Kalki 2898 AD Review: A Brave New World of Myth, Science Fiction and Middling Performances

Director Ashwin Nag has an impressive star cast led by Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan, Prabhas and Deepika Padukone in a middle-of-the-road spectacle
Kalki 2898 AD Review: A Brave New World  of Myth, Science Fiction and Middling Performances
Kalki 2898 AD Review: A Brave New World of Myth, Science Fiction and Middling Performances

Director: Nag Ashwin
Writer: Nag Ashwin
Cast: Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Saswata Chatterjee, Kamal Haasan, Anna Ben, Disha Patani, Shobhana

Runtime: 181 minutes

Available in: Theatres

The arrival of an expensive big-screen epic only elicits extreme reactions. Given the scale and hype, the film is allowed to be either a masterpiece or a disaster. From the viewers’ point of view, it cannot be anything else; the stakes are too high. It’s almost as if the size of such movies demands nothing less than passionate love or passionate criticism. There’s no space for balance. But Nag Ashwin’s gargantuan Rs. 600-crore spectacle, Kalki 2898 AD, breaks this holy tradition – by being strictly middling. It has great narrative ambition, but also bloated fan service. It has exceptional visual effects, but also inflated action sequences. It has complex ideas, but also formulaic writing. It has rich world-building, but also slow universe-staging. It has blockbuster timing, but also mixed commentary.

Kalki 2898 AD is a rare example of the whole working better than its uneven parts. This whole – the broader framework – is a curious brew of technology and religion. Like Arati Kadav’s Cargo (2020), it’s rooted in the inherent relationship between Hindu mythology and science fiction. They’re essentially two sides of the same storytelling coin; the former is ancient scripture and the latter is modern imagination. 

Deepika Padukone in Kalki 2898 AD
Deepika Padukone in Kalki 2898 AD

A Mixed Bag of Influences

Without any context, the film is a dystopian drama revolving around a pregnant woman whose unborn child might rescue this godforsaken planet from itself. The bad guys want to capture and kill her; the good guys need to protect her. Think Children of Men, Mad Max: Fury Road, the Dune films, The Handmaid’s Tale and more. 

But with context, the premise reads: It’s post-apocalyptic India in 2898 AD, it’s 6,000 years after the end of Mahabharata; the son of Drona (Amitabh Bachchan) is cursed with immortality, Kali Yuga is upon us, the world is literally godless; the fabled mega-city of Kashi is ruled by a withered dictator (Kamal Haasan) from an inverted pyramid called the Complex, and amidst this desolation, a female slave (Deepika Padukone) of this regime gets pregnant with the tenth avatar of Lord Vishnu. A famous bounty hunter named Bhairava (Prabhas) gets entangled in this hunt, while the last refuge of nature and rebellion – a spiritual kingdom called Shambhala – becomes a battleground. At stake, then, is the potential return of God to a planet that desperately needs one. 

The scope is interesting. Traditionally, the Dashavatar – the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu – is widely viewed as the source material for Darwinism. In a way, this film pits one against the other; evolution needs a factory reset and divine intervention is the only hope. At one level, it seems to suggest that a world without the purity of Hinduism is a world that’s destined to die. But at another level, it also seems to imply that mythology alone is just a story; evolution is its language. That this era is portrayed as godless speaks to the abuse of religion rather than the upholding of it. 

The battles between Ashwatthama (and his supernatural powers) and Bhairava (and his ingenious machinery) are direct face-offs between fantasy and reality; between faith and progression. There is never a clear winner; in fact, the film builds up to their allyship. The ‘seed’ of Kalki, too, is planted in a futuristic lab, where the power of pregnant women is extracted to create a serum that’s supposed to fuel the Evil – the Kali – to Kalki’s Good. It’s a nice riff on the symbiotic link between civilizations and the stories they tell themselves to survive. The title montage, which runs through centuries of humankind, does well to condense this philosophy. 

Still from Kalki 2898 AD
Still from Kalki 2898 AD

The Middle-of-the-Road Spectacle

Despite the compelling whole, the parts of Kalki 2898 AD falter in fundamental ways. It often feels like the film is trying to not only simplify but also conceal its vision. In terms of pace and exposition, the film works backward to justify the birth of a franchise (the Kalki Cinematic Universe). So many moments, conversations and set pieces are either stretched or completely unnecessary. Ironically, Prabhas’ character is the biggest casualty. His Bhairava feels like a filler in a script that features far more important figures. His goofy-action-star humour doesn’t land, neither does his banter with his landlord (Brahmanandam) nor his physical presence in overchoreographed fight sequences. You can sense that the film is too aware that it’s the first of the franchise, so his tomfoolery is used to bide time. A random romantic track (with Disha Patani) – which goes out of its way to spend money on exotic locations – is the worst of this condition. One could argue that his presence is a smokescreen for future installments, but in this one, it works against the film. 

The narrative padding happens in other forms. Sometimes, it’s the distracting cameos by directors like Ramgopal Varma and S.S. Rajamouli, and stars like Vijay Deverakonda and Dulquer Salmaan. Sometimes, it’s the flaunting of the laser-guns-neon-lights production design, the crowded cast and the CGI (not including Bachchan’s badly de-aged face in the Mahabharata) through unnaturally long exchanges. Anna Ben’s bit role as a rebel, in particular, is reduced to a forced footnote. Inserting self-referential terms like “flashback” and “fight sequence” in the dialogue doesn’t absolve the screenplay of being tropey. Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack, too, lacks the sonic scale and transitional rhythm of an A.R. Rahman or M.M. Keeravani score. The background music in such movies are meant to channel, not reflect. When Padukone’s character is in danger, the score here imitates her circumstances instead of accompanying her dread. 

Prabhas in Kalki 2898 AD
Prabhas in Kalki 2898 AD

Amitabh Bachchan improves on his part from the similarly themed Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva. His physicality does more for the energy of this narrative than Prabhas does, but it can’t hide the film’s inability to compose a single memorable action scene. This is the kind of genre that offsets its dense world-building with free-flowing imagination; Kalki 2898 AD doesn’t do enough in that department, despite selling the package of dystopia as well as its Hollywood counterparts. Deepika Padukone is the soul of a film that should have been squarely based on her. She’s played kindred roles before (Jawan), but here her character jostles for position with a story that’s constantly seeking to highlight its male characters. There’s a sense that her suffering is the only thing that can keep her in the spotlight; she isn’t afforded the luxury of ordinary behaviour. It doesn’t help that her urgency is “to be continued”. 

Every time Kalki 2898 AD got a little dull or tangential, I tried to look at the brighter side. After all, it takes guts for a movie of this magnitude to be just alright in an age of lofty adjectives. Which, if you think about it, is an impressive act of dissent. It somehow proves that it’s possible to walk away without having your mind blown or your heart broken. Perspective matters, though. Some might be impressed it’s not as bad as Adipurish, but others might be disappointed it isn’t as breathtaking as Baahubali. I’m a bit relieved that I have no strong feelings. Perhaps it’s because cinematic centrism is the least damaging kind of centrism. 

Related Stories

No stories found.