Review: Kamal Haasan's VISHWAROOPAM

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Review: Kamal Haasan's VISHWAROOPAM
After a nine year absence from the director's chair, Indian national treasure Kamal Haasan is back with a film that he has been fighting to make for a long, long time. Vishwaroopam is a film that will, inevitably, be remembered as much for its bumpy road to the screen as it will be for its objective quality. The film has been in the news in India for months, partly due to some clever publicity stunts engineered by Mr. Haasan, and partly due to lingering concerns in politically-correct India that it would be offensive to Muslims, the country's second largest religious group. In fact, as of this review, the film is still under a ban in its native Tamil Nadu due to what some are saying is an overtly negative portrayal of Muslims. So, this may be one of the first reviews you see, simply because Kamal Haasan is fighting a 15 day ban against the film in the region in which it is likely to do the best business. This is the world in which we live.

Vishwaroopam is a film about which I have been very conflicted since the first footage appeared online months ago. The film has been marketed very much as a straight forward action piece with some terrorism elements, not unlike something that Hollywood might churn out. However, the actual film is very much in the Indian anti-terrorism milieu, and much of it is extremely culturally specific in a way that probably won't endear it to foreign audiences. While it does fall prey to a number of common missteps, it does redeem itself from time to time with moments of pure Indian action bliss, and I think that's what puts it over the top for me as a recommendable experience.

The story revolves around an unhappily married couple, Viswanath (Haasan) and Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), but not in the way you might think. The pair have a marriage of convenience. Viswanath is a very effeminate Kathak dance instructor, and Nirupama is a young woman in her prime who has fallen in love with her boss against her better judgment. This is just the point of entry into the story, and talking about the plot any more than that risks revealing major spoilers. Suffice it to say that while the film continues to focus on these characters, nothing is really what it seems at first. The next two and a half hours are a fast paced web of intrigue, action, twists, surprises, and good, old-fashioned filmy logic. We get terrorists, police, Indian federal agents acting outside their borders, and even a sexy love scene or two. Something for everyone.

Kamal Haasan apparently came up with the idea for Vishwaroopam nearly a decade ago, but has hit every possible bump in the road in getting it to the big screen. If it wasn't a director who had to drop out, it was immigration problems when the film was moving production to the US. At another point, it was Haasan's plan to release the film day-and-date to theater screens and DTH (VOD) in India, which led to a revolt among Tamil Nadu's cinema operators, and lastly, of course, the charges of anti-Muslim sentiment that have led to the film's temporary ban in Tamil Nadu. However, Haasan is a trooper, and probably the most well respected cinematic artist in India, and he would not be denied. So, in every territory except the one most likely to turn a profit, Vishwaroopam opened this weekend to bumper crowds, but is it any good?

Well, the answer is, as usual, yes and no.

Kamal Haasan commands the film from the first moment he appears on screen, in the midst of a near-religious frenzy as he rehearses a dance with his Kathak troupe for an extended song that proves to be the only musical interlude of the film. Less than thirty minutes in, Vishwaroopam stops being the film you were expecting, and becomes an entirely different, and more exciting, beast. This sudden tonal and genre shift t pushes the film away from being a standard thriller into braver territory. The terrorism element is explored here in a slightly unusual way, but the villains are still very clearly villains and it is always clear that Kamal Haasan, in whatever garb, will ultimately be the hero. I think it was a wise decision by writer/director Kamal Haasan to have lead actor, Kamal Haasan on screen for such a significant portion of the film, because, he is overwhelmingly the best thing about Vishwaroopam.

Where the film falters is the, sadly, the same old story when it comes to multinational Indian films. Everyone in the film who is not Indian is a caricature. That means Anglo actors deliver lines as though they were performing in a second grade school play; it means African-American actors spout non-stop sass to the point of serious irritation; and basically anyone else who isn't a member of the largely Indian cast gets shafted either by the direction, script, or editing. The prevalent problem with non-Indian actors performing in Indian films is that the filmmakers insist on dumbing these characters down, perhaps so those viewers who don't have the best grasp of spoken English can still follow along, or, more likely, they just don't know how to write anything other than Anglo stereotypes . The result is very uneven, and makes the Anglo actors involved appear largely incompetent, which is probably not entirely the case, but I'm sure they're directed in such a way that their performance suffers for the sake of the masses.

All whining aside, there are some spectacular, left-field, action sequences in the film that literally dropped my jaw, not only due to the quality of the action, but also its completely unexpected onset. Vishwaroopam is not a film that attempts to make any kind of plea for understanding to either side of the terrorism struggle, nor is it a film that feels the need to delve deeply into the social issues surrounding terrorism. It is, however, a film that is designed to entertain while telling a pretty involved story with plenty of context to help you care about what's going on on the screen. This is what Indian film pundits call an "entertainer" -- no facade of deeper meaning, just a lot of fun up on screen and one of the world's best actors leading a decent supporting cast to the gold.

If you can overlook the inane Anglo characters that populate much of the film's second half, there is plenty to enjoy about Vishwaroopam. I'd been watching the trailers intently for months, and they do not do the film justice. Vishwaroopam is proof, to me, that Kamal Haasan still has some juice, and he managed to exceed my modest expectations, Vishwaroopam is good fun!
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BollywoodIndian CinemaKamal HaasanVishwaroopam

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