The Complicated Moral Universe Of Thugs Of Hindostan And Shankar’s 2.0

Or why films that attempt to deviate from the formula of the masala movie need much better writing
The Complicated Moral Universe Of Thugs Of Hindostan And Shankar’s 2.0

Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen '2.0'…

During the intermission of Shankar's 2.0, I made a note: "complicated moral universe." I didn't talk much about it in my review, where I just said: An Indian-like development where a benevolent old man turns into a pissed-off vigilante in order to teach uncaring people a lesson? Check. Now, of course, everyone knows I was referring to the so-called "villain" of the story, Akshay Kumar's Pakshi Raja. Where's the complication? It's in the fact that he – and not the "hero" – is the sympathetic character.

The masala genre (I use the term "genre" loosely) is one of the most MORAL of genres, like the Western. The lines between Good and Bad are clearly drawn. When Thugs of Hindostan came out, this was the problem. I wroteThe only way this story would have worked is if we were constantly kept on edge about whether Firangi Mallah is a rogue or a nice guy — and with a superstar like Aamir Khan, it's never in doubt that he will feel a twinge of conscience and rise against the British. But it's more than that. It's more than just the fact that our big heroes almost never play morally complicated characters in big movies (as opposed to, say, an indie-ish film like 1947: Earth). It's also that the masala universe cannot (and will not) accommodate such a character.

What about Sholay, you ask? Aren't Jai and Veeru crooks? Aren't they out to cheat the Sanjeev Kumar character of his money, by pretending to sign up for his mission? Yes. But… (1) They are "lovable" rogues. Their "crimes" happen off-screen (so we don't see or know about the victims). But more importantly, (2) once they realise the gravity of Thakur*'s mission and resolve to fight with him, there's no going back. There is that line between Good and Bad – you are either on this side or that one. This is why we never take Firangi Mallah seriously when the screenplay tries to make us think he may be a double agent. Once he realises the gravity of the mission (and how lovely that Amitabh Bachchan is now the "Thakur" equivalent), there can be no going back. Firangi Mallah is responsible for the Bachchan character's death. Had he continued to be morally compromised, we would have revolted.

Something similar is afoot in 2.0, which – for me — basically works as a massive WWF-style showdown and nothing more. Does the film have an obligation to be something more? No. If a director simply wants to keep frying our eyeballs with awesome technology and his awesome imagination, then who can deny him? But that's not all Shankar wants to do. There's a massive subversion of the masala universe being attempted here, and it's this writing that fails the film.

The subversion is this: In a typical Shankar movie, the hero is the vigilante, but here, it's the villain. In a typical Shankar film, we root for the hero (even if we would not endorse his methods in real life), but here, we are encouraged to root for the villain. At least, at first. Hence the poignant scene that opens the film, with a stoop-shouldered Pakshi Raja dejected at having failed in saving the birds he loves, and committing suicide (symbolically) by hanging from a mobile tower. There's a lovely bit of masala-flavoured resonance here. The tower that's killing his birds is also the tower where his life ends.

So this is the man – like Arjun in Gentleman, like Kamal Haasan in Indian, like Vikram in Anniyan – with a cause. And like those earlier Shankar heroes, he resorts to extrajudicial (to put it mildly) means to kill those responsible for this situation. But this is where 2.0 becomes more complicated. In those earlier films, the vigilante's anger was directed at corrupt people whom the audiences despised as well. (In an uncharitable moment in real life, while facing similarly corrupt people, we might have even thought, "I wish that bastard was dead and gone.") In 2.0, Pakshi Raja's cause is much more universal, extending far beyond those who make human lives miserable. It's about those who destroy other species. Pakshi Raja's anger is directed not just towards the people who build mobile phone towers and issue licenses and so on, but also those who use mobile phones, i.e. us, the audience. So do we root for the man who wants to save those poor, innocent birds? Or do we root for the "hero" to kill this creature that's out to kill us?

This is a fascinating twist to the Good/Bad dichotomy of the masala-movie universe. (What's "good" for the avian species is "bad" for us…) And there's more. In the masala universe, the vanquisher of evil is always the good guy. (Even if he is a gangster, he kills for a "good" reason.) But here, most of the Rajinikanths aren't "good" in the classical/mythical sense. Vaseegaran knows that Chitti can go rogue. After all, that's what happened in the first film, Endhiran. And yet, because he doesn't have the time to build a new robot, he's forced to reconfigure a problem-robot, with a misplaced sense of confidence that can be traced back to his God Complex in the first film. (There, he refused to accept that a robot couldn't have nuanced feelings.) Chitti is the one "good" version of Rajinikanth (and the only one moral enough to play the lead in a "regular" masala movie), but he/it is unequal to the task of destroying the villain because his moral code is too strong. When Pakshi Raja enters Vaseegaran, Chitti cannot bring himself to kill his creator.

Enter 2.0, the rogue robot, and 3.0, the mini-me version of 2.0. By this point, the moral universe of the masala movie is completely awry. After making the claim that birds outnumber humans and are responsible for the survival of humans (by eating up worms that eat up our food), we are in a situation where the lives of a few thousand humans (in a football stadium) are what's important. And when the 3.0 army threatens to strangle a few thousand birds, it's a fuck-you not just to Pakshi Raja ("you want to kill humans? Watch us kill your precious birds!") but to the film's very "cause", its very reason for being. The writing tries to compensate with a weak scene at the end, by having Vaseegaran endorse what Pakshi Raja said. But how much better would this have sounded coming from Pakshi Raja himself. Imagine him self-destructing in the stadium, but saying something like this in a voice that reaches the skies: "I may be dead, but this issue is still alive. If you don't want to die, think about what I've been saying about birds." Or some such thing.

Is any of this "wrong"? No. It's brilliant, actually. Shankar's films – for me – work better when I think back on them than when I am actually watching them. He's one of our best ideas men, someone who upends conventional morality by giving his "hero" a mechanical birth and his "villain" a mythical birth. (The latter is literally "birthed" by a bird.) But all this needs layered writing, where we see and sense all these facets as opposed to simply settling down for a "WWF movie". With such amazing visuals, some of you may not mind doing that. A lot of people have told me exactly that. (It's some version of "I know the film has many problems but it's a hell of a ride and I loved it.") But this is an if-only lament from someone who worships masala movies and their ethos. These brilliant subversions need writing that's just as brilliant. Otherwise, we're just watching a sound-and-light show, not that there's anything wrong with that…

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