A Reflection on Shankar and ‘I’

A lot of what follows should also be read as a ‘sequel’ to this earlier Enthiran piece..And incidentally there are absolutely no spoilers here..

It ought not to be a deeply philosophical observation anymore to state that at the very moment when, in our age, the human is becoming increasingly android-like, dependent on a whole range of technological supports, that at this very moment there is also a spectrum of biological research and practice that also renders the human more animal-like than ever before. That which brings the human closer to the machine but also that which is already machine-like in biological processes relating to human evolution. In the same way that which is animal-like in the human because of biological possibilities inherent in the latter. Techno-biological manipulation then brings to the fore the ‘robot’ in the human, the ‘animal’ in the human, finally the ‘inhuman’ in the human. It is not that we just lose the traditional and comforting sense of being human. The true horror is that being human was always about being a kind of animal and being a kind of machine. In an analogous vein the brain sciences reveal how certain kinds of physical or emotional trauma can also render make the human ‘inhuman’ by canceling out all kinds of psychic economies. In any case, if such are the stakes of our age, our present moment, it might well be that Shankar is the contemporary Indian commercial director who has intuited this better than anyone else and Vikram in turn is the commercial star whose history represents this intersection in exemplary fashion.

”I’ is very much a sequel of sorts to Anniyan but it is as importantly a complement to Shankar’s last film, Enthiran (not surprisingly there is lots of homage to that film here). But it is as much the culmination of a grand star-actor career that begins with Sethu and finds an epitome of sorts in the current release. One might state without exaggeration that the Vikram mythos is closest to Shankar’s larger set of concerns even if these are not exactly the same (and later on I will argue that Shankar stumbles precisely where he moves away from the logic of the former). Shankar’s world has always been keenly invested in the advertisement-soaked surreality of the present or a hyper-mediatized time where increasingly the human passions can only be represented as so many audio bites and frantic cuts and where the human is ultimately reduced to a plastic ‘actor’ in an ever-mutating world of the fleeting and the virtual (consider the by now classic and seemingly nonsensical Shankar lyric that highlights all of this in one love song or the other). On the other hand this is balanced out by return-of-the-repressed primal moments that forever threaten to destroy that other aesthetic and in a way terrorize the globalization compact. Put differently the beast forever stalks the robot and perhaps vice versa. In any event the beast does not come out of nowhere. It is what has always been suppressed or denied or evaded. And so in Shankar’s current work scenes of garbage and destitute urban sprawl alternate with vaster canvases of landscape beauty but more importantly with glimmering images of consumerism. Much of this one also saw in the director’s two major works prior to this, Anniyan and Enthiran. The theme of garbage for instance is also available in Enthiran. Or the beastly makes an appearance in Enthiran. But even looking at the larger trajectory of his career it is clear that this major opposition doubles over as one between the present and the past. This is why the period element has always been crucial to Shankar’s major films. A song video might illustrate this, elsewhere an entire colonial archive, sometimes there might be injections of genre that herald these other histories. From dancing princesses to caped avengers to mythic ‘ancient’ figures Shankar runs the gamut. The beast-robot couple is never far from all this. To put it in somewhat different language even as Shankar is always in step with ‘New India’ and its consumption economies this representation is forever jostling with ‘Old India’ realities. One could argue this entire anxious split is much more definitional of Indian upwardly mobile classes over the last two decades than any naive separation between the two would leave one to believe.

But there is another sort of cinematic coding apparent here as well. The mythic or epic modes of ‘old masala’ are secularized by Shankar or given pseudo-scientist garb in a manner consonant with the present (not just in India but equally elsewhere). In this director’s universe one can still access the gestures and grandiosity of the masala universe but refracted through a different prism of plausibility. From genetic codes to robotic creations everything is possible and ‘for’ a reason! The unsurpassable statement on one half of this couple I’ve put forward is of course Enthiran where Rajnikant’s grand screen history is twinned with this Shankar thematic to create a robot every bit as iconic and heroic as the star and where his final fade also turns the page on an entire star-event as well as the brand of masala associated with him. In other words a star like Rajnikant is disabled precisely where a robotic likeness can do the job as well. Hence those garbage dumps, not just of industrial waste but also a chapter of history. Which again is an ambiguous move because without a proper accounting of the old the new becomes monstrous.

In much the same way the shadowy figure of the beast conjures up another memory of the masala tradition. Those old angry young men forever seeking to upset the socio-political applecart, forever seeking to upend its economic inequities. Tamil tradition here has a much stronger archive than the Hindi sequence offers. Here one often finds mangled, disfigured bodies forever shunned to the margins (one could even add as a bit of an aside here that there is a contrast between the machine-like Rajni signature, employed in film after film, with a familiar set of repetitions and replications, and his twin other Kamalahaasan, who often represents the ‘inhuman’ other to the former’s darker romantic, therefore ultimately rational, type). In Vikram’s career both strands are inherited. The normative hero-figure and his uglier, more threatening double. Certainly in the star’s peak sequence from Sethu through Anniyan both Rajni’s and Kamal’s histories are identifiable. But finally it is the beast or the inhuman in this sense that is Vikram’s truest avatar. It is this that allows Shankar a sort of summation move beyond which it is not easy to foresee where the director might go.

Shankar however has also always been a bit too much in love with that what he simultaneously examine a bit tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere is his humor, if not his satire, as caustic as it is in ‘I’. The director is almost encyclopedic in terms of ‘poking fun’ at the consumerist obsessions of the present from the addiction to gym bodies (which includes the sharp insight that the male body at least in this age is modeled and presented in the image of the female one) to the superficial celebration of sexual identities to of course his familiar investment in the eroticized gadgets of this technological age (very often the woman is presented as alluring to the exact degree that she might be compared with such objects or rendered into nintendo versions of herself). But even so Shankar is not quite able to stop feeding this consumerist beast. If despite all his vision and assuredly his considerable imagination the director is never quite able to come up with a Sholay-like moment of his own or a film that is truly important in that scheme of things this will have been the reason. And ‘I’ is a perfect example of this. It is arguably Shankar’s most interesting work, much more so than even Enthiran which in the end was still most legible indexed to the Rajni sign. He certainly has a vast set of themes to play with and he often does so very provocatively without sacrificing all those obvious and easy commercial parameters that have informed his work. But even though he is a harsher critic in ‘I’ of the worlds he has so often indulged in throughout his career he at the same time also succumbs more massively to its logic. This is not a narrative failure in any simplistic sense but he might have made one for the ages here had he simply chosen a bit more discipline. I am tempted to say that Enthiran was a more successfully realized film but my qualification here would be that Sankar’s indulgences are a more natural fit for this world than ‘I”s. Perhaps some of this was true even for Anniyan. In any case ‘I’ is superb when it sticks with the beast but quite ordinary when it is more ‘contemporary’ than this and this despite Vikram being so extraordinarily convincing either way. The problem does not lie in the juxtaposition of these two worlds. It is that when one is in the more epic mode of the beast’s underbelly of the city one is transported to a much darker, even gothic ambience that becomes quasi-fabular or fairy tale-like (this film could easy be read as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast) whereas the other portions of this work involve a totally prosaic set of references. In the latter case the performances and the humor might also make for perfectly compelling viewing but cannot really balance the greater romantic grandeur or else the awful sublime of the beast’s story. It is testimony to Vikram’s enormous star turn here (it is hard to imagine another star of his generation being able to pull this off and not just in his industry) that he nevertheless manages to bridge the divide. Shankar even in some of the set-pieces tends to err on the side of the cartoonish and certainly the grotesque, if the film is still rescued from these tonal inconsistencies it must be considered once more Vikram’s triumph. ‘I’ confirms, if there were any doubt about this at all, that Vikram in this larger-than-life format is simply the most authentic star-actor of the past two Indian decades.

Even with those objections I do not believe I have seen a more engrossing commercial Indian film this year. It has become familiar terrain for me to rue the absence of that greater film in any promising work (!) but ‘I’ justifies this lament more than those others. This should not just be read as some easy hint of the film’s ‘failure’. Even as it stands Shankar’s work is remarkable on very scores (for instance I liked many of the action sequences or I found his urban spaces more evocative here than anywhere else in his career) and perhaps one to be revisited. There is enough seduction here to offer such temptation. If the film is also Shankar’s ‘craziest’ it is for reasons that are at once provocative and deconstructive with respect to the goals of this opus. Towards the end of this lengthy (though never lagging) narrative there is a marvelous music video that offers a kind of unconscious ‘re-jiggering’ of the entire film. It is superbly managed (as are to lesser degrees some of the music videos here) and imagined in more ways than one but it also represents an artistic integration that one wishes had informed more of the film. But perhaps there is a different way of looking at this, Shankar’s indulgent ways notwithstanding. Perhaps that unified filmic space of an older masala or epic tradition can no more be presented. At least for now. The remaining options might then be either one of superficial repetition (the stale and plastic exercises in gesturality we have all become so immune to from North to South or else the somewhat more narrative-driven thriller formats) or more substantially the auteurist model taken by Ratnam for more than two decades now in a number of his works (in the context of ‘I’ the Raavan bilingual is a particularly instructive example) and followed to various degrees by others. Shankar has for quite some time and most interestingly since Anniyan been pursuing something in-between. On the evidence of these recent major works he is yet to find the perfect compromise but it might well be that no such thing is possible. At least for now. But within an unqualified commercial framework there might also not be a better inheritor than Shankar.

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61 Responses to “A Reflection on Shankar and ‘I’”

  1. Neither as good a star as Vijay/Ajith, nor as good an actor as Surya/Dhanush, Kenny needs to sort out the films he wants to pick next. it’s alarm bells ringing now. Looks like the film is bashed by a whole lot of folks who expected half-decent masala, but in return got something harmful/offensive/toxic.

    Couldn’t stand transgender sequences, the dialogues in tamil were pathetic/offensive/deplorable(Shankar wishes he could bring Sujatha back from dead) and exposes his poor j. I agree with Mr.Baradwaj rangan:
    https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/i-a-terrific-performance-let-down-by-an-uninspired-exhausting-movie/

    & this comment by Mr.Rangan except Ghai comparison, but he wants to make a larger point:

    I don’t think you can compare Shankar with people like Mani Ratnam, Kamal, Mysskin, Bala etc. The latter category consists of genuine filmmakers who — even if their films don’t work in the overall sense — will give you something to chew on in the “cinema” sense. Shankar is more like a ringmaster/entertainer — like Ghai, as you said.
    Not that that’s a bad thing, but even in his worst films, someone like Mani Ratnam is not just a ringmaster/entertainer. His problems have more to do with reconciling what he wants to do these days with what he thinks the audience wants to see — which is why, for instance, the song sequences that were once his great strength are now looking like a big weakness, because they’re not an easy fit in the kind of stories he’s trying to tell now.
    But even in these second-rung, third-rung films, you’ll find at least 30-odd minutes of genuine cinema (not just entertainment, but “cinema”). That’s quite different from the zone Shankar operates in — though to be fair to Shankar, I don’t think he’s really trying to make “cinema”. He’s happy being a ringmaster/entertainer.

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  2. I should add here (I couldn’t have said all this in the piece) that the ‘inhuman’ is everything that has at one time or the been considered less than human. This might the animal or the ‘beast’ but much more importantly includes a part of the ‘human’ species. All those who are mentally challenged in all sorts of ways and/or different, all the physically malformed or deformed, whether by birth or through disease or accident, or for reasons or race or gender or religion or ethnic identity and so on. The ‘inhuman’ is a very shifting (and shifty) category. Vikram it seems to me has played most of these types in many of his signature roles. But the point to be made from a biological perspective is that the ‘inhuman’ is very much part and parcel of being ‘human’. These are always possibilities for the human and contemporary bio-technology brings this out. Much as the ‘machinic’ is also part of the human experience and again technology at a certain stage illustrates this. In the evolutionary field for example life emerges in any sense because a lot of permutations take place ‘machine-like’. Even if no life had emerged on this planet because of these processes those permutations would nonetheless have kept talking place. And so the robot and the beast are mirror images in some sense. Because the human body supports both paradigms.

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  3. As an aside I should also add that in a related sense the ‘secularization’ that Shankar performs vis-a-vis traditional epic-masala paradigms is also a symptom of the age. From the various Islamisms to forms of evangelical Christianity to Hindutva notice how the same dynamic is afoot. So when the PM says that in Vedic times they were flying planes and doing interplanetary travel or were doing plastic surgery as sophisticated as the kind we see today or that there were cloning attempts afoot that would match the best research labs in the present, all of this though utterly ridiculous and loony (though again we have versions of the same elsewhere.. the Muslims who think that every new scientific development is foretold in the Koran in specific detail or the Christian fundamentalists who believe evolution took place through ‘creation’ and so on) nonetheless points to something serious. Once upon a time science had to live upto religious standards. Today it’s the opposite. Religion too has to depend on the prestige of science which is why you have fundamentalists of various kinds trying desperately hard to align their belief systems with the latest scientific research. I think this is a foolish enterprise for more than one reason but in any case and more to the point here this is in keeping with what Shankar is also upto. Obviously not to compare the two by any means. On the religious side of things (within this paradigm) there is merely stupidity while on Shankar’s side there is a perfectly legitimate response to a problem. My only point here is that there is something ‘common’ to both movies. We do not have a world anymore where those old notions of transcendence can hold but we also haven’t found an alternative. This too might offer a different tonal reading of what Shankar is struggling with. The seduction of consumer gadgets is still a long way off from the proper transcendence of the old mythic-epic modes.

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  4. Finally when I refer to ‘unified filmic space’ what I mean is one that could represent the high and the low (not just in terms of characters but equally genres, narrative codes et al) without shifting gears as it were. This strategy is what often gave older masala a bad name. To repeat a much cliched point it wasn’t always ‘crude’, it often represented a different (mass) aesthetic. Which is to say one consonant with the politics of those films. It would have been quite absurd for instance to make some of these films with the choices of a Guru Dutt! But many films that were made prior to the advent of masala were not necessarily more ‘sophisticated’. These represented a more bourgeois framework in the same aesthetic sense. Yes there was in Bombay cinema the high ‘auteurist’ period of the 50s (at least in terms of the major names) but the 60s was something very different. In Tamil Ratnam introduced the auteurist for the very first time, in some authentic sense I’d say for the first time in Indian cinema. But in any case whatever Balachander and Bharthiraja were revolutionary in in terms of the older tradition they were a galaxy removed from Ratnam’s aesthetic triumphs. Having said that Ratnam himself has married these two impulses with mixed results in some of his grand commercial ventures. Thalapathay is of course the obvious example. But the larger point is once again that there might be no credible way at present or for a long time now to do this ‘double duty’. Perhaps the only true exception in this sense is Ramesh Sippy with Sholay. The auteur in disguise if you will. But even here the debate could be extended a bit. I won’t do so at this very moment. But to once more reframe the point when Shankar goes from one Vikram to the other, from one world to the other he often has to find different ways of doing things in each case. And then it’s not a ‘unified’ space. Because in each case different logics are obeyed.

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  5. Satyam: is it possible to add “share” buttons on posts here so we can share those on Facebook and Twitter? Apart from being convenient, it would also likely increase footfalls on the blog.

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  6. Not having seen the film, I can nevertheless say with some confidence that it is difficult to imagine a more insightful piece on this piece, or on Shankar’s oeuvre. The summation here (in passages like “[i]n this director’s universe one can still access the gestures and grandiosity of the masala universe but refracted through a different prism of plausibility. From genetic codes to robotic creations everything is possible and ‘for’ a reason!) is extraordinary, and extraordinarily useful.

    Re: “But even looking at the larger trajectory of his career it is clear that this major opposition doubles over as one between the present and the past.”

    True — and Enthiran’s finale renders this opposition in an explicit fashion, set as it is in a future where Chitty is the centerpiece of a museum/memorial. The “present day” of the rest of the film is at a stroke rendered, as machines are elsewhere in the movie, obsolete, already historically past by the time we get to the film’s end…

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  7. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Kickass. At last Shankar gets his due. Now I can die in peace.

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  8. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    I watched my first Tamil film in 1978 when I was sent by BHEL for a couple of month’s training at the company’s Trichy unit. It was MGR’s Urmai Kural. But soon I got to see films of K Balachandar, Bharatiraja and Balu Mahendra and was exposed to a cinematic aesthetics which was totally different from that of Bollywood ( though the word had not been coined then). But more than any other, the two names that kept my passion for Tamil films incandescent hot were Kamal Hasan and Ilyaraja.

    The fire was rekindled in the 90s with the Tweedledum and Twedledee of Tamil cinema for me – Mani Ratnam and Shankar. Their films could not be more different, and they kind of complemented each other. But there were some commonalities if not similarities. For one, the later Ratnam and Shankar, both had Rahman creating his most creative, most accomplished work for them. Then there was the visual cinematic language both of them used for telling their stories which could engage non-Tamilians like me effortlessly. But their differences were stark too. In a sense , they were like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones in in the 60s, the good boy and not-so-good boy of Tamil cinema, both of them equally brilliant.
    Those who follow my posts may have noticed my falling out of love with Ratnam of late, but my passionate engagement with Shankar continues. Einstein once said, “”Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss.” I would like to paraphrase that and say, “ Shankar gives me more than any arty director, more than Gurudutt.’

    In Satyam’s piece I found some pretty accurate summation of what Shankar is about. And it has stirred to me to articulate some of my own thoughts about Shankar. Firstly, he is very childlike, inventive and playful…qualities that I think are a must for any artiste I admire…from The Beatles and Picasso to Hussain and Rahman. Secondly, he is very contemporary. He engages with issues of the day, he is in touch with trends of the day, his heart beats to the beats of the youth. He is in tune with technology more than any other Indian filmmaker I can think of. That’s how he thinks up of all those songs where a cellphone turns into a woman, that’s how he can breathe so much life into a story like Robot. He is also a totally non-intellectual, and completely visceral filmmaker. It’s all physical. It’s all action. But that does not mean he is not intelligent. It is the intelligence of a Sachin Tendulkar, it’s the intelligence of a David Beckham. The intelligence is about hand-eye coordination, it is about buses piling on buses, it is about a face disappearing during a dance and it is about centipede robot fighting a hydra-headed robot. The most endearing part of Shankar is his rootedness that backgrounds his modernity. Be it the folk eroticism of Uslam Bati in Gentleman or the sequence with mud house in Indian or his evocation of different kinds of hell in Aaniyan, his work is informed at all times by an intuitive knowledge of Indian folk and mythical traditions. Shankar’s art is low art. It is crude. It is coarse. It is often politically incorrect. But what makes a Shankar film come alive and makes it live in our memory is the soul, the iridescent core that shines through all the grossness, all the political incorrectness and all the superficial gloss.

    I would say Endhiran is his most accomplished, the most wholesome and the most satisfying film in his oeuvre. But there is so much to take from films like I, Anniyan, Mudalvan and Indian as well. It’s an impressive filmography and he is still in his 40s. Can he grow from here and create something more substantial.? Not likely. But if he gets lucky to stumble upon another writer like Sujatha and if he learns to keep his excesses in check, just a wee bit, he might just be able to do it one day.

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    • Of the older stuff I’d say Indian is the only one that still stands up well to these later opus efforts. The other films might still be fun but they’re superseded by these films. Having said that Muthalvan might be his most consistent script.

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      • “Of the older stuff I’d say Indian is the only one that still stands up well to these later opus efforts”-

        I recently revisited Desh Premee after a long time and it struck me that Indian should be seen in the light of the Desai film- there is unmistakable similarity in the depiction of the father-son conflict in both film (of course both younger Bachchan and younger Kamal represent that sense of disillusionment/disenchantment with the “nation state”. Of course in Desai’s film the “father” is a “believer” in the idea of India whereas in Shankar’s work he considers himself as a “guardian” of that idea). I just get a feeling that Shankar did have Desai’s film in mind when he made Indian (and I am perhaps stretching it too far, and perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but the titles of both films aren’t too dissimilar either even if the “Indian” sounds a little more “extreme”, both politically and otherwise).

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        • I wish there is a movie where the father is progressive while the son is believer or guardian. It is not necessary that the younger generation only should be rebel and sometimes liberal. Seeing today’s times, one gets a feeling, the youngsters have become more rigid and conformist than their immediate older generations who saw world in a better way and were more revolutionary. I am not seeing the likes of any Rajaram Mohan Roy anymore in the younger generation.

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  9. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    MY viewing of Tamil films is limited. But still I just cannot agree with Vikram being ‘ neither as good a star as Vijay/Ajith, nor as good an actor as Surya/Dhanush,’ The first time I saw Vikram was in Pithamagan and I was just blown away. Since then I have sen him in Aaniyan, David and now ‘I’. And he has been magnetic in all these outings. Ajith is okay, and Vijay is a total wannabe. At one time with his charming persona and vesatlity, Surya, I thought could be the Aamir Khan of Tamil cimema. That was when I saw Kaaka Kaaka, Pithamagan, Ayan, Peralgan, Vaaranam Aayiram, Ghajini in quick succession. But then he got stuck in this Singham rut. I mean Aamir does not make Ghajini 2.

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    • yeah Surya’s career has been a huge disappointment. He could have done these safety masala films but balanced this with other stuff. Specially in an industry where there was so much middle cinema (new wave or otherwise). Now he’s a very successful star, a top star but what’s the point if one is going to be reduced to doing endless masala rehashes, most of them not even at Ghajini level. And all said and done even this path is not really going to make him a true-blue mass star.

      On Vijay/Ajith there’s long been a whole politics surrounding this debate. First off Vikram has never been politically motivated in any sense (i.e. in terms of fostering fan clubs and so forth). Despite this in the Sethu through Anniyan phase he went from triumph to triumph getting every sort of commercial and critical success. Running the gamut from Bala to Shankar. It’s a joke to even suggest that those other two were anywhere close to him though again in the Tamil media (including online) this myth has been perpetuated. Now having said that things changed after Anniyan. Because Vikram clearly entered a period of indecision where he wasn’t clear about the path forward. But even this happened because he felt he’d done everything possible in masala and there was nothing more to be achieved other than simple repetition. I don’t disagree with him at all here. The problem though is that once you become a mass star it’s very hard to turn the clock back. And so he tried a few things, he even did stuff like Kandasamy but overall there was no clear arc to his career post-Anniyan. His initial was intact but eventually these things catch up with you. Nonetheless Ratnam still took him for his dream project, and today after all these years following Anniyan, with so much water under the bridge (and here it must be admitted that both Vijay and Ajith have had the sort of success since that they never did in those Vikram years, even if this success is still not comparable to Vikram’s for consistency and so on, a fact that one often misses in the politics of the Tamil media.. not that this is anything new), Shankar in another magnum opus right on the heels on Enthiran, where one would think a follow-up act of any sort would be hard, that he chooses Vikram once more. Why did he not cast Vijay or Ajith for this film? Now people are foolishly suggesting that the initial is Shankar’s and what not. Of course he’s a huge name and he attracts that sort of attention but he didn’t become a huge name by being indifferent to authentic stars! His last 4 major films (the 3I remake doesn’t really count) have been with Vikram or Rajni, if anything Vikram bookends this phase. But again we’ve seen these foolish debates in Bollywood too in many contexts. Ultimately the smart money and the big names follow the stars. Despite the damage Vikram suffered over time due to a number of indifferent decisions it was always clear that his initial was intact. No one in the post-Rajni-Kamal phase has had more iconic films and characters as a commercial star than he has. It’s not even close. Having said all this it’s not clear to me where Vikram goes even after this film. This script excited him for all the work it required in terms of losing weight, then regaining it, the prosthetics and so on. He devoted three years to it. I don’t know whether it’s going to be business-as-usual for him even after this. Maybe he now decides he should just do regular masala since the other stuff didn’t quite work. I don’t know. I’m certainly not saying he’s where he was post-Anniyan. But this is a huge moment for him. These are the biggest numbers in South India in terms of the opening. Sure it’s Shankar but it’s a certain star working with the director who can challenge the Enthiran opening or better it! Doesn’t happen with just anyone! I actually think he should be a lot smarter going forward. There’s a lot that can still be tapped in him. Whatever one might think of Vikram it’s not even imaginable that Vijay or Ajith could handle this part (even those negative on the film have called him terrific here). Finally and completing the circle I’d say that there’s a certain kind of success which makes one a top star but which is meaningless beyond a point. Surya has fallen into this trap. With Vijay one could at least say he wasn’t capable of more than this. The rest is about Tamil fan clubs and politicized film media that makes Bollywood’s look like an honest broker and made-to-order fan reactions in theaters for every other release, so on and so forth. Incidentally Vikram was also that huge because he was able to also keep the more metro-multiplex audiences on board (though they’ve not been so happy with him of late and ‘I’ probably doesn’t help on this score). But again one can have these debates perennially. Ultimately it’s fairly obvious that despite everything Vikram is in a class apart. And no one has to take my word for it. Surely Shankar, if anyone, knows this!

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      • Satyam, Pure BO wise I don’t think Vikram is as good as Vijay, Suriya or Ajith. None of his previous movies, even the masala ones, opened great. Thandavam, Rajapattai all didn’t open well and didn’t do well either. I am not counting Ravanan and Deiva Thirumugal as they are not likely to open as well. This movie is a Shankar movie and Shankars movie are a event. I do get your point that somewhere Vikram lost his mojo but to be honest he has lost it since Anniyan and I don’t see any future projects of his that are sounding great. I think he is doing a Vijay Milton movie after this. He is a wonderful actor for sure but I will take a Suriya or a Dhanush over him most of the days.
        And I like the fact Vijay and Ajith are doing movies with Murugadoss and GVM. I don’t think they are complete write offs in the acting department. They have just not been tapped. I thought Vijay was very good in Thupakki. Also Suriyas next is with Venkat Prabhu who is a better director than the ones he has been doing movies with. I am actually very disappointed with Suriya. He is such a wonderful actor but stuck in the Hari template of Singham..Who rejects a GVM movie in the right mind?

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        • I was referring to the Sethu through Anniyan phase when he was unbeatable in every sense. Also commented on his mixed record since but also remember that he did a lot of films in this phase that wouldn’t get those openings with anyone. For example Kandasamy got a strong opening, Thandavam though is a different ball-game. Ajith, Surya, Vijay just do masala. Surya occasionally does the Gautham Menon deal. So there’s a difference. Otherwise have never liked Vijay at all. Ajith early on in some of his more sober outings was alright, sometimes in masala but other than taking him over Vijay can’t say I’m a fan. Did like Surya a lot before he went the masala way. He’s still fun to watch but he’s more or less wasting his talents.

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  10. Great initial post. A bit too wordy that i kept losing the central idea you were trying to communicate every now and then :). I felt two things very different about “I” than in any other Shankar movie …

    (1) With almost all of his other movies (barring Kadhalan) Shankar has not been an ‘indulgent’ film-maker in the sense that he generally feeds just enough for you to start feeling the high on an emotion when the script shifts to another mode, unlike for eg: The Great Gatsby kind of 20 minute single shot dialogue between two characters struggling to find their connection with each other. Mani Ratnam, on the other hand is. But the biggest asset as a director that Shankar has built for himself is that, he has slowly built an image for himself amongst the audience where he controls the how he wants the film to be understood. He is the equivalent of Ilayaraja, that in a concert – IR could brag about details of compositions that are completely irrelevant and probably OHT to the mainstream music audience but yet, their respect and reverence for IR involuntarily makes them accept his word for an applause. He is probably not yet there to the same extent as IR … but almost. With “I”, it almost seems like he wants to utilize this asset to re-invent (or give himself the freedom that any director wishes to have, without compromising on the commerce) himself without affecting the commerce. “I” is surprisingly slow and indulgent, but consistent and deliberately so. Surely at the editing table they all would have noticed this and yet if this is the final product … it could not have just been unnoticed.

    (2) Vikram is the true complement to Shankar in an actor Director pair. Shankar as a director can single handedly command the commerce … and all he needs is good artists who has drive home his vision for any character. Rajnikanth himself mentioned in the audio launch for “I” that – this combination has a lot more projects to do in the future. Shankar needed a Sivaji with Rajnikanth to get to Robot. And he needed Rajnikanth to materialize Endhiran no doubt. But with the audience convinced of Endhiran as a Shankar film where Rajnikanth acted, he can from here on single-handedly drive audience to his movies (even for humongous budgets) with artists who might not necessarily be the biggest of stars (in terms of crowd pulling). Which is why he need not compromise with an Ajith or a Vijay just to bring in the numbers. What a great acheivement and position for a director to be (esp in India) ! With “I” , the movie might be a tad negatively reviewed than Endhiran, but Vikrams efforts for the movie, help Shankar sustain his ability to demand the kind of dedication his characters aspire. Its tough being Shankar. One has to appreciate the creative energy this guy has over a span of 20 years … and still no signs of stagnation ! Yes the movie itself might have had flaws, not one but many … but his imagination is not even close to becoming obselete. He is what his lead characters in almost all his movies (barring Endhiran) have been, a normal person from a very average (lower middle class) family with extra-ordinary taste … he is from kumbakonam and not from north chennai … but his thoughts exactly are “mattukombu mela oru pattampoochi pola”, “chinna thagaram kooda thangam thaane” “kaadhal sonna kaname, adu kadavulai kanda kaname”.

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    • Thanks for the substantial comment..and it’s a fair one. I’d see it differently though. In terms of his films of late seeming to be much more about his larger than life protagonists that’s true but it could also be seen as part of the opposition I’ve set up. He’s trying as hard as he possibly can to retain a certain notion of the heroic even as his films otherwise try to deconstruct the very same by remaining true to a more contemporary world. And here when I keep saying ‘contemporary’ I don’t mean that the ‘beast’ belongs to some other world. I want to keep stressing that the ‘beast’ is very much a part of the ‘contemporary’ but as its ‘repressed’. Even in the older Shankar films the secret vigilante that no one knows about is not just any outlaw but someone who represents the politics of the ‘forgotten’. This isn’t like old masala where the coordinates were always clear. There were good guys and bad guys and they all lived in the very same world. One simply had to oppose the bad guys and the world-as-it-was could be made alright. But the outlaw is always ‘out of place’ because the order he seeks does not exist. Not referring to petty criminals here and in any case Shankar’s outlaws are always very much men on moral missions.

      On the box office aspect of things I don’t agree for reasons I’ve already indicated in this thread. but in brief a director like Shankar on a magnum opus effort is not going to take an ‘actor’ who cannot also guarantee him the biggest opening. The idea that he’s somehow in some comfort zone where he doesn’t need to think so commercially is a bit strange given that (and for all his strengths) everything in Shankar is ‘about’ commercialism. This isn’t a bad thing, some of the greatest commercial directors had the same instincts but precisely because they had the latter that they would not just forget the commercial viability (in the most elevated sense of the word) of their lead actors. Yes people would always show up for a Shankar film, Vikram is hardly a slouch when it comes to openings on any half-decent project even after Anniyan. But you maximize these openings only when there’s a perfect storm. And these films are too major, too important, certainly for someone like Shankar to ever forget this. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of his films the lack of rampant commercialism isn’t one of them. And so again people with those instincts don’t suddenly ‘sober down’ when they’re making arguably the most important decision of casting the lead star. Now what if Vikram for some reason hadn’t done this film. Well, Shankar might have made something else. On films that require certain kinds of performances he doesn’t really compromise. You’ll never find Arjun doing an Indian or an Anniyan or something in one of his films. And the Rajni examples prove the point because in both those films Rajni is just required to play ‘star’ (though Shankar retrieved an old Rajni ‘negative character’ archive for Enthiran he didn’t quite give Rajni as much scope for performance as those older parts did).

      But thanks again for the comment..

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      • I apologize this is going to be another long post 🙂 … but i promise this will be my last such spamming of your comment space 😀

        Well .. i agree to what u say … its just that i wish not to believe that someone can be so senseless as to make 3rd rate jokes off of transgenders just becos its a commercial movie and u want to satisfy C center audience. I would much rather like to believe its his way of showing what/how people like us talk/treat them (thru Santhanam and Vikram in their respective characters). In fact, how many of us actually know how to deal with a situation if a transgender ever happened to have a liking towards us (i dont think is a single book … or even an article, on how to politely reject them … if we are not interested. Also in an age when man-woman is not the only type of relationship present in the society (read – man-man, woman-woman), isnt that itself an interesting point. What decides my sexual identity ? Money, fame, love … what is love ? If your love is based on attraction … is it physical-dominated ? etc etc …)

        Why i believe so – becos every character in the movie makes the same mistake that he/she accuses another of doing to him/her. Is it not interesting to note that Vikram is unomfortable with Osma making flirtatious advances on him purely becos she is a transgender and ‘he doesnt consider her pretty enough for him’ while he pretty much does exactly the same with Amy. He assumes he can share a ride with her, convince her to walk hands held and even offer a kiss – just becos she says she is in love. Clearly Amy’s response captured by the camera is not approving of it or showing any iota of excitement or comfort rite ? And then Amy resorts to coercing Vikram for her selfish needs (read – staying in the industry) when she could have as well slept just the once or twice with Upen for the same need ! It might not really be the same, but in terms of cheating/feeling cheated, is it not basically compromising on values ?

        Shankar’s movies are commercial … but they have their own metaphors. I would really like to not believe that having a Congress leadership photo on the table of Adisheshan in Sivaji is random/coincidental thought. What his actual beliefs are, only he can explain. He clearly knows his subtexts. I just feel his movie is so loud (crude) from the outside that the metaphors are too subtle, relatively, to believe in.

        Also think of this (mayb u have already noticed this) – in Endhiran, the Chitti Robot and its three avatars so to speak – (i) when it is first constructed and karunas mentions “Vayathukulla irukkara kuzhandai madiriye ivan ippove ipdi uthaikirane”. Chitti has saved a life, while Vasi is upset the girl is not clothed and Chitti’s rational brain doesnt understand why that is of higher priority. (ii) When the hormones are provided – he falls in love with Sana. He knows she is in a relationship, and yet he fantasizes about her. (iii) He grows into rebel.
        Isnt is very similar to a child being born to real humans, its innocence when its an infant and not being able to understand why girls and boys need to use separate toilets, its adolescence on puberty (read – feelings, lies, fantasizing married women … ) and rebel while at youth (read – im a grown up, i can take what i can, i decide my philosophy for life.). It then is basically assessing / mirroring human society without the bias (a 3rd party analysis of human society) ! Ironically, this is the same strategy that PK uses except a robot is replaced by an alien (and it doesnt reach the 3rd stage).

        I can go on and on … but as i mentioned earlier, this will just spam your comment space …

        I will end with saying this – i think this is the beauty or any art … that theres a lot left to the imagination of the audience ! And each interpretation, under some sensibilities being met, is probably equally valid !

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  11. I am not sure even Shankar has all the readings you are presenting here in reflection. Since I am not versed in Shankar’s movie, I can comment about other ventures referenced here.

    As I said somewhere as comment that as a movie I is not bad, but it is too long especially the China part. Some tracks were not necessary (transgender one). Actually it tells more of Shankar as director that he couldn’t create a potent adversary but instead he had 4 different players who coincidentally come together!

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    • Ha! On the first bit. This is an ‘objection’ that often comes up in various contexts. But a director (or an author or whoever) doesn’t need to be consciously aware of everything he’s doing. But leaving this aside a work such as ‘I’ might occasion a certain kind of reading without necessarily being highly accomplished in any sense. In some ways I have only responded to Shankar as part of the larger masala archive I’m always interested in. In the same vein I’ve reconfigured those older claims here. I still think Shankar is doing something ‘interesting’ but this doesn’t mean everything that you’re saying isn’t correct. The transgender track is simply meant for titillation though in a certain perverse sense Shankar still manages to make a character out of this part and even otherwise this over the top representation perhaps works given the director’s concerns with certain kinds of contemporary sexuality. But I don’t disagree. Also the villains ought to have been more formidable (in at least one case one is not sure why he’s even part of the plan!). On the other hand (and I’m trying not to give anything away) notice how these four are all recognizable ‘New Indian’ types. Anyway there are other Tamil films (Vikram’s Samurai and Ajith’s Citizen) that handle this ‘trauma of the past’ much better in creating a certain shock. Also concede the China portion goes on too long. A lot of this I’ve hinted at in the piece and even explicitly discussed at points. But still there’s a certain formulation that Shankar keeps coming up with that to my mind isn’t found elsewhere in masala. There are lots of films that do the job better in that same masala sense but they’re also much more limited works. Having said that Anniyan was a better overall mix even allowing for the same Shankar factors or Enthiran was much more even. Whether I nonetheless prefer those films is another question. Will probably have to revisit them.

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  12. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    munna: Why is having 4 antagonists less imaginative than having one? Isn’t it the other way around? One antagonist is what we usually see, right?

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  13. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    [SPOILERS]

    I thought the transgender ideas was very interesting. There was a poignancy to her obsessive love for Lee. And her vengefulness on being rebuffed is quite convincing. She being a part of the antagonist team adds a texture to the mix and creates a subtle subtext to the business of looks, sexuality, styling and commercial modelling. The only major lack of control or imagination I found was in the China portion which I also felt was too long. The romantic song was sub-paer, both as a composition and in terms of picturization. and a as locale China wasn’ t even half as beatiful as Machu Pichhu. Shankar is not too good in detailing the arc of a romantic relationship, so there wasn’t much on offer on those terms as well.

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  14. ‘which is why he need not compromise with an Ajith or a Vijay just to bring in the numbers. ‘
    – Not according to Satyam, even Vikram isn’t as deluded.

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  15. Rajini, Vijay and Vikram openly acknowledge their fan club. Kamal has made it social welfare club ever since 80’s and they have donated blood, etc (hence the reference in ‘ I ‘ by Vikram/Santhanam). Ajith dissolved his fan clubs , Surya made it into social organization as well.

    Ajith never does promotions. Vijay/Surya/Dhanush/Vikram on other hand. I rest my case 🙂

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  16. Satyam: It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that if someone was to ever propose an original, true-blue “Indian film theory”, he/she is bound to benefit from reading this superlative peace of yours (even if you have always a. You have hardly been prolific of late as far writing reviews are concerned, but even by your very lofty standards I think this is one of your best pieces. One of the things which I love about your writing (even in general) is that you never let the “film theory” part come in the way of the more “visceral” parts of the piece (whatever might be the film/actor/director in question, your pieces always voice your political/social/filmic concerns). I didn’t really care for the film when I saw it a few days back (the atrocious Hindi dubbing also was a major impeding factor in the viewing experience though I guess even if I were to see a subtitled Tamil version I wouldn’t really like the film more. having said the performance of Vikram as a body-builder/model would certainly come out better in the Tamil version), but this extremely stimulating write-up makes me want to revisit it (as and when I get my hands on the Tamil subtitled print).

    “Tamil tradition here has a much stronger archive than the Hindi sequence offers. Here one often finds mangled, disfigured bodies forever shunned to the margins …”

    I think the only Bollywood director whose films had “disfigured bodies” featuring prominently was Desai- I am especially thinking of the leprosy-stricken characters (Satyendra Kapoor in Coolie, Sharmila Tagore in Desh Premee). And while I am more or less unfamiliar with pre-2000 Tamil cinema, atleast a while now they have 3 very different directors making every different films who really bring the these “people on the margins of society” on the forefront- Shankar, Bala, and Mysskin

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    • Thanks very much Saurabh even if I can’t possibly accept such praise. On the history of such characters in Tamil cinema Bharthiraja is in many ways the great progenitor. Certain representations of the marginal (in every sense) really begin with him. I’ve always thought that even the Tamil new wave could best be understood as a cross between Bharthiraja and Ratnam. The return of the former crossed with the auteurism of the latter. Desai though came at it more through a Biblical (as in Hollywood) prism. In Desh Premee that leper colony is his own homage to Ben Hur!

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    • “he atrocious Hindi dubbing also was a major impeding factor in the viewing experience ”
      May be that is the reason, I find Satyam’s reading is giving too much importance to the movie. I actually enjoyed the dubbing for hilarity.
      ps: In roja when Madhu goes to met the politician , in dubbed version, the interaction was very incongruous but when I saw subtitled version, it was quite nicely blended in.

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    • Rangan’s answers to commentators were a pleasure to read.
      I can understand why this film makes him feel dissatisfied.

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    • This was an excellent exchange. Finally got around to reading this piece, and it was a real treat, Satyam, thanks. I looked forward to this film because it seemed on the evidence of its promos to take Shankar back to Enthiran terrain. I’d said about that film that sci-fi offered Shankar the best possible platform for his voice as a filmmaker , whereas in other films this always seemed to be lost in narratives that forced his imagination into an incongruous framework. Often those films seemed on the verge of bursting at their seams because of this, unfit as they were to contain those flourishes. It appears though that even on a ‘return” to the overtly fantastical, incongruity is something this director can’t avoid. Indeed it might be that the incongruous, the asymmetrical, the “freakish” is an essential part of Shankar’s universe, at least within some of the important works in his current phase.

      Still haven’t seen it yet, but your marvelous piece is about the best bit of promotion Shankar could have asked for.

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  17. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    GF: “I’d said about that film that sci-fi offered Shankar the best possible platform for his voice as a filmmaker , whereas in other films this always seemed to be lost in narratives that forced his imagination into an incongruous framework.” Films like Indian or Mudlavan or Anniyan none of which are sci-fi offer enough space for Shankar to indulge his imagination .

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    • We essentially disagree, then. For me the oddity of the surreal effects that cropped up in those films, with the exception of maybe Anniyan, was unmistakable. They felt as if they’d fallen out of some other movie entirely. Beyond a point one got used to these flourishes as a kind of signature on his part, but with Enthiran it also became possible that his earlier films might not have been the best fit for some of these fantastical moments.

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      • The vigilante is fine because he still operates in the world everyone else occupies. But when you take this logic further and make it more fantasy than that it becomes problematic. We see in all the contemporary Marvel movies for example that all the superheroes occupy a very human world. And Thor keeps going to Asgard which is by definition ‘other’ (even if Hollywood had handled it poorly). Blending the two as Shankar often tries is inherently a contradiction. I can’t think of a Hollywood counterexample. You either have a mythic world as in the first Nolan Batman or you have a prosaically human world in which superheroes pop up or else you go completely the fantasy way. Here Game of Thrones might offer the best example inasmuch as the fantasy here is kept more or limited to a very (if important) moments. You have essentially an old Hollywood style epic-historical film (complete with that great dialog which was once the mainstay of the British historical) but the coordinates are always a bit fantasy-laden. So even when there’s no fantasy element in play for long stretches it doesn’t seem surprising when this sort of thing pops up. It’s completely natural in that world. To this extent it might seem surprising that Shankar never actually sets his film either in a historical period or at least some for of neverland, futuristic or otherwise. But to reframe the earlier point I think this is because he’s far too committed to the contemporary present. His stance towards it is mostly affectionate. But a culture of consumerism with everything else that it implicates also relies on an emptying out of transcendence within the contemporary. Or more precisely such transcendence is allowed only as a ‘period kick’. Again, you can have a period piece or a fantasy narrative disguised as contemporary masala. At least this is a possibility but it’s one that Shankar has eschewed so far. To an extent I am sympathetic to the problem. Because Shankar’s world quite often depends on this ‘eruption’ which then recodes the present or unleashes its repressed. If he were to only go with the latter logic he would in a way ‘inoculate’ the present. In the same way as Mad Men for instance (and I intend this to be a very loose structural analogy) or just about any significant period show today tends to present those ‘fantasies’ that would be defined as regressive or even unconsidered unacceptable if presented simply in any contemporary sense but that removed to a different time and place can be indulged in without guilt. These shows of course speak to the present in certain ways but the latter is nonetheless ‘immunized’ from it in the same way. The question once again is: can there be that unified space that allows both to happen. Clearly ordinary contemporary masala no longer carries that charge. Shankar’s ‘fantasies’ provide a powerful tool because these seem to completely derail the ‘contemporary’. But once more at the risk of also derailing his larger project. I’d introduce Ratnam once again here. If one goes to Asokavanam and looks at the world through that prism one is making a very bold and interesting film (this ‘perspectival’ shift is the single greatest misunderstanding when it comes to the reception of Raavan… Beera is not some kind of outlaw in our world, rather we are encroachers in his and the only way Ratnam can honestly represent this is by going over to his side.. which is why some of his editing choices seemed problematic to many but they serve the same purpose.. one must be for a while confused in this world, one must learn to orient oneself in it) but if one tries to carry Asokavanam over to ‘this side’ certain problems instantly emerge. Yet again my only point here is that I can see why his films might not be necessarily stronger (though they’d be more ‘consistent’) even if he opted for this.

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  18. zeroblogs Says:

    Interesting read as always, Satyam. However I must add this piece is far more resonant regarding Shankar’s films in general and especially specific moves he has made in his recent films (and so, I see, you’ve rightly titled it too as a note “on Shankar” as well) than on ‘I.’

    [Mild spoilers alert. Oh well, whom am I kidding!] While I didn’t find the film interesting one bit (or even watchable), I was looking forward to your thoughts in relation to this note about the surfacing of monsters in Shankar’s films (vis-à-vis films that merely compartmentalize the ethnic/local to be absorbed into larger ‘globalized’ models). I read this before seeing the film and found it characteristically thought-provoking; returned to it after seeing the film and felt this dimension shows up here too w.r.t. the configuration (visually and viscerally) of the local and the globalized figures (of Vikram) that appear in the film. But otherwise, there is nothing (or at least, I didn’t find any) at all in the film that takes this suggestive configuration any further. First off, the beast in the film isn’t an ‘eruption’ like Anniyan or Chitti 2.0, as anyone would have expected, isn’t it? Even irrespective of your insightful reading but especially in that light, this misstep is glaring. This figure only serves as a lurid element in what’s essentially a tired old revenge narrative that plays out like true-blue schlock, with pretty much all stock scenes intact fashioned in mindnumbingly predictable ways.

    Lest my objection be misconstrued as just a case of not being able to handle the grotesque imagery, I’d add that it’s not the imagery itself that is an affront but the tone in which everything is served. This becomes abundantly clear (and at least for me validated my earlier revulsion) as the film draws to a close in the manner in which the villains are shown in plain cartoonish terms – to be more precise, in perfectly palatable ways. And of course, the hero also has to then start recovering and so on. One could argue the film makes not only a spectacle of ‘physical deformity’ but is so timid that it even allows this kind of imagery to be consumed from a safe distance.

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    • thanks for the note Zero..

      “about the surfacing of monsters in Shankar’s films (vis-à-vis films that merely compartmentalize the ethnic/local to be absorbed into larger ‘globalized’ models).”

      on this aspect of things I’d say my entire piece and some of the follow-up comments are about how the beast/monster cannot be seamlessly absorbed into Shankar’s world. Or more precisely that his two worlds never really receive neat integration. And furthermore that this might constitute a more general problem with Indian cinema inasmuch as I don’t see anyone else doing better with this in a comparable commercial tradition. In other words if Shankar were not true to the beast or if this were just an empty or artificial move the integration would be easier. And to repeat another point I’d love it if he stayed with the beast or ‘in’ that world but if he did so he might possibly be more open to the charge you’ve brought forth. Where whatever the beast represents might be absorbed into a globalized model of horror representation (or what have you) or where such a paradigm might feed ‘new Indian’ desire. You can have Naan Kadavul on one side or Raavan on the other because these films never strive to be commercial in those easy ways. But if you’re doing ‘blockbuster’ entertainment it’s much harder to maintain that seamless narrative (which in my terms represents both ‘Old’ and ‘New’ as I read these categories).

      In terms of some of your criticisms while I certainly understand some of your more individual characterizations I’d say that there’s a rich genealogy of the ‘lurid’ in Tamil cinema in this sense. Even looking at older iconic examples, for instance involving Kamal, I cannot say that physical deformity or anything loosely resembling it is ever represented with less than titillation value and it certainly conforms to that same spectacle logic. In a similar sense Bharthiraja when he brings forth the marginal and in ways that have been otherwise seminal he too quite often succumbs to the same ‘sensationalization’. In either of those two examples I’d say perhaps less justifiably than with Shankar. Because the latter is so over the top anyway and even moreso in a lot of his more recent work. Again in more contemporary cinema, Bala or otherwise, the problem that I see with those two examples I’ve presented is quite often avoided (not always) for one reason or another but otherwise Tamil cinema I think is the fount of the marginality/beast couple in the ways I like to define this. Which then always includes those problematic representations that you identify in ‘I’ and which I don’t necessarily disagree with.

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      • Too generic to bring stalwart filmmakers like Bala, Bharathiraja and Kamal here without examples.

        ‘In either of those two examples I’d say perhaps less justifiably than with Shankar. ‘

        Meaningless without specifics. And a cop-out that he is over the top.

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      • ^Shankar-Vikram PRO

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      • zeroblogs Says:

        Thanks for the follow-up comment, Satyam.

        “I’d say that there’s a rich genealogy of the ‘lurid’ in Tamil cinema in this sense. Even looking at older iconic examples, for instance involving Kamal, I cannot say that physical deformity or anything loosely resembling it is ever represented with less than titillation value and it certainly conforms to that same spectacle logic.”

        Oh, certainly. This is indeed a familiar trope and usually there’s quite a bit of exoticization/sensationalization involved. Perhaps I should have framed this better. My point is, while making this kind of figure a spectacle is par for the course, placing it in a standard revenge narrative AND opting for a cartoonish tone for the revenge that inflicts the same kind of violence is to really plumb the depths. The usual spin is that of an act of cathartic violence which does acknowledge the brutality though again only in a tokenistic sense (i.e. it’s really only an excuse for delivering a narrative of violent retribution). However, here, there’s no such pretence even. That all this is rendered even as a kind of payoff to us the audience was shocking.

        And yes, specifically in relation to contemporary Tamil cinema that keeps returning to the marginal (often with some degree of sensationalization), I was also reminded of Bala (understandably). In this sense, considering the ‘surfacing’ from subterranean world/hell as a common strain, I thought Shankar’s treatment here can be characterized as anti-Bala. The latter’s work too (I’m of course thinking Naan Kadavul primarily) involves a certain degree of wallowing but with the overarching purpose of profoundly unsettling its audience, while here Shankar (with this sort of an arc) pretty much aims for a comforting revenge narrative wherein the situation is merely reversed. Hence the remark about its sheer timidity.

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        • your objections are certainly fair Zero.. and coincidentally I too thought of Naan Kadavul a lot when I was critiquing Shankar. About how it might have been a film for the ages had Shankar found an equivalent for that work within his more commercial choices which is to say something as consistent as that in terms of representation. But as I also said earlier I don’t necessarily disagree with your criticism even if I nonetheless liked the film a lot. However I do have a followup question that I keep raising. Even accepting the criticism (on your terms and mine) it’s not clear to me whether that Naan Kadavul equivalent, as I’ve been calling it, could have been fashioned within an overtly commercial framework. Or more precisely, it could have been but that wouldn’t have constituted an interesting film on its own. Differently still as long as you’re doing Naan Kadavul you’re really doing a certain kind of ‘alternative’ cinema where the same commercial expectations/equations don’t hold. At least not in the same way. Of course Bala doesn’t make art-house cinema but it’s something between this and the more robust sort of commercial film. But again when it’s a proper commercial film that’s also trying to represent the ‘present’ in a very immediate sense (Shankar never really goes over to the side of the period elements or even those elements that suggest a very different sort of world, fantasy or gothic or whatever.. these are always subsets within his films) or is anchored to the same it is perhaps not so easy if at all possible to do double duty? And in a very commercial venture (unlike in a Bala film) if you represent fantasy or the marginal you run a very high risk of doing so from a safe distance. So ‘I’ could have been mostly about the beast and mostly operated in his subterranean world but then it might also have come across as a very gripping fantasy-fairy tale and not very connected to the present. Why isn’t just a more consistent fantasy enough on my terms? Because the possibility of socio-political critique if you will is always greater when there is an ‘eruption’ in the present and not safely tucked away in some other time and space.

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    • Zero: You have pretty much encapsulated my thoughts on “I”. A lot is going on in the film, but sadly none (almost none. I must admit though I absolutely loved that action sequence on the train) of it is interesting enough. Shankar also has a LOT to say here, I wish he knew how to say it an a slightly more competent manner. Make no mistake, “I” is a thoughtful film, it’s just that it’s a very mediocre one (though not something which can be dismissed easily). Incidentally I far preferred Subha’s other film “Maatrraan” over “I” (and both share a lot of similarities, I for one found it quite it fun, just wished they had someone else than Kajal).

      Also loved your last sentence.

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      • It might shock you guys to learn that I was planning to watch it a second time but I couldn’t do so over the first week and in the second week I’d have to drive much further for it and I’m not that motivated either. In some ways Vikram is probably the best fit for Shankar’s concerns. Or certainly he seems to go much more over the top with Vikram and pushes the envelope more (for better and worse) than with anyone else. Don’t think there are two more ‘outrageous’ films in his corpus than Anniyan and now even moreso I. Muthalvan might be his most seamless work but among the major magnum opus efforts it’s Enthiran. Relative to aims and ambition the latter is probably his greatest work. But I am still partial to the two Vikram films. On that note it’s a bit amusing to see Anniyan being discussed more positively in many quarters now than it certainly was when it first released.

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        • zeroblogs Says:

          Ha ha, agreed on the outrageous bit. Anniyan was certainly an outrageous extension of the previous vigilante works making the latter look restrained. I didn’t like that film at all but must say Qalandar’s insightful reading makes its overall narrative logic a pretty compelling one. In any case, Shankar’s vigilante films while explicitly following fascist cleansing fantasy logic also leaves ample room for doubt with a certain amount of slyness. As Qalandar has argued, Anniyan plays out in such a fashion that pretty much reveal the absurdity/limit in the very logic of such cleansing fantasy. But even before that, in Indian, you already have (what ought to have been!) an almost comic sight of septuagenarian dressing up in military uniform (shorts and all) for a TV show, which is of course rendered as a heroic image at the surface but does add colour (so to say) to the character of the old man who gets called a mad man within the film.

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          • zeroblogs Says:

            Btw*, I’ve come to think that the representation of the split psyches in Anniyan almost prefigured the conflicting identities of the self-image of the rabid Hindu right-wing that has risen in the more recent years. Even the suggestive presence of the Internet in the film seems prescient.

            * I know this may come off as an irresponsible remark (not sure how many would take my comment seriously but still…), and I’m well aware I’m not treading/expanding on it carefully. However in the interest of time, I’d like to throw this thought and see if it sticks. Satyam, please feel free to delete the comment if required.

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          • that’s a very suggestive point Zero.. didn’t think about it in those terms.. should revisit it!

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          • On a related note (and I mentioned it in the Robot piece) but one of the very inspired Shankar segments, also one of his zaniest, is the mosquito sequence. It’s crazy and it’s brilliant! After watching that I felt Shankar would probably be very good with an animated feature. I now wonder if many of these problems as we see them might be better resolved in that format. I am thinking here of the great Miyazaki. So many of his works are really ‘adult’ animated features. Princess Mononoke, Japan’s biggest grosser before Titanic, has themes that Shankar might have chosen (specially in the light of ‘I’). But I wouldn’t push this too far because Miyazaki’s is an extremely refined, even genteel sensibility.

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  19. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    The closest Bollywood came to it was with the title of a film: Ugly. Bollywood’s version of heroes going unglamorous stops with a tonsure. Bollywood heroes from their 20s to 50s prefer to drop shirts to reveal gleaming torsos leaving the audience to count their pack abs. Not so in Tamil filmdom. A Tamil matinee idol of my mother’s vintage possibly got a hike in asking price for every inch added to his waistline.

    The fan base and fame of Tamil cinema’s leading men has not been based on their good looks. A hero’s plain looks invited comments but never affected his popularity if he was talented or had good fortune. And the icing is most Tamil heroes have always run an extra mile to turn horrid looking for a role to shock and awe the audience.

    http://www.outlookindia.com/article/The-Ugliness-Of-The-Tamil-Hero/293224

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    • The problem with Bollywood’s current fetishization of gym bodies is that it adds a completely avoidable layer of INauthenticity. Thus the viewer is jolted out of Langda Tyagi or Akbar the moment he sees Saif and Hrithik without their shirts. Or, as in Ye Jawaani Hai Deewani, even though we are told in the beginning that Deepika Padukone’s character is that of a dork, we can’t see any difference (um, except for the specs). This isn’t about “realistic” films versus “glamorous” ones: this is about films increasingly putting forth plastic characters who don’t seem plausible even in the world of the film, and (even where this isn’t true, e.g. Omkara), about actors who are willing to dress up for critical acclaim, Hollywood-ishtyle, but not really pay any price at all for their roles.

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