In popular narrative, ‘Rajni versus Kamal’ battle represented a long running fault line in Tamil filmdom that supposedly pits dichotomous category of filmgoers – ‘classes’ and ‘masses’- against each other. ‘Classes’ treat Rajni movies condescendingly. Rajni’s ridiculous comic scenes and ludicrous punch lines are largely seen as insult to their cerebralism. Conceit of ‘classes’ would manifest usually in celebrating the acting prowess of Kamal Hassan who panders to their ‘class’ by churning out abtruse, often pseudo-intellectual movies, which are unmitigated commercial disasters.
While ‘Kamal vs Rajni’ battle is now a memory of the distant past, Kamal Hassan of late has been in the forefront of self- proclaimed attempts to elevate Tamil films to ‘global’ standards or whatever that means. With no allowance to modesty, legion of Kamal Hassan’s fans call him “Ulaga Nayagan” (world actor). This entire effort to ‘globalize’ Tamil films is paradoxical given that Tamil film world is brimming with extraordinary talent these days and its current period possibly represents its apogee in terms of audacious experimentation in themes, grand revival of native storytelling tradition and unparalleled cinematic craftsmanship by unheralded directors hailing from nondescript small towns of Tamil Nadu.
“Vishwaroopam” is another foray by the ambitious actor in his ongoing efforts to ‘globalize’ Tamil films. We decided to check it out for ourselves. And this how it turned out to be
Nirupama (Indian-American actress Pooja Kumar sparkles in this role) is a New York based nuclear oncologist (all hail Kamal Hassan for shattering the myth that only Hollywood has awareness of such esoteric areas). We are told that she followed a typical career path of TamBrahmin girl, which allegedly involves pursuit of academic excellence, followed by strategic matrimonial matchmaking that facilitates landing in America. In popular culture, TamBrahminical dialect is an endless source of amusement and Nirupama’s delightful use of this dialect, in narrating her life progression, tickles one’s funny bone or two.
But the problem though is that Nirupama is massively under-sexed and she is in throes of embarking on a rollicking affair with her company boss (or has she already taken the plunge?). Perhaps it is a mere coincidence that her husband’s lack of libido approximates a prevalent caricature of a TamBrahmin male – he who is engaged in his ritualistic fetishes and vocations of mind and blissfully oblivious to unbridled fecundity of his wife.
Nirupama’s husband is Vishwanath (played by Kamal Hassan). He is a TamBrahmin Bharatnatyam teacher who is delivering nuances of Natyam to diasporic lasses in a New York suburb. Vishwanath does his bit to further the carefully nurtured misconception that feminization process is an inevitable consequence for any male exponent of Bharatnatyam.
Ashmita (played by a gorgeous looking Andreah Jermiah), is a dance student of Vishwanath and her role is completely unfathomable but no one is complaining. Interesting possibilities appear to be looming on the horizon as she begins transmitting sensual undertones to our effeminate dancer but unusually distracted Kamal Hassan (weighed down with the dual responsibility of acting and direction) surprisingly fails to develop on this chemistry.
For a Kamal Hassan movie, we are mercifully sparred the incongruous onscreen acts of hypersexual perversions (lip locking and bum biting are his favored methods). Apologies to the classy people but we, the cultural conservatives, are generally unable to connect to artistic aesthetics involved in Kamal Hassan’s libidinous act. Blame it on the unhealthy attitudes fostered in the restrictive environment of our households.
For some reasons that we are not clear, Nirupama is suspicious of her husband and deploys a private detective to perform due diligence on him. This detective, while snooping on Vishwanath, stumbles upon an operative of a massive Al-Qaeda infrastructure that is assembling a ‘dirty bomb’ to nuke New York city including resorting to use of the unconventional tactics like using pigeons as carriers of fissile material. I would be asking my fellow Editor and nuclear researcher Jaideep Prabhu to write an updated post titled “Vishwaroopam and new challenges to nuclear doctrine”
It is then revealed that brain behind the entire nuclear Jihadi plot is fluent Tamil Speaking, Pashtun Talibani called Omar (inspired loosely on the character of Al Qaeda’s spiritual leader Mullah Omar and played by the intolerably irritating Rahul Bose). Rahul Bose, with a misshape-ed visage and inability to shrug off his cerebral pretensions, is a complete casting catastrophe. Imagine Rahul Bose, with a distorted facial, in an attempt to look menacingly Jihadi. Dreadful results follow.
It soon turns out that Kamal Hassan is not the less than virile dance instructor that we thought he was. Dr Manmohan Singh, in a rare moment of rhetorical flourish, was quoted as saying India has 200 million Muslims but not one is an Al-Qaeda operative. But, we do have the case of a ferocious, Tamil speaking Jihadi warrior, Washim Ahmed Kashmiri, who operates in the AF-Pak region. Apparently he was born from a union between Kashmiri Allah foot-soldier and a Tamil mother which explains his proficiency of chaste Tamil. Yes effeminate Vishwanath was an assumed pseudonym for Islamist warrior Washim Ahmed Kashmiri.
Omar and Washim Ahmed Kashmiri are shown to be Jihadi fellow travelers in bleak badlands of Afghanistan. Imagine the absurdity of Pashtuni Talibanis of Abbottabad-Afpak area conversing in Tamil to a Kashmiri Jihadi. But realization that, from Kashmir to Pashtunistan, we have Jihadis who can understand the chaste Tamizh should warm the heart of Sentamizh language lovers. It should also be a useful propaganda point for few fringe Tamil ultra-national groups who justified the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha statues by Taliban. They can now say “See even Talibanis speak Tamil well but not you …. invaders”
The movie then takes a detour to depict life under Taliban. An excruciatingly painful 30-45 minutes follows and its ennui inducing. To be fair, director has made an earnest attempt to vividly capture the brutal butchering, public beheading, on how the impressionable minds are programmed in Jihadi indoctrination factories. Diggy Raja’s Osamaji makes a fleeting appearance too and Jihadi foot soldiers are delirious when they spot him. Imagery of US bombarding the Taliban hideouts and human tragedy that unfolds in the process is sought to be recreated. But somehow the visuals are very underwhelming and production quality is very slipshod. Perhaps it the heartless cynic in me but even scenes like were an old lady, who survives American aerial bombing, telling the ruthless Omar “First British came, then the Russian came, then Americans came and the Taliban came” or young kids playing with AK-47 etc as toys, hardly evoke emotional resonance.
And twists and turns that plot takes does not end any sooner. It is revealed that Vishwanath aka Washim is not a Jihadi but a covert Kaoboy (if you didnt know what it means, it was what @Sorbonee75 of Twitter did for a living before he became a Barkha Bakht). Washim is a RAW operative on a mission to help the fumbling FBI foil the nuclear Jihad. Also featuring in the plot is a MI6 operative who is called Mr.Dawkins. Yes we concede that Kamal is an erudite man who reads international best-selling atheist authors.
The movie comes to a predictable end. New York city is secured from the imminent threat of dirty bomb and audience are subtly threatened that a sequel could follow
All this begets the question – Why on earth could the perpetually aggrieved rageboys even raise objections to such an absurd movie, claiming that it offended their religious sentiments and plan to manufacture massive outrage. And what explains shameful decision of Jayalalithaa government, acting with amazing alacrity, to suspend the release of the movie.
Islamist Mobilisation in Tamil Nadu against movies is a fairly recent phenomenon, though we had sporadic incidents like bombing of celebrated filmmaker Mani Ratham’s residence by radical Muslim groups. Only a couple of months ago another movie Thuappaki earned wrath of Islamist groups in Tamil Nadu, for depicting cross border terrorism in unflattering light.
Only message that we can decipher from all this – its now impossible even to make films which show Talibanis as terrorists because section of Tamil Muslims have developed deep-rooted emotional affinity with Ummahood . This is dangerous phenomenon at several levels.
It’s clear that radicalization of significant section of Tamil Muslims is a reality. Danger signal emanating from huge prayer meeting for Osama Bin Laden and massive protest outside American consultate forcing it to temporarily shutdown its operations ( both in heart of Chennai city) cannot be ignored easily. Dargah centric, localized Muslim traditions is now clearly giving away to globalized Islamic identity. Erasing of Tamil identity of Muslims is now near complete.
In the late 90’S, Tamil Nadu was threatening to become epicentre of Islamic terror but state managed to combat effectively. Renewed pandering to the Islamists and state’s succumbing to competitive intolerance is an extremely disturbing development.