Straight Out of WhatsApp University: A Birdwatcher’s Reading of Shankar’s 2.0

On the 5th anniversary of Rajinikanth and Shankar’s ‘2.0’, an environmentalist and birder writes where the film went wrong with its antagonist, Pakshirajan
Straight Out of WhatsApp University: A Birdwatcher’s Reading of Shankar’s 2.0

Earlier this year, I was at Vedanthangal bird sanctuary in Tamilnadu, for the annual bird survey. A curious family visiting the sanctuary struck up a conversation with me about the survey and birds in general. They then brought up the topic of mobile phone towers and their impact on birds – and the source of their knowledge, you ask? It was Rajinikanth’s 2.0, directed by S Shankar. This family isn’t alone in their curiosity. Even now, as the film completes five this year, I still field questions about it. Such is the impact of the film.

As people take away real-world environmental lessons from the film, one needs to examine the authenticity of the science and the depictions of nature in 2.0. But, before that, let’s look at the filmmaker’s intent. What sparked the idea? Director Shankar himself explained in this interview and a few others that the first spark emerged from the idea of a visual of tons of mobile phones flying. 

Visuals of tons of mobile phones flying in 2.0
Visuals of tons of mobile phones flying in 2.0

While we do not know how exactly he went about it, dramatic visuals seem to be the starting point for the film and probably not a concern for birds. This is unlike his previous films, which dealt with issues such as corruption and public negligence, which we all (including the director) understand and can easily relate to. In this, however, birds were an afterthought, to justify the visuals in his head.

But is afterthought necessarily a problem? Does the core issue always have to be the starting point? The recently released Tamil film Jigarthanda DoubleX deals with forests, rights of tribes, poaching and other risks faced by animals. In an interview with Galatta Plus, director Karthik Subbaraj revealed how the story evolved. His initial idea involved a cop infiltrating a gang to kill a gangster, who instead ends up reforming him and making him fight for the “bigger needs” of the people. The “bigger need”, over several years of research and brainstorming, became nature and forest rights. The issues addressed in the film are as real as they can be — DoubleX depicts instances we see in many parts of the country even today. Even if “forest rights” was an afterthought meant to give the protagonist a purpose, it eventually became the soul of the film, handled with the authenticity and care that it deserved. 

Stills from Jigarthanda DoubleX
Stills from Jigarthanda DoubleX

I’d have been really happy if 2.0 was able to manage this. But, it doesn’t. The film has gotten so many aspects wrong about birds and nature, including the core plot point, that I wonder if any research went behind it at all.

An obsession with exotic birds

India is home to 1300+ species of birds (including migratory birds), which is roughly 13% of the total species of birds in the world. And yet, barring feral and domesticated pigeons, and sparrows (which are there because the film claims mobile phone towers killed off sparrows, but more on that later) and a couple of pictures of Indian birds on the wall, there are hardly any other Indian birds depicted in the film, which is set in and around Chennai. What we instead see on screen are only exotic birds. Even if director Shankar had spent an evening in his garden, he would have come across more Indian birds than what is depicted in the film.

Many urban birds like Treepies, Sunbirds, Common Tailorbirds and Ashy Prinias are quite common in Chennai. However, Pakshirajan, an ornithologist, played by Akshay Kumar, only has birds from other continents in his backyard — Toucans and Macaws from South America, Grey-crowned Cranes from Africa, Cockatoos and other Parrots from Australia, with many of these birds forced into cages. This also makes me wonder if Pakshirajan is actually a pet trader, or worse, a bird trafficker, rather than an ornithologist. 

Even if we were to ignore all of this, in the name of creative license, the portrayal of Pakshirajan itself is quite problematic.

A still from 2.0
A still from 2.0

Charlatan or ornithologist?

Many of the men in Shankar’s films are on the wrong side of the law — serial killer in Anniyan, robber in The Gentleman, money launderer in Sivaji. But each of them is still a hero. In this film though, the serial killer is an ornithologist and an environmentalist. And, he is the bad guy. A supervillain. At a time when the climate for environmental activism in our country was (and continues to be) terrible as environmentalists are labelled as anti-nationals who stand against development, thrown in jail on flimsy charges and even murdered, shouldn’t Shankar have been more careful about the portrayal of a person fighting for the environment?

That aside, watching the film as an environmentalist is quite insufferable as Pakshirajan spouts pseudo-science, half-truths and, sometimes even complete nonsense. It hurts even more because the character of Pakshirajan is inspired by the legendary birdman of India, Salim Ali.

Pakshirajan shows a photo of a Pied Cuckoo on the wall
Pakshirajan shows a photo of a Pied Cuckoo on the wall

Sample this: Pakshirajan shows a photo of a Pied Cuckoo on the wall, erroneously stating that its “biological name” is Jacobin Cuckoo (which, actually, is just another common name for the bird). It gets worse. He claims that monsoon starts only when these birds reach North India, that it doesn’t rain if they don’t migrate that year, and that this mystery remains unresolved. If this claim sounds like an urban legend that you come across on WhatsApp, it’s because it is one. It’s embarrassing to even have to explain that the timing of Pied Cuckoo migration to North India coincides with the monsoon, and these birds do not actually influence the monsoon.

In another scene, Pakshirajan talks about the Arctic Tern, “a bird weighing just 50g”, visiting Vedanthangal. In reality, the Arctic Tern doesn’t even visit us. The range map of Arctic Tern from eBird shows no purple pixels marking the sightings of the bird, anywhere close to India. Why choose Arctic Tern, when there are so many species which visit the sanctuary for real? I should also add that a simple glance at the Wikipedia page of the bird will tell you that the bird weighs more than double of what Pakshirajan claims! 

Finally, let’s take up the big question: Do radio waves used by mobile phone towers actually harm birds?

The actual blame on mobile towers in the movie starts when a student asks Pakshirajan about sparrows. Later, Pakshirajan meets a politician and again attributes the disappearance of sparrows in cities to mobile phone towers. One doesn’t even need to rely on scientific studies to refute this (though we will look at published studies too, later in the article). Just a visit to old areas of even big cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai will open your eyes as sparrows frequent these spaces. As long as sparrows get nesting spaces (niches, crevices, holes etc., which are more common in old buildings, and surprisingly in airports), and food grains, they thrive. It is the modern concrete box architecture in our cities that has driven away the sparrows; not mobile phone towers. 

In a scene where Pakshirajan makes a presentation to the policymakers, he talks about cryptochrome, the photoreceptors present in birds, which help birds find direction and orient themselves towards their winter migration grounds. This is indeed perfect science. However, he adds that radiation from mobile towers interferes with the cryptochrome, disorienting the birds. Studies have established that AM radio waves (which were used for long-distance radio communication) interfered with the birds, and not the higher frequency waves used for mobile communication. Even that interference was to a minimal level, which could be overcome by the birds.

A still from 2.0
A still from 2.0

The researcher who did this study, Joe Kirschvink had written a strong disclaimer: “Modern-day charlatans will undoubtedly seize on this study as an argument for banning the use of mobile phones, despite the different frequency bands involved.” So, as per a real scientist, Shankar’s Pakshirajan would be a charlatan, not an ornithologist!

When the film released, Deccan Herald published an article titled “Rajini film imply radiation harms birds, experts differ”, with inputs from Dr Asad Rahmani, former director of Bombay Natural History Society. “People feel because of cell phone and mobile tower radiation, the number of house sparrows is on a decline. But the feeling is not science. There is no scientific proof between electromagnetic radiation and the absence of sparrows,” Rahmani said.

National Audubon Society debunked the film

In 2020, when fresh rumours of 5G signals killing birds started, National Audubon Society, the oldest bird conservation organization based out of the US, published an article debunking the claims. In the article, the author, Steve Rousseau, also touched upon how this film spread misinformation among the masses. 

“Things got weirder and even more obfuscated when Indian sci-fi blockbuster 2.0, currently the highest-budgeted Tamil-language film ever made, hit cinemas just days later. Apart from being a parable about how technology is ruining our lives, 2.0 specifically depicts electromagnetic radiation from cell towers wiping out bird populations, validating (conspiracy theorist) Kuhles' crackpot theory,” wrote Rousseau.

“Contrary to 2.0's plot, however, Longcore's research attributed these bird deaths to the disorienting lights used on communication towers, not the electromagnetic radiation they emit,” he added.

Why is this misinformation such a big problem?

It is because what 2.0 does is engage in the straw man fallacy. Instead of exposing and fighting against the threats for birds, Pakshirajan fights a strawman in the form of mobile phone towers. In our country, where there is very little awareness of actual issues, not just among the public, but even among the policymakers, films like this do real damage. 

The latest edition of State of India’s Birds, the comprehensive study of India’s bird species, talks about several threats for birds,  which require attention. Important bird habitats like forests, wetlands, grasslands and marshlands are indiscriminately destroyed. Grasslands, on which several species of birds depend for their survival, are being marked as “wastelands” and are given away for cheap to cronies for “development”.  The introduction of exotic trees and plants for aesthetic value is destroying the biodiversity in urban areas. Pollution and climate change are wiping away bird habitats and consequently, bird populations.

Pakshirajan in 2.0
Pakshirajan in 2.0

Seeing Pakshirajan ignore the real causes while taking up something irrelevant, I can’t but draw a parallel with Anniyan from Shankar’s film of the same name — Anniyan, spares Nandini (played by Sada), even though she bribes government officials, but murders an innocent man (played by Charlie), punishing him just for his laziness. 

Like Pakshirajan, our people, too, believe that mobile phone towers are the biggest threats and not their actions of filling up their backyards with concrete after getting rid of the vegetation. The public might not go about killing people like Pakshirajan does, but would go about their life, blaming mobile phone signals, not realising that their other actions could be the cause of bird population decline.

It is clear that director Shankar just wanted to make a VFX extravaganza. And, succeed he did, in whatever he set out to do. In terms of VFX breakthrough, I am reminded of a 1993 cult classic that redefined visual effects for generations —Jurassic Park. Amidst all the huge dinosaurs, spectacular cinematography, and thrills, nature conservation remains the movie’s core. Jurassic Park had its own set of problems in terms of the accuracy of dinosaur depictions. As ecologist Sam Perrin notes, “Ultimately, while some of the science might not be spot-on, I think most palaeontologists, zoologists and ecologists would agree that the positive effects of Jurassic Park on modern science far outweigh the negative any errors may have brought.” It had its heart in the right place. 

This is where 2.0 differs. The film couldn’t go beyond being just a mega-budget Whatsapp forward. That said, I will eternally be thankful to director Shankar for one thing in the movie –  AR Rahman’s gorgeous composition ‘Pullinangaal’. With meaningful lyrics by the late Na Muthukumar and sung beautifully by the late Bamba Bakya and AR Ameen, this song is on my lips many a time, whenever I am out birdwatching. It is tragic that the soul in this song doesn’t spill over to the rest of the film.

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