Director: Kamal Haasan
Cast: Kamal Haasan, Pooja Kumar, Andrea Jeremiah, Shekhar Kapur, Rahul Bose, Jaideep Ahlawat
Note: The reviewer watched the Hindi version of the film
Not unlike Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the opening credits of Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroop II appear over near-static images of all the "punch-line" moments from the first film. We see specific movements of Haasan in different avatars: as an effeminate Kathak teacher named Vishwanathan in New York, as a Jihadi fighter integrated into the sleeper-cell universe of Al-Qaeda terrorists Omar (Rahul Bose) and Salim (Jaideep Ahlawat), as an undercover RAW agent Wisam Kashmiri unleashing chaos and bullets on his stunned Afghani enemies. The camera zips around his slow-motion figure, revealing his action and stunts from different dimensions. When S.S. Rajamouli did it, it felt like he was challenging us to locate the invisible strings upholding his mythical fairytale. The characters looked clay-like and indistinguishable, highlighting the legacy of the "story" over its individual players.
But when Haasan does it here, the technique feels hopelessly self-reverential – he is dancing, shooting, killing, maiming in each frame. The message is clear: he is the story, and he is to populist spy thrillers what Baahubali is to fantasy fiction. During one of this prequel-cum-sequel's many needless diversions, we even see an emotional Wisam staring at photographs of a young, lanky Kamal Haasan on a wall. It's not just the meta-ness of an ageing superstar reminiscing about a promising actor. At this point, he is a son to an Alzheimer's-afflicted mother (Waheeda Rehman), in between being a husband to an adoring wife (Pooja Kumar, as Nirupama), a partner to a butt-kicking agent (Andrea Jeremiah, as Ashmita), a loyal soldier to his mentor (Shekhar Kapur), and a James Bond/Ethan Hunt/Tiger to his nation.
Trust 64-year-old Haasan, a man wearing multiple hats in life and cinema, to find an excuse to play the hero of several films even within the same film. A film that he has directed, produced and written. Inspite of its title, Vishwaroop II has one head too many.
And that's the tragic irony of this ham-fisted desi spy franchise. Each of his roles jostles with the other for space. None of them inform each other. The director struggles with incoherent set pieces and awkward setups; the writer struggles with meandering conversations and a fundamental sense of scene-making and pace; the star struggles to tower over a good-v/s-evil template; the actor struggles to rise above inconsistent accents and strange sub-threads; the producer struggles to reign in the indulgence of an over-excited director. In short, this is little more than a jaded vanity vehicle that presents itself as a self-aware genre movie.
The first film thrived on the surprise of the reveal – a Hindu dancer is revealed to be a Muslim RAW agent, an Al-Qaeda terrorist is revealed to be an Indian spy, a philandering wife is revealed to be a curious partner, and so on. This one has nowhere to go but backward, in every way possible. We see flashes of Wisam's 'origin story' with Ashmita at an army institution, scattered history from his undercover stint in Omar's Taliban-heavy backyard, and even a song dedicated to his childhood Kathak lessons with his mother.
Once a flashback begins, it almost never ends – a trend that suggests Wisam is an introspective 'sleeper' with an overactive memory. A few new shady characters and Pakistani ISI agents in Britain pepper a plot that climaxes not once (nuclear bomb, anyone?) but twice (Omar returns, with his Dracula's-helper voice) in an effort to internalize its hero's bang-for-buck offer. Even though it exists solely because Wisam generously let the villains get away, Vishwaroop II is too busy fetishizing his newfound masculinity – he is frequently seen sitting between "his two women," enjoying their attention, getting seduced, while an annoying Ashmita playfully taunts Nirupama about their belated honeymoon phase. There's something inherently creepy about the chemistry between them – Haasan might be trying to subvert the Bond-Moneypenny power dynamic, but only ends up designing a threesome that titillates with bad dialogue and over-sexed diction.
Both the actresses are, at least on paper, independent and intelligent professionals, but in context of an Indian 'masala' movie they remain as coquettish and gender-conscious as ever. As a result, it's not until the final act that we see Omar and his grand plans, which to be honest are considerably less serious than the goofy conflict leading up to the interval – a point that, if not for Haasan's attention-deficit-disorder-afflicted script, might have been a logical end.
For an action film, it has a ridiculous amount of talking, teasing, flirting, overhearing and explaining. It also resorts to age-old devices of deceit – when a hero accidentally bumps into a hooded somebody while scampering to save a life, that 'somebody' is invariably the killer. When burkha-clad 'women' quietly enter the ladies' room when the heroine is casually gossiping, it is not good news. When Shekhar Kapur does anything else but direct a film, it spells trouble. When Rahul Bose is the most entertaining part of a film, it is doomed.
The problem with globe-trotting espionage dramas is rooted into its form. Spy thrillers have very little to draw upon, which is why we see so many of the modern versions parodying their own themes rather than building upon real experiences. Good movies imitate life, but mediocre movies imitate the movies. No prizes for guessing what category Vishwaroop II falls in.