Friday, October 15, 2010

A (rushed) note on garbage and ENTHIRAN (Tamil; 2010)

The detritus of modern life -- specifically the detritus of a specific kind of consumer culture -- litters the language of most Shankar films, especially the songs. Unlike in most other Tamil songs, lovers in Shankar's films croon about cell phones and digital tunes (Indiyan (1996)); Coke, ice-cream, and following a Friday temple-visit with a Saturday disco-jaunt and a Sunday screening of "Titanic" (Mudhalvan (1999)); cappucino (Anniyan (2005))-- and don't even get me started on Boys (2003). The effect can come across as wannabe, or reminiscent of a time capsule (and hence fated to seem dated in a few years), but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as nothing more than silliness: Shankar is more self-aware than any other contemporary ringmaster of glitzy, cheesy spectacles, and certainly more than he is given credit for. It is fitting, then, that one of Enthiran's most important scenes -- the discovery of the discarded "Robo" by baddie Dr. Bhora (Danny Denzongpa) -- occurs at a vast garbage dump. [The site hearkens simultaneously to Wall-E, "new" Tamil cinema, and the excavation site in the Shankar-esque Citizen (2001), but retains a vibe that is all Shankar (indeed, the setting is prefigured in Anniyan).] Here (finally, I might add) the cue is visual (not, as is far too often the case in other Shankar-films, verbal), and seamlessly integrated with the film's theme, powerfully driving home a point about our own callousness, and the dispensability of, not just the things we make, but the other. Scientist Vaseegaran has created an android-robot out of what can only be described as monstrous vanity: the machine looks like him, is named after the scientist's childhood nickname ("Chitti"), and exists to serve him. When Chitti's absence of human feeling presents a roadblock in Vaseegaran's attempts to get official sanction for his project, he thoughtlessly decides to make more of a man out of his machine by imbuing Chitti with human feelings (pride is fittingly the first to surface) -- only to discard him when Chitti falls head over heels in love with Vaseegaran's girlfriend Sana (Aishwariya Rai, looking every bit the sort of woman who justifies the use of "hapless" before "lover"; the "Kiliminjaro" song almost made me weep; the video's problem? It ended). The garbage dump is an ideal place for a re-birth such as Chitti's: at the film's outset, he was created by Vaseegaran, but amidst all of humanity's other refuse, Chitti re-assembles himself, a touching sign that he is human enough to engage in the self-fashioning denied other animals; and that we too do not re-make ourselves out of nothing, dependent on the bits and pieces bequeathed us.

There's a second reason why the sequence at the garbage dump is the lodestar of this wacky film that, if it has a flaw, it is that it struggles to contain all the zest it teems with. Chitti re-assembling himself parallels his dismantling of himself in the film's penultimate sequence, and by means of the latter, Shankar places the "Robo" far ahead of the people he shares the film with, who have shown themselves singularly incapable of self-sacrifice. Simultaneously, the director gets to pay tribute to Rajni's "Thalaivar" aura. Given that the superstar plays all three of the film's male protagonists -- Vaseegaran, Chitti, and the villainous Chitti -- the message is clear: the super-Rajni who can do anything is created by Rajni (creates himself, as the sequence at the garbage dump makes clear), and to the extent Rajni loses (whether in love or in combat), it can only be to -- you guessed it -- Rajni. Rajni is both hero and villain, and hence this film's Alpha and Omega. (He is also remarkably bad-ass as the villainous Chitti. There's simply no other way to phrase this: Rajni is the best, most fun baddie in years, and easily steals the show from the more staid Rajnis who have preceded him. It also helps that Shankar's action sequences are his most fun ever, underscoring that all the SFX in the world -- such as far too many Hollywood films' -- cannot make up for a lack of imagination.) Rajni also gets to survive his own de-construction, that is to say he -- or pieces of him -- get(s) to be there even after he's no longer there (watch the film, you'll see what I mean). Detritus was never this much fun -- and in linking debris to the quest for identity, desire, and what it means to be human; as well as in his presentation of the star who is the film, it's clear Shankar has meaning on his mind. The meaning that only excavation and archaeology can provide to garbage.


connect indya said...

"the director gets to pay tribute to Rajni's "Thalaivar" aura" like this..
Nice review.

omar said...

I posted this on our blog and wrote the following comment there..i just thought it might tickle your vanity to read it ;)

"This post is rather out of date (in the sense that the movie it deals with came out many months ago) but I am a big fan of Qalandar and wanted to give the brownpundits audience (I hope we have the beginnings of one by now) a chance to connect to an interesting corner of the blogosphere.

For no particularly good reason, I imagine that brownpundityas are likely to be either science and history nerds who followed Razib to this place, or westernized Pakistanis and Indians who are slightly embarrassed by Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood. I also imagine that some of them may be so totally westernized that they can now idealize “traditional culture” in completely Western terms…a culture they have never seen, but which they imagine is completely unconnected to anything as crass as Bollywood…this post is a first attempt to connect them with someone who knows what he is talking about and loves it as his own…

SS said...

I came here to read this courtesy the plug by glad I did! These two para'graphs' (encapsulating the essence of Enthiran, flaws and all) have got to be the best analysis ever written on the film, on Rajini's duality, his seeming indestructibility. Heartening to see you lavish all the love you normally reserve for Sanju, on Rajni here. :) (Referring to your Lokhandwala line from back in 2007, making a kickass comeback in this instance: "[Sanju] is the Alpha and the Omega of Shootout at Lokhandwala, towering above the proceedings in this thoroughly pedestrian film".)

"There's simply no other way to phrase this:" onwards, I found my jaw drop... simply fantastic! (Used to see you comment on BR's blog more frequently back in 2007...haven't caught more than a sparse glimpse of you, since. Guess it would take more frequent discussions on Kamal to ferret you out huh?).