Friday, January 16, 2015

I (2015)

Arguably one of the most expensive pulpy, B movies in the history of cinema, Shankar's "I" is a classic tale of revenge about a simple man who, in pursuit of love, makes too many enemies, gets wronged, and eventually avenges them. Suffused with the opulence that Shankar's films are most well-known for, "I" has the technical finesse which was amiss in his previous films. Yet, "I" is a spectacular misfire -  a supremely predictable trashy genre fare with a muddled voice, a rotten heart and a misplaced moral centre.

Shankar has never been an economical filmmaker, both in terms of storytelling and especially when it comes to being extravagant (or reckless, depending on who you ask.) He is a man who has built a career on vulgar wastefulness and 'subtle' is a term that has seldom been used to describe any of his films. Returning three years after "Nanban", and for the first time with an original screenplay since the demise of long time writing partner Sujatha, Shankar's indulgence appears to have largely gone unchecked in terms of political correctness (or basic decency) and particularly when it comes to thematic clarity. In terms of a physically damaged protagonist hunting monsters who ruined his past life "I" is like "Ghajini". But "Ghajini" had one villain to vanquish - the kingpin. "I" has 5, though that is not why it is a lesser film. It fumbles big time because all 5 of them are on an even keel in terms of importance. "I" is "Kill Bill" without a Bill. It is a film that, by design, is doomed to dissatisfy.

Despite missing the fervor that put the grandeur typical to his films into perspective, the structure is quite admirable for the entirety of first half, with Shankar never resorting to over-explaining. The narrative shifts back and forth, switching between the past where Lingesan aka Lee is in the act of unwittingly making enemies, to the present, where a disfigured Lingesan, one by one, subjects his victims to brutal physical injury. It's when the timelines converge that non-twists are hyped up like twists and the film suddenly starts over-explaining the shit out of developments so obvious that it's kind of unbelievable a director like Shankar thought them to be unpredictable. The relative economy of first half is over-compensated by the expositions in the second.

Vikram, in his most physical role to date, stars as a bodybuilder who becomes a model and then loses it all. For a change of pace, we have a sensible female lead character in Amy Jackson's Dia, but with Vikram portraying a close version of the "loosu ponnu" archetype. He's an unreasonably chirpy and naive man, unconvincing in his half-baked North Madras baashai, but with a penchant for violence. Think Ambi with Anniyan's fighting genes. There's a chasm of class difference between Lee and Dia, an elephant in the room, that the film acknowledges. Mersalaiyitten is itself a self-contented celebration of this divide - an acceptance by Lee of his own huge complex. But then the are the circumstances under which the two meet again. And it's just plain, shoddy writing. Here's where Vikram's performance is pretty terrible. "Look at me! I am ACTING!" A lot will be said about his physical performance but without the crutch (or excuse) of prosthetics, his performance is severely lacking. Not once does he convince you of his "North Madras-ness", the way Kamal has done in the past, or the way even Santhanam very casually does in this very movie.

If you are someone like me - someone who gave Shankar way too much credit - you too are likely to spend most of the first half frustratingly breaking your head over what is it that he is trying to convey with this film. Is this film about extreme obsessions of fan culture? Or about the lack of inventiveness in advertising, maybe? Is it eventually going to make a statement, hopefully with subtlety, about the hollowness of appearances? Will it shame society for marginalising the transgendered community? Will it teach its audience a thing or two about empathy for the differently-abled? Sooner or later, like me, you too will stop looking for a subtext and resign yourself to the fact that there isn't one. In hindsight, I find it absolutely ridiculous that I lent Shankar even that much of credence, painfully analyzing why he was being such a pig headed transphobe and shockingly insensitive towards disabled.

There's something unsettling and perverse about Lee fiendishly deriving pleasure in hurting someone to the point he does, revenge it may be. On a baser level, this whole adukkum melai business is exactly what sick, jilted lovers think when girls turn down their advances. That's the reasoning behind the bad guys seeking to destroy the one thing about Lee that has resulted in their undoing: his beauty, his physicality. Tying this idea to the bad guys makes sense because, obviously, they are bad guys and its a horrible thing to do to anyone. What Shankar doesn't realize, perhaps does and simply doesn't care, is that, without just vanquishing, making his bad guys taste their own medicine, all at the hands of the hero. There's no difference between the two sides anymore. It's irrelevant who drew first, especially when you were never really fond of the hero in the first place. Worse is Shankar having Santhanam's tragically unfunny character go around rubbing salt on the wounds of Lee's victim. What reaction does Shankar expect from his audience during this scene? Laughter? Some people laughed, but I squirmed. 

I have no qualms with Shankar revelling in stereotypes. The promiscuity and low morals of people from the fashion industry, evil multinational corporations, pervy doctor uncles, the virginal and "pure" lover, gangsters from North Madras - go ahead, have it all. But there needs to be a limit to the chest-thumping idealism in his films that more often than not reek of hypocrisy. Big corporations, soft-drink companies especially, have become convenient punching bags for "socially conscious" sub-plots, with Vijay Mallaya as the poster child, embodying everything that's wrong about them. "I" is one of those Shankar films where he does not keep us busy watch him peddle grandstanding social reforms or his protagonist hand out impersonal justice. This brings into focus his world-view, and, my God, what a regressive outlook it is.

Shankar has the sense of humour of a horny 14 year old, but raunchiness is a-okay in my books. He casts someone from the transgender community for the role of someone from the fashion industry. Another stereotype, but I'm willing to cut him slack. What makes me absolutely furious is his treatment of the character in the hands of the film's "hero", especially when there was no obligation to cast a transgender in the first place - unless, of course, he was making a point about gender violence and marginalisation. Cinema is a powerful medium and filmmakers have the responsibility to, if not help emancipate, at least refrain from causing further trouble. Trust me when I say I have thought about this element in the film for a long time since watching the film and there's no way to justify Shankar's insolence. Even if I were to watch the film in isolation, away from the people relishing the drab scenes, I am sure I still would have been offended because this is not a case of audience misinterpreting a director's intentions. He could have done wonders for the community if he boldly chose to. Instead, he chooses to be so detrimental that it makes my head reel. He is not just ridiculing them the way all minimally talented Indian directors do.  I don't say this because Shankar is one of our country's leading directors but because of how relentless his film is in destroying the pride of the said character - even making Vikram utter a line that basically meant "know your place." One day in future, when majority of Indians, hopefully, would have realized the magnitude of injustice directed towards the transgender community, we will look back in horror that we let a filmmaker like Shankar run amok spewing insensitive and ignorant ideas. "I" would be 21st century Tamil cinema's "The Birth of a Nation"; an albatross around its director's neck.

Clearly out of ideas, Shankar is very close to becoming just a glorified music-video director. In terms of visual grandeur, other directors have caught up and his monopoly has waned. It's high time he stopped thinking in terms of money shots and set pieces and concentrated on a better script. Vikram's efforts are commendable, but seem like an overkill - mostly futile and unnecessary, when less would have sufficed. Amy Jackson is very good. Taking everything into consideration, there's not much left to make "I" worthy of an audience. It's just not fun enough to overlook its flaws. Also, Shankar, please make up your mind about what "I" means. Is it the name of the Mallya lookalike's company or the name of the virus? Or perhaps something that's good? I mean, why else would the two lovers run around singing it? Oh, and in case you are having trouble telling who the bad guys in "I" are, just look out for the people who are smoking a cigarette. Ingenious filmmaking!