Directed by: S. Shankar. Starring: Rajnikanth and Aishwarya Rei.
2010 Sun Pictures. In Tamil with English subtitles.
When I was growing up on Montreal’s South Shore, a trip to the local Indian grocer was always a treat. It was one of the few connections my sister and I had to my mother’s native land. The pungent aromas of masala and the fine mist of dust would always coax a sneeze as we stomped off past the syrupy laddus and salted treats to the video rental section to choose a movie, usually one which featured a sassy monkey. Most Indian grocers in Canada have a well-stocked selection of Indian films and music, a tradition that continues today.
Not that I’ve moved to the west coast, I find myself missing my connection with the South Asian community. Burdened with that longing, I stumbled upon Enthiran, a recently released Tamil-language Indian sci-fi blockbuster.
Enthiran means “The Robot,” and this isn’t a Bollywood movie. It’s actually Kollywood. The difference? Bollywood movies are usually in Hindi and filmed in Bombay (my family will never call it Mumbai), whereas Kollywood caters to Tamil speakers and is located in the state of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost point of the country.
Enthiran is like a mash-up of The Terminator, The Matrix and the live action Transformers. Dr. Vaseegaran, a brilliant robotics expert creates Chitti, a sophisticated, sunglasses-wearing robot made in his master’s image. This allows both roles to be played by Rajinikanth, a big action star in Indian cinema. Think of him as the 61 year-old Indian version of Chuck Norris. Indian make-up artists have a true gift, as the actor doesn’t look a day over 35. Chitti forms a bond with Vaseegaran’s girlfriend, Sana (played by veteran Bollywood star and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai) and helps her get into and out of several mischievous (and some very dangerous) situations.
Hoping to make his creation a masterpiece, Vaseegaran gives Chitti emotions, which leads him to fall madly in love with Sana. This doesn’t jive well when Chitti’s evaluated by the military. Apparently stuffing roses into live grenades and telling the army brass you’re in love with your creator’s girlfriend is NOT appropriate behaviour for robots in the Indian Armed Forces.
Every hero needs a villain, and Enthiran doesn’t disappoint. Enter Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa), Vaseegaran’s mentor, friend and competitor in the robot-making business. Bohra is incensed that his robot can’t even walk while Chitti single-handily caters an Indian wedding. Suffice to say, when Bohra finally gets his hands on Chitti, he turns it/him into a murderous machine fuelled by rage and leather jackets.
In order to appeal to a more general audience, the filmmakers invest considerable screen time into the love story. Comedians Santhanam and Karunas appear as Vaseegaran’s dim-witted assistants and provide most of the comic relief. Their scenes are often over-cranked, a film technique where the slapstick action is slightly faster and jerky. The effect is like watching Buster Keaton and the Keystone Kops try to trip up The Terminator. It’s silly, but it works.
If this were a standard Hollywood blockbuster, we’d already be into sequel territory. Director S. Shankar will have none of that. Barely passed the intermission, you really do feel like you’re getting two movies for the price of one, and the 165 minute run-time reinforces that feeling. Unlike western films that favour a three-act structure, Enthiran‘s structure is closer to five.
And yes, in matching with its Bollywood cousins, there is singing. And dancing. And dancing robots who sing. Shot in locations like Machu Picchu, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro and Hanoi, each musical number has its own theme, style and feel. One musical number serves as a visual representation of Chitti morphing from an emotionless robot to a love-struck Casanova. Digital flowers and butterflies bloom from circuit boards as we’re flung through a fibre-optic cable into a giant metallic room with a silver-suited Chitti and techno-clad Sana surrounded by dancing robots with an uncanny resemblance to Doctor Who’s Cybermen. Canadian musicians could only dream of making music videos with these kind of production qualities.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Enthiran, and recent Indian cinema, is the inclusion of English dialogue. Whenever a character gives an order, or makes a firm, technical statement, it’s in English. Since I hail from La Belle Nation Province, where our two official languages co-exist in a begrudging temporary truce, I was surprised at the film’s bilingualism.
That’s not to say the film is without faults. The combination of so many special-effect shots and an extremely tight turnaround time following principal photography means corners had to be cut. Some effects are mind-blowing in their complexity, while others are very noticeably CG. Despite all its flaws, at a budget of $37 million, it’s a fraction of the cost of Michael Bay’s explosive disaster The Transformers and creates an emotional connection between audience and characters. Go figure.
To date, Enthiran has grossed an estimated $82 million worldwide. Not quite in the same league as Hollywood blockbusters, but when you factor in producers’ marketing costs, Enthiran is probably much more profitable. Who knows how much more it would have made with a sassy monkey?
–With a strong background in comedy, Montreal native Ryan Harper-Brown has worked in film, television, print, radio and live theatre. Ryan has an MFA in Writing from UVic and an MA in Film and Television Production from Australia’s Bond University. He currently works as a sessional instructor for UVic’s Writing Department.