Sitges 2011: ENTHIRAN (THE ROBOT) Review

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
[With Endhiran screening tonight in Sitges we revisit our previous epic review.]

Enthiran is a film that has every advantage you could possibly think of for a big budget Indian blockbuster.  It has the biggest budget ever for an Indian film; special animatronics effects worked on by Stan Winston Studios; Yuen Woo Ping doing the action choreography; both of India's recent Academy Award winners on board, A.R. Rahman composing, and Resul Pookutty on sound design; and it had the widest opening ever for an Indian film at 2,250 screens around the world in a massive synchronized premiere effort. In the end, though, the film works because of two things:  Director Shankar and Superstar Rajinikanth.  That is not to say that the film is wear, but the things that work, work because of those two men.

I will warn anyone who watches this film that South Indian films, and Rajini's in particular, can be an acquired taste.  If you require airtight logic, natural dialogue, or reality of any kind, please: stop reading now and find another review.  Shankar creates a complete world for us in this film, and it is only tenuously connected to reality.  Rajini is known for his charisma and blustery manner on screen, his "punch dialogues" are legendary in Tamilnadu, but strangely, one of the reasons this film works is that he doesn't play a typically Rajini character for the vast majority of the film.

For a film of such vast scope as Enthiran, the story is essentially about three people: Dr. Vaseegaran, an artificial intelligence and android robotics scientist played by Rajinikanth; Chitti, the robot created by the good doctor also played by Rajinikanth; and Sana, Dr. Vaseegaran's ridiculously beautiful, but often ignored girlfriend, played by Aishwariya Rai.  Dr. Vaseegaran creates Chitti as his magnum opus, intending for him to become a replacement for the best and brightest Indians at war to save them from death on the battlefield.  When Chitti is brought before a review panel to determine his battle worthiness he is tested for reliability and fails following a series of confusing orders given by a sinister former mentor of Dr. Vaseegaran who is jealous of Chitti's creation.

In order to regain his status and hopefully fulfill his dream, Dr. Vaseegaran imbues Chitti with human emotion and judgment, hoping that it will seal the gap between what he is intended to be and what he is.  In doing so, Dr. Vaseegaran unintentionally creates a romantic rival when Chitti falls madly and incurably in love with Sana, to the point that he vows never to stop wooing her until she is his.  One night Chitti goes over the line with Sana and Dr. Vaseegaran dismantles him, half out of embarrassment at his own failure to control his own creation, and half out of pure rage.  Chitti is then disposed of in the local dump, where the aforementioned jealous former mentor, Professor Bhora, played by Danny Dezponga, finds and recovers him. 

Bhora proves himself to be even more sinister than he initially lets on when it is discovered that he intends to modify Chitti into a killing machine capable of brutal acts of destruction and designed with profit in mind.  What Professor Bhora doesn't realize is that Chitti's only intention is to win Sana, by force if necessary.  This new evil, sentient, detructo-bot renames himself Chitti 2.0, abducts Sana, and barricades her inside a giant lab for the study of artificial intelligence.  Now it is up to Dr. Vaseegaran to get her back and somehow defeat Chitti 2.0.

Wow, that is quite a synopsis.  I left a lot out, too.  As is typical of Indian films, Enthiran runs just under 3 hours, not including a 15-minute intermission, which you may or may not get depending on the projectionist.   Indian audiences don't go to theaters expecting a comedy, or a drama, or a romance, or an action film.  Indian audiences go to theaters demanding a comedy, and a drama, and a romance, and an action film.  It is known as the "masala" style, a special mix of elements that scratches every itch and leaves no emotion unprovoked if done properly.  Enthiran is successful in this regard, we laugh, we cry, we cheer, we boo, we are thrilled, we are scared, and we are excited for a good portion of the running time.  Now, that being said, I haven't met an Indian film yet that couldn't use the talents of a good editor .  However, as the lull occur, they are soon forgotten once the action starts up again in earnest. 

There is a lot to love about Enthiran, not the least of which being the experience with a Tamil audience.  If you get the opportunity to see this film in Tamil in a nighttime show, I cannot recommend it enough.  I've seen thousands of movies, hundreds of those theatrically, but nothing compares to the experience I had seeing Enthiran in a sold out room full of south Indians who were there to cheer on their hero, Superstar Rajinikanth.  There was hooting and hollering throughout the film, there was confetti, there was singing, there was a mid-song Chinese fire drill involving at least a dozen audience members.  Normally this would be the kind of thing that would send me to the box office demanding my money back, but you couldn't help getting into it.  It was completely insane and worth every penny of the outrageous ticket price.  I have actually found it tricky to remove the film itself from the experience of seeing in it a theater, that's why it has taken me several days to address this review.

Okay, I'm going to try to address this in a somewhat objective manner, and consider that you, my audience, have most likely never seen a Rajinikanth film.  If you have, you'll understand why I need to do this. 

The film has many strengths.  Despite its focus on robotic characters, there is a heart to this film, even in Chitti before he goes all Punisher on Vaseegaran.  Rajinikanth is called on to provide probably the most complex performances of his career, and he does so admirably, and somewhat unexpectedly.  He manages to create three completely different characters with different motivations, different mannerisms, different speech patterns, and even different ways of moving.  Rajini is generally called upon to play "Superstar Rajini".  The punchy dialogue, the cartoonish fight scenes, the incredible charisma; it's all his persona, and one that the Tamil audience reveres.  However, that Rajini is only hinted at momentarily in the character of Chitti 2.0.  Dr. Vaseegaran is played straight. He is not particularly charismatic or brave, and certainly no hero. 

Rajini creates real characters with real flaws and real emotions that isn't simply propelled by his own overflowing machismo.  It is one of the more finely nuanced performances of his career.  The two Chitti characters are similarly well-drawn.  We understand their motivations, simple though they may be, and we understand their frustrations.  The first Chitti can never be what he wants to be and he understands that, even though he fights against it, and we see his internal struggle in Rajini's performance. Chitti 2.0 loses that inhibition and rages as pure id.  These are distinct and separate characters, and Rajini does a great job with them.  There is some definite weakness in the script, perhaps a victim of Shankar's ambitious vision, but overall it is coherent enough.

A.R. Rahman's music is brilliant, and apart from one particularly abrupt segue onto the ruins at Machu Piccu for the song "Kilimanjaro", it flows well and supports the plot elements and the music illuminates the characters emotions in ways that simple exposition cannot.  The success of Indian films often hinges largely on the success of their musical numbers, and A.R. Rahman and Shankar fully realize this.  Their last collaboration, Sivaji, also starring Rajini, boasted some of the most colorful and elaborate song sequences I've ever seen.  I recall watching them with my jaw on the floor.  They've upped the ante on this film by adding master art director Sabu Cyril to the mix.  Cyril has worked on such beautiful produced films as Om Shanti Om, Main Hoon Na, Anniyan, Guru, and Yuva, and has been tapped to work on Shahrukh Khan's upcoming superhero epic, RA. One.  Let me tell you, Cyril can art direct the shit out of a movie, practically every frame of this film looks like a page from those 50's catalogs about "the home of the future".  The combination of Rahman's perfect score and songs with Shankar's imagination and Cyril's ability to create wildly expressive sets and color schemes for songs make these little bits of exposition via musical number unforgettable.  My personal favorite was "Irumbile Oru", which featured Aishwariya Rai Bachchan's Sana dancing in a meticulously shot and choreographed fantasy sequence within the imagination of the first Chitti robot.  The choreography, sets, costumes, and music made this number transcend the usual filler we see with many Indian films, it propelled the narrative forward and helped the audience understand Chitti's infatuation with Sana.  Not to mention the fact that it inspired the above-mentioned Chinese fire drill in the theater when I saw it.

There was one thing that really sealed the deal for me though, and that was the climax.  I don't want to give it away on the off chance that some of you might seek this film out, but rest assured, it is completely bonkers.  If the first two and a half hours make you believe in these characters, which they really try to, the last twenty or thirty minutes leave you questioning your own sanity in the best possible way.  I read in some article that around half of the $35 million budget, which is ginormous by Indian standards, went into special effects.  I really think that of that CG budget, at least 80% went into creating an amazing, jaw-dropping, did-I-really-just-see-that climax to end all climaxes.  It involves one hundred shape-shifting Rajinis bent on destruction and revenge.  You can catch a few glimpses of the climax in the trailer and those few seconds really only begin to tell the story of how completely nuts the ending of this film is.   It really is one for the ages.  I have never seen anything like the last half hour of Enthiran.

I would like to offer a few caveats for the newbs out there, though.  If there is a lesson I have learned from watching Indian films it is this:  Temper your expectations.  Realism is not a quality prized by either the majority of Indian film audiences, nor the production houses.  When a film like Enthiran tries to create the best special effects ever for an Indian film, they succeed in spades.  However, this would not pass muster in Hollywood, apart from the climax, which I why I think the cast majority of the CG budget was spent there.  There are four or five CG sequences where I had to throw my hands up and just accept them as functional; they weren't very pretty, but they did their job. 

There is one sequence in particular, inspired by I, Robot, where Chitti is sent into a fire ravaged apartment complex to save some poor innocent victims trapped among the flames.  When CG Chitti is flying around and hopping from window to window he actually looked pretty decent.  However, when he was in physical contact with the human characters, it was painfully obvious that it was a guy in a suit.  This did nothing to detract from the enjoyment of my fellow moviegoers who were cheering on their hero ecstatically, but it is the kind of thing most western audiences would most likely not tolerate. 

This was also the first film in Indian history to incorporate heavy use of animatronics, but the effects were somewhat rudimentary, compared to what we see today in Hollywood.  Most of the downsides are technical, very few, apart from a script that could use some serious editing, really deal with the heart of the film, which is solid.

I guess my biggest fear in reviewing this film was that my words don't accurately reflect how I felt leaving the theater.  I was completely exhilarated.  I had been awake since 4:30 AM and I bounced out of that theater at 1:00 AM with an energy I hadn't felt all day.  If you see Enthiran and don't think it is a very good movie, I can understand that.  Hell, if you see Enthiran and find it overlong, rambling, anti-logical, and too far removed from reality to enjoy, I can understand that, too.  However, if you see Enthiran and don't get excited, enthralled, or even just amused by the songs, the colors, the action, the melodrama, and ultimately the climax of the year, well, you must not have seen it with an Indian audience.  I have no doubt that this film will not play as well when I get it on home video and replay it with just my wife and I, but I cannot recommend highly enough the group experience. 

I can't really say if Enthiran is a good movie, that word is far too nebulous to accurately describe it.  I can say that it is ambitious, and when it needs to hit its emotional beats, it does it remarkably well.  It doesn't always effectively apply the technical tools at its disposal, but the film is about more than just special effects, despite what the news and other reviews might say.  Rajini performs admirably in his three roles, and I have more respect for him because of it.  At no point during the film did I ever think that the man under those fabulous costumes and elaborate make-ups was over sixty years old; he still has the energy and appearance of a much younger man, which is one of his great strengths.  He has announced that he will no longer be performing in "youth roles", in order to approach characters closer to his own actual age.  This is a sad thing, because if Enthiran proves nothing else, it proves that Rajini remains ageless.   This film will remain a testament to his awesomeness for all time, for better or for worse.


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