Jul 5, 2008

Kamalhassan's Dasavatharam - Aviyal Fiction

Before I went to watch "Dasavatharam", I had the good sense to watch one of Kamalhassan's interviews. "It's out and out entertainment for the audience", he said. Since I trust the guy, I repeated it to myself each time the word 'T-A-C-K-Y' spelt itself out in front of my eyes, especially between minutes 20 and 40 of the movie.

"Dasavatharam" is undeniably tacky, but it's oddly entertaining too. There's hardly a slack moment. This is a disaster movie that could so easily have ended in one, but as it lurches from action sequence to comic interlude to philosophical filibustering, it never completely comes off the rails. I certainly didn't mind losing three hours of my life to that film (ok, except for that one minute when Mallika Sherawat (or her voice-over) avers that, of course she can speak Tamil - and does so in a badly dubbed voice ).

That Kamal Hassan is over-indulgent is a common accusation thrown at his face ('mask' may be more appropriate), but he is undeniably gutsy. Not because he spends more money on bad makeup than Shahnaz Hussain, but because who else in India would be crazy enough to cook up a hodge-podge involving an ancient Iyer-Iyengar conflict (we come off looking badly, btw), inconvenient truths about the environment, bio-war-sci-fi, atheism, the great Tsunami of 2004, chaos theory (casting credit: stereotypical digitally mixed-in butterfly), mixed with some political body-doubles that wouldn't make the cut at a school fancy dress competition. Heady stuff to unleash on the populace, which had earlier rejected some of the other cocktails (the need to have an opinion on M.K.Gandhi, matricide, communism+atheism, to name a few) that Kamal Hassan has written. Perhaps the lesson he's learnt is: be not so subtle that no one realises you're being something.

Some critical reactions that bemoaned the tackiness (that word again) of the film almost always made comparisons with the likes of Anbe Sivam and Hey Ram. But it's not as if Kamal didn't make bad movies before. From what we know of him, he's usually taken an active interest in the plotlines (even without official credit), so you'd be insulting his intelligence if you thought he didn't know what he was getting into. He's taken an almost gleeful plunge into lots of rubbish - one senses a need to get the silliness off his chest from time to time, in addition to the money needed to make the other stuff that he wants to.

Anyway, back to the movie. The film is almost hopeless in its rendition of events set amongst a laughably stereotypical American setting, but there is an instant quality upgrade when proceedings move to India. Kamal shows an instinctive feeling for dialogue, accent, placement, and scenery in local settings. As we weave our way to the end, the proceedings become madcap, the characters multiply and multi-sect, and there are homilies. Strangely, for a film that is so sympathetic of the need for science and reason, there is also a moment straight from the Mithun-Rajanikant textbook of post-modern medicine.

It's a fitting sign of the surreal nature of events that I found myself doing something I had never dreamed I would: watch a film whose soundtrack was scored by Himesh Reshammiya. Largely forgettable, the only saving grace was the devotional Mukunda Mukunda which in addition to serving as Asin's re-entry point, accompanies one of the more elegant and clever moments in the movie: the shadow theatrical play about the Vishnu Dashavatharam. There was a strange depth to the 12th century sequences as well (despite some of the CGI), which once again serve as testament that the man is good at depicting history.

And closing with the ten. At times, you're beset by the uneasy feeling that the whole of Madame Tussauds' is on the loose, there are so many pale, waxy outlines. I think there are some interesting allusions with the names of the characters which I haven't teased out fully, perhaps except for the execrable 'George Bush'. 'Balram Naidu' was nicely done (reminscent of the mayor in Indrudu Chandrudu), but perhaps the best of the lot was the tough-talking environmentalist 'Vincent Poovaraagan', in both dress and demeanour.

In all, Dasaavatharam is no six-course meal, but perhaps Kamal Hassan never intended it to be so. Of course, for all that money, it'd have been good had they hired better cutlery and not just painted it in. But as far as cinema-as-aviyal goes, it's not such a bad mix.

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