Sunday, February 10, 2013

Vishwaroopam: Has Kamal Gone Wrong While Bonding with the West?

(Vishwaroopam Poster)

There is a fundamental difference between James Bond and his Indian avatars. While the Fleming’s Bond and his various manifestations in/by different macho actors could unscrupulously bed several women, his Indian versions are forced to stick to one woman who claims all his virility and life-long ‘bonding’. Heroines in the Indian Bond movies bond with the best and never leave them to take rest. Kamal Haasan has tried several times to come out this forced monogamy on screen several times, each time failing pathetically. In his Tamil Bond flick, ‘Vikram’ he has two heroines namely Lissy and Dimple Kapadia. The last scene of this movie is quite telling; after the crisis management, that means the ultimate decimation of the enemy in a foreign land, in a desert Kamal is claimed by both women. And he finds a solution (rather a funny solution); he runs away from both of them and disappears into the horizon in a freeze shot. Kamal earlier too had circumvented multiple relationships (both in real and reel lives) by multiplying his identity (as in double or multiple roles or the same person masquerading as different persons). Examples could be seen in Sakalakala Vallavan, Michel Madana Kamaraj, Punnagai Mannan and Indran Chandran.

Viswaroopam, the latest venture of Kamal, which has now hit the theatres after a prolonged religious controversy, is nothing but an Indian Bond movie shot in foreign locations (the US and Afghanistan). This film too has two women to accompany Kamal (Viswa/Toufik); one his legally wedded wife and the other a devoted police officer under cover. The legal wife has an office romance because she thinks that her husband is not ‘man-enough’. The effeminate Kamal who lives as a Kathak dancer and Guru in the US has a soft corner for the other woman who is disciple (who is also an under-cover officer). While Kamal does not commit to both of the sexually, by proving his ability to kick the balls of the villains in a sudden revelation of his original identity through a carefully choreographed fight scene, he gives a sexual tension to both the ladies. After all this Bond is an Indian Viswanathan who cannot sleep with two women at a time (Kamal had tried three women at one go in a non-sense film titled Tik-Tik-Tik in 1980s). But he wants the loyalty of both women (both mental and sexual) so despite having an affair with her office boss, Kamal’s legal wife does not sleep with him (Pativrata). Her abstinence is underlined in the first few scenes where Zarina Wahab asks a few personal questions to her and she denies having sex with her lover. Even if she has a fling with the office boss, her body belongs to Kamal. Similarly, the other woman also does not commit sexually to any other man. In one go, Kamal in this movie endorses the conventional Indian thinking that while a man can have multiple affairs, the woman’s body belongs to him.

(Vikram Poster)

Kamal has played Bond like characters even before. In those movies however, the story happens either in an island (generally anti-Indian activities happen in an island- that’s a formula in Indian movies) or in a place where a common language is spoken. Kamal’s Kaakkichattai, Vikram and Vetti Vizha and many other movies have been the sites where Kamal played the role of the representative of the state. Perhaps in Oru Kaithiyin Diary (later it was remade Andha Kanoon in Hindi with Amitabh Bacchan in the lead) Nayakan and Mahanadi, Kamal spoke against the state. Amounting to childishness several times, these movies had a Kamal protecting a nation from nuclear explosions and foreign invaders. As we know that each film has to be understood in its context of production, this childishness was the general reflection of the popular mindset of the movie going public of those years. I too grew up watching the movies of Kamal and Rajnikant and surprisingly when Viswaroopam was released in Delhi, as I could watch it on the first day itself, most of the patrons who came to watch the movie were forty plus in age and I could feel the die-hard nostalgia of 1980s lingering around in the cinema hall. Some fathers were even apologising to their young daughters that they would compensate with another movie soon.

That does not mean that Viswaroopam was or is a bad movie. It is an ambitious movie with all Kamal effects in it. We have a hero in a camouflage role-Kathak dancer. He is effeminate – that satisfies his fans’ wish to see him in ‘difficult roles’ (for the actor who has done Avvai Shanmukhi/Chachi 420 this is a small thing to do). He is a classical dancer- Kathak guru (till the advent of a new breed of actors Kamal was the ultimate dancer of Indian movies- Sagarasangamam/Silangai Oli, Punnagai Mannan). He is a fighter- RAW Agent (He has performed the best fights in India movies. In 1980s if suddenly everyone in the shot was seen with a pair of canvas shoes, including the hero- suddenly from leather shoes he automatically changes into canvas shoes- we knew a fight was in the offing (we never thought of continuity issues).  He is a great actor- he acts well as an ‘plant’ amongst the Talibans in Afghanistan (we have seen his great histrionics in Chippikkul Muthu/Swati Muktyam, Moonam Pirai/Sadma, Ek Duje Keliye, Appu-Raja, Nayakan, Sagar). So it is a complete Kamal movie. But something is lacking in it. What is it?

(Kamal in Vishwaroopam)

In most of his movies, Kamal is introduced as Ulaha Nayagan, the world hero. In fact it was just a marketing counter ploy which was inevitable for him to pursue as Rajnikant was introduced as ‘Superstar’ in Suresh Krishna’s ‘Annamalai’. Though both Kamal and Rajni are superstars there was a need for distinction. Ulaha Nayagan became Kamal’s logo as he set up his own production company, Raj Kamal International. Viswaroopam, is a world/international movie as it fits to the qualification of Kamal for the first time in its truest sense. Till the end of the movie we do not come to know that Kamal is a RAW agent. The story line is perhaps simple: Kamal is an undercover agent with a past. He was in Afghanistan and was a plant of the RAW. His mission is to finish Osama Bin Laden. He was almost there. He saves a few American captives from Taliban’s custody. He grows fond of a young Taliban leader (Rahul Bose) and his family. Once back in the US, the Talibans are behind Kamal. For some reason the FBI is also after him because his uncle (Shekhar Kapoor) is a wanted man for the FBI. Finally, with the help of FBI, and also with the help of his two women, he saves America from a series of bombings planned by the Talibans. But the villains are not completely finished off. They parachute to Kashmir. There the film ends with an implication that Viswaroopam could be a franchise and the future editions of the same could be anticipated. Perhaps, the action would shift to India.

Now, an Indian film with an international theme (as Talibans are equally a problem for India) and an international setting heralds the arrival of Kamal as a pioneer of making Indian made Hollywood movies. This film except for the languages (Hindi, Tamil and Telugu) is an international film with an international feel. As viewers we think we are watching a Hollywood movie with Kamal in the lead (I remember Rajnikant’s much celebrated but sparsely seen Hollywood debut ‘Blood Stone’). Till then everything is fine. But the story line is filled with loopholes. First of all, we do not have any clue why a RAW agent should be working with the US Army in Afghanistan because the sensors planted by Kamal do not invite the Indian Army to act instead it get the US Drones and Marines there. Even if we could agree that a RAW agent could work with the US Army, there is no logic falls in place when we see the same person is trailed by the FBI. May be as a viewer I do not understand the clandestine working patters of both the FBI and the RAW. Also there is no suggestion given why all of a sudden Kamal’s wife turns into a nuclear physicist who could excel a nuclear expert from the FBI Bomb Squad. Suddenly Kamal goes back to his days in 1980s where a sort of childishness in script was permissible.

(Kamal as Bush Jr. in Dasavathaaram)

At times we feel that Kamal is slightly in confusion when it comes to his stories and the ideologies that they promote. Though Kamal is a declared atheist he was very much hurt when he was detained in the US and frisked as if he were a ‘terrorist’ from the Middle-East. Kamal and Rajnikant started off their careers towards the end of the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu. Both the actors maintained a sort of secular identity during their formative years and portrayed the characters that defied the social norms. But slowly we see Rajnikant becoming a follower of Swami Raghavendra (he acted in the bio-pic also. Baba was an attempt to try out his spiritual meanderings) and Kamal moving slowly towards Vaishnavite Hinduism (though he has not proclaimed it the strong characters he has created in Hey Ram, Dasavatharam and so on tell us about it). I will not accuse Kamal of harbouring any ill will for Muslims or followers of any other religion. But somehow, politically Kamal appears to be a confused creative artist.

In Vishwaroopam it becomes too palpable. Until Vishwa/Kamal’s identity is revealed as a RAW Agent we obviously think that he is an American soldier. And there is no reason why we should think against it. He is seen almost helping the American militaristic acts in Afghanistan, throughout the movie. And Kamal makes a lot of effort to wriggle out of the situation because it is necessary for him as well as for the success of the movie that his character is seen as an Indian agent not as an American stooge. When he saves the American captives from Talibans we almost think that he is doing a Rambo act. And Rambo represents the American Imperialism. After saving the situation somehow, Kamal has to do multiple balancing acts in script to make the film ‘Indian’ and not so critical against the Muslim community in general. First of all he has to resort to his Vishwanath (Maha Vishnu-Viswaroopam-Krishna-Vaishnavism-Bhagavat Gita) identity by singing and dancing to a song that praises Krishna (Vaishnavite Hinduism) but in the next scene he has to balance it with him turning into a Muslim devotee who sneaks into a mosque to make do his prayers. He reiterates the fact that despite his affiliation with Hinduism by birth, he is happy with his adopted religion (even if he has done it for the purpose of the State), that is Islam because that has taught him love and affection. All the religions are alike, he seems to say. But eventually, after all these balancing acts, the Islamists caught Kamal; that is the irony of it.

(Kamal as Kathak dancer in Vishwaroopam)

As a person who has faced racial discrimination at the hands of US (skin colour, name and eyes made them think that Kamal Haasan –Hassan, was from the Middle East), Kamal as an intelligent film maker also should have attempted detailing how it feels like a Muslim without falling into the Islamic fundamentalist trap. But then a film like Bond-Viswaroopam would not come out of such thinking. Kamal had tried to do this balancing act even in Dasavatharam. But there also he was not sure whether he was too critical about the Shaiva king or George Bush Junior. This makes some of his characters a caricature of its possible outcome than round characters. Kamal is an entertainer and a great actor, there is no doubt about it. He is capable of provoking thoughts through is films even when they operate within the commercial entertainment mode. He is always there to make good films. And only thing is that when he tries to create universal themes with an international feel, he thinks that it is pertinent to take the American side. Viswaroopam could have been taken a different narrative mode even while following the Bond style. It would have been a different film with an absolute Kamal Haasan touch. But now we have to wait till the next edition of it comes.

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