Director: S. Shankar
Cast: Rajinikanth, Akshay Kumar, Amy Jackson, Sudhanshu Pandey
2.0 is a cool title. Numbers sound modern – they quantify the ambitions of a product in a way words rarely can. 543 crores, 4 Rajinikanths, 3D images, 4D sound, 5 years, 15 languages, 500 Rajini robots, 1000 CGI shots…life is mercilessly big in Shankar’s little fairytales. 2.0 might suggest a technological update, yes, but also an ideological one. If Enthiran was about man v/s machine, its spiritual successor is about man v/s machine v/s nature. The question is: how many ideas can a 150-minute-long sci-fi-social-action-adventure-futuristic-superhero melodrama cram into its belly before it explodes into the populist vanity extravaganza its budget was obligated to manufacture? How long before the concept of the Indian superstar takes over the concept of the film? At what point do the visual effects concede to the real “image,” and turn the narrative into man v/s machine v/s nature v/s God? With the kind of antagonist 2.0 presents, these questions appear all the more significant. And, in a sense, all the more damning.
Not unusually for a Shankar movie, the premise is wicked. I like how he chooses precisely the kind of gadget-centric Armageddon scenario that enables the film’s optical experience. After all, which one of us hasn’t been hypnotized by the surreal illusion created by a thousand flashing smartphone screens in a dark stadium? Multiply that by infinity. Imagine the utter chaos, he asks, if all of Chennai’s cellphones suddenly vanished into the sky. Somehow, he spends the entire first half realizing the sheer entertainment of this event.
For close to 70 minutes, we see phones disappearing from the hands of various socioeconomic stereotypes – greedy politicians, chatty housewives, selfie-obsessed college kids, nostalgic old-timers, and of course, world-famous-in-India scientist Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth), who has replaced Chitti (Rajinikanth) with Nila (Amy Jackson), a domesticated female robot. As per the norms of a notoriously male-dominated culture, trust the only lady in the film to be a subservient machine who ends up literally “fixing” her male counterpart on more than one occasion. This is the film’s version of a cultural upgrade from Enthiran: at least, it seems to suggest, woman isn’t the reason man and machine wage a war.
The question is: how many ideas can a 150-minute-long sci-fi-social-action-adventure-futuristic-superhero melodrama cram into its belly before it explodes into the populist vanity extravaganza its budget was obligated to manufacture?
But I digress. A cellphone wholesaler and telecom owner suffer gruesome (and very imaginative) deaths, and the army is rendered useless by a giant bird composed of cellphones – a creature that seems to be taking revenge for the way its brother (or grandfather) was so tediously portrayed in Thugs of Hindostan. So far, so Shankar. The problem begins once the message of the movie kicks in, and once the morality of the good-versus-evil battle unravels. The maker – by this I mean the film’s maker and not Superstar Rajinikanth – means to design these initial portions as a crisis, a drastic setup that demands the return of the impenetrable Chitti. However, none of it truly earns our empathy. The technology that has hijacked our lives to dehumanize the notion of communication is now gone – how is that a bad thing? It’s almost pleasurable to see them suffer, which is why Chitti comes across as more of a party-pooper.
The foundation of heroism feels all the more fragile once the villain is revealed. Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar is Pakshi Rajan, an ornithologist who, after discovering that the telecom companies don’t give a damn about its radiation killing his beloved birds, commits suicide only to be reincarnated as, well, a destructive mega-bird made of cellphones. The legacy of Superhero cinema is always rooted in the tragedy of a super-villain who starts out with noble intentions before being wronged by society. The villain, a victim of civilization, is merely an unhinged hero – the thread that connects the two is thin, and it’s up to the writers to contextualize their personalities within the genre of storytelling they occupy. 2.0, though, chooses a theme – the social as well as scientific evils of technology – that inadvertently positions Pakshi Rajan as the hero. He is right, but the film tries too hard to weaponize his mentality.
Kumar, especially in the backstory, does such a competent job of sentimentalizing his cause that we find ourselves rooting for him over the several Rajinikanths.
Kumar, especially in the backstory, does such a competent job of sentimentalizing his cause that we find ourselves rooting for him over the several Rajinikanths. Some movies employ this moral conflict as a strength – Black Panther is a recent example. But those like 2.0, buckling under the burden of its nation’s celebrity culture, lose perspective of its world’s balance of humanity. They lose sight of the ethics of what they set out to sermonize on. To overcompensate for the villain’s inherent goodness, they insist on caricaturizing his avatar into a one-dimensional killing machine so that the three-dimensional hero is always needed. As a result, no matter how cacophonic and splashy a football-stadium battle-of-giants climax is, it looks strangely empty because the motives are fundamentally flawed.
At one point, an army of tiny Rajinis even threatens to twist the neck of the doves they ride on so that Pakshi feels weakened. If it weren’t for commercial cinema’s obsession with Rajiniisms and ‘masala’ antics, the scientist and his machines might have even been portrayed as reluctant heroes who know that they are defending the wrong side. These little complexities are overlooked in favour of spectacle. Maybe it’s ironic that if not for the aura of God hanging over the film, the Gods might have been kinder to Pakshi.
It’s also a pity, because the film’s world-building isn’t random. There is some thought to it. The subtext lies in the birdman’s very existence: Pigeons, after all, were the original messengers before phones took over. They delivered the kind of handwritten letters (which, in Hindi, translates to a similar-sounding “Chitthi”) that have all but gone extinct in an era of ruthless modernization symbolized by Chitti’s ilk. Those same words can’t be communicated without the input of numbers on a keypad these days. As I said, numbers sound modern. They quantify the ambitions of a product in a way words rarely can. Which is why 2.0 might be a cool title…but it is also a cool rating.