portrayal out, his body language, his dialog delivery, was delicious.
From here on, I can’t give any details without spoilers, so suffice it to say that the film is basically an action thriller. I can’t discuss the story without spoiling the suspense of the thriller parts. Various events ensue with some surprising twists, or at least twists that were intended to be surprising. Unfortunately I could see them coming a mile way, especially the lead up to the first fight.
So now I will skip to evaluating the film as a whole. I liked Dasavatharam a lot, mainly for its philosophical underpinnings, which I thought were what was really important to the story, and were more than enough to overcome some of the shortcomings in the production (primarily Kamal’s makeup and prosthetics in some sequences). With a name like Viswaroopam, I expected some similar philosophical insights or at least suggestions. There were none. There is nothing in this film besides what appears on the surface. There is no deeper meaning or context to the terrorism portrayed. This was a major source of disappointment to me.
I don’t even think it’s about “global terrorism”, but about the activities of one terrorist group or cell. The film doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the situation in Afghanistan over the last decade. Nor does it have any particular message besides “Terrorists do bad things.” Well, duh. It could be claimed that it is against terrorism, but is so only in an indirect fashion, and within a masala film format. That is to say, terrorists are the villains here, but only because a villain is needed. They could just as well be any other kind of criminals.
Aside from the lack of a layered approach, I was also surprised at the predictability of the screenplay. As I said, I could see every twist coming well ahead of time, which rather spoils the “thrill” aspect. The only advantage I derived from this foresight was that I could close my eyes whenever a gory or violent scene was coming up, since it was telegraphed so clearly. The film does have a lot of gory violence, but it is again without context. Obviously a film on terrorism will have to show violence, but I don’t know why the camera has to linger on particularly horrific images. The intent is not so much to illuminate a narrative point as to shock the viewer. It was completely gratuitous. I don’t know if this is a standard style of Tamil films.
It is a competent enough film, but one doesn’t (at least I don’t) see a Kamal film for mere competence. This film could have been made by anybody. There was no added value to having Kamal in the film, and similarly, the film adds nothing to Kamal’s resume. There is absolutely no need for him to do a film like this at this point. The ending, indeed, made me wonder if this is Kamal’s mid-life crisis film, as Ra.1 was said to be SRK’s mid-life crisis. I don’t mean to compare the films in terms of quality – Viswaroopam is much better made, but, while it is not bad or even mediocre, it is that much worse thing – pointless.
So, on to the banning. Is the film offensive to Muslims? I am not Muslim, so I am not competent to answer this question fully. From a non-Muslim perspective, therefore, my opinion is that it can be offensive, to two types of Muslims, for two different reasons. One is the continual uttering of “Allah hu Akbar” by the terrorists just before or just after they blow up something, or kill somebody. I can well understand that, for devout Muslims for whom that saying is a sacred utterance associated with spiritual purification, to hear it in this context will be a desecration. I myself was bothered by it. However, the film is dealing with people who did and do commit terrorist acts in the name of Allah, so this can hardly be avoided. And that brings us to the second group who may be offended, namely those who deny that there are any Muslim terrorists in the world. Some hold the position that the U.S. visits greater amounts of terror in the countries which it has invaded, so that those who fight against it, or have instigated into war, cannot be considered terrorists. Others claim that the terrorists have so distorted the meaning of Islam that they cannot be considered true Muslims, so that there is no such thing as a Muslim terrorist. It is these latter groups that I think will be especially enraged with this film, because, unlike other Hindi films that I have seen dealing with terrorist themes, there is absolutely no justification or rationalization offered for the terrorist point of view, which I found refreshing. They are already fully into their campaign, and they and their activities are presented as simply a fait accomplit, without worrying about how things got to that stage.
I was thinking the above as the film ended, and mused that, again unlike other films, there was no “good Muslim” character to balance out the “bad Muslim” characters. But as I was driving home I suddenly realized that there was in fact a “good Muslim” – and a major character, too. Now, is the fact that I didn’t think of him as “Muslim” a testament to how well the character was portrayed at a human level, or a shortcoming of the script that it didn’t bring out this aspect more to balance out the negative portrayals? I’m still debating that one. (I didn’t think of the terrorists as “Muslim”, either, but trying to understand the thinking of those demanding the ban, I could see how those characters would offend them.)
I will say one thing, and that emphatically. Whatever interpretation one chooses to put on the portrayals of Muslims, the film clearly is not deliberately or intentionally trying to malign anyone or any religion. It is not Kamal’s invention that the Afghan terrorists are Muslims and believe that they are fighting in the name of their religion. He merely presented the facts.
Even if some deem it offensive, I do not support the suppression of any art work, so do not support the ban, but I realize that’s not how things work in India. But I do think that, for taking such a risk of offending a large group of people, there has to be more of a payoff for the film maker, and I don’t see any. Kamal didn’t need to make this film, because it adds nothing to our understanding of terrorism, Muslims, or Indians.
There were the obligatory anti-American rhetoric that seems fashionable in many Indian films, though somewhat toned down from Dasavatharam. Far more offensive was the usual racist portrayal of African American women. And finally, I suppose it was inevitable that, in a film hewing so closely to the commercial formula, the heroine is obliged to be a bimbette and act like one, even though she has a Ph.D. in nuclear oncology.
Sorry, one more final thought. Someone either here or another forum said that a subject like this needs to be made in a “pan-Indian” language like Hindi, rather than a “regional” one like Tamil, because it’s so important. I don’t know about that, but I did feel that using Tamil as the base language greatly detracted from the authenticity of the film, while Hindi would have been more natural. Again I don’t know why Kamal chose to make this film in Tamil. There is really no connection to Tamil Nadu, except that his character is from there. But, in real life, he would have learned Hindi for professional reasons.