Cast: Rajinikanth, Akshay Kumar, Amy Jackson
A meme popped up on my Twitter timeline this morning, saying that Rajinikanth is the only actor in the world who's been in four kinds of films: black-and-white, colour, animation and 3D. I thought up another meme after watching 2.0, Shankar's follow-up to Endhiran. Rajinikanth is the only actor in the world to do hundreds of roles in the same film, as both human and humanoid, in avatars that range from small to normal-sized big to super-big… But let's not get ahead of ourselves. 2.0 appears to pick up where Endhiran left off. If you remember, the ending leapfrogged 20 years, when Chitti (The good robot, whose rogue version gives this film its title) was an exhibit in a museum. So it surprised me, in this sequel, to see that Sana (Aishwarya Rai, who we see only as an image on a phone) is still the scientist Vaseegaran's girlfriend. (Forget dating. This has begun to veer into the realm of carbon dating.) And she's still as annoying, constantly sulking that Vaseegaran is not paying her any attention. At least, she's not reduced to a garlanded photo on the wall. Sorry. Scratch that. At least, she's not reduced to a shimmering hologram whose backdrop keeps alternating between the seven wonders of the world. I forgot for a second that we are in a Shankar movie.
Instead, we have Amy Jackson as a machine named Nila. Is this Shankar's cunning metaphor for the fact that the heroines in our commercial cinema are essentially mechanical creatures mooning around the hero — essentially a "domestic purpose robot"? But Nila, it must be said, does function as the brawn to Vaseegaran's brain. She kicks some amount of ass, while still doing "womanly" things like watching mega-serials. I don't judge her, though. You have to do something to not die of dullness around Vaseegaran, who is surely the most colourless protagonist in the Rajinikanth oeuvre. (He keeps jabbering about NASA, ISRO, and… Interpol.) Playing the bookish straight guy is one thing. Playing a flat-out bore is quite another. I mean, the cardboard cutout outside Kasi theatre has more life.
A lot of it is Shankar's fault. He is a superb imaginator. A flock of cell phones, swirling like birds, transforms into the leg of a bird of prey. A bedroom turns into a death trap, vibrating with ghostly mobile-phone beeps. A road transforms into a silver tsunami. A cell phone glows inside a man's belly, like the monster in Alien waiting to burst forth. (Things go satisfyingly splat! a few seconds later, presumably as predicted in the Garuda Puranam.) But this is all Shankar seems to be interested in now — these visual WOWs. As a writer-director, Shankar has stopped caring about characters, relationships, or even infusing the narrative with tension. The barebones of the plot was familiar to many of us from the trailer. But the writing is so mechanical, you suspect Nila spat out the script after being fed the Shankar To-Do List of Plot Points.
A series of strange murders? Check. The second-half flashback? Check. An Anniyan-like scene where two personalities — one meek, one menacing — burst out of the same character? Check. An Indian-like development where a benevolent old man turns into a pissed-off vigilante in order to teach uncaring people a lesson? Check. Repeating pet themes is not the problem. The repetitiveness in the writing is. The setup goes on forever (and that's a long time to be stuck with Vaseegaran). And yet, things happen instantly. Vaseegaran and Nila set out to discover the location of the missing cell phones that set the plot in motion. Boom. They land right at the spot. (Why not make it seem like a bit of hi-tech sleuthing?) The son of the Danny Denzongpa character from Endhiran wants to undo Vaseegaran's good work. Boom. He lands right inside the scientist's facility. (Why not make it a bit of a heist?)
Akshay Kumar plays the villain. You can see why he took up a part where he's reduced to grey sweaters, a shuffling gait and a million pixels. He's continuing to campaign against the evils that affect the nation. (He might have called this film Toucan: Ek Prem Katha. Or Airtel–lift.) But the role needed more screen time to make us care — if not for his character, then at least about the things he does. And the sensitivity behind his stand is buried under Shankar's bombast. Resul Pookutty, in an interview to Film Companion South, said that the toughest sound he had to design was that of a sparrow drawing its last breath. Why bury this innovation under AR Rahman's sentimental background music?
If 2.0 works to an extent, it's due to the big set pieces. This is where Shankar the Imaginator shines brightest. We've seen two giant creatures locked in battle in the Transformers movies. But we haven't seen one of them turn into a horseshoe magnet and… I'll leave that for you to find out. Wacko doesn't do justice to the second half, where Rajinikanth finally cuts loose. In one scene, Chitti stays in character — romancing Nila to the strains of the flower duet from the opera, Lakmé — and simultaneously gets all meta, saying, "Indha Number 1 Number 2 laam paapa vilayattu." (The numbers game is for kids.) This is Rajinikanth playing a scene with another character and also winking at the audience. On the one hand, you have a "save the birds" message. On the other, you have a character threatening to strangle pigeons. That's the good thing about Shankar. He keeps throwing things at you. Now, if he'd only get a good writer to shape all these things into a solid script, it would make all the difference between 2.oho and 2.uh-oh!