Review: KOCHADAIIYAAN Is An Undercooked Epic Whose Reach Exceeds Its Grasp

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Review: KOCHADAIIYAAN Is An Undercooked Epic Whose Reach Exceeds Its Grasp
Rajnikanth is a transcendent figure. He's more than a mere movie star; he's an idol, an ideal, an icon. He is the Superstar. So, when the makers of Kochadaiiyaan took that man and appropriated his image and voice and funneled it into digital bits and pieces to be fed through a billion filters before hitting the eyeballs of millions of rabid fans worldwide, there must have been some trepidation. Would a digital Rajnikanth command the scene as well as the real thing? Can you recreate the swagger of a man so self-possessed that his enemies fall at his feet rather than face him? Well, it turns out that you kind of can, but not for the reasons they'd probably hoped.

Kochadaiiyaan is a film that was years in the making. Not altogether unheard of in the realm of digital animation, however in this case it was more stumbled into than planned. Back in 2007, director Soundarya Rajnikanth, Superstar's daughter, began work on what was to be Rajni's first digital incarnation, Sultan: The Warrior. Sultan was a period piece that got as far as a website and a teaser trailer before hitting financial hurdles and folding up shop.

In its place, Rajnikanth made Enthiran (Robot) for Tamil wunderkind Shankar in 2010, and the man went viral. After a 9-minute clip of the film's finale hit Youtube dubbed into Russian (long after we'd reviewed this marvel of modern moviemaking), Enthiran began making festival rounds and introducing people to South Indian filmmaking. Shankar is one of Tamil cinema's biggest groundbreakers in the world of digital effects and many Rajnis were created that way for the film's infamous finale. After that hubbub died down, the world waited with bated breath to see what Superstar would do next.

That's when India's Eros Entertainment and director KS Ravikumar announced that they'd grabbed Rajnikanth for a period piece titled Rana. To be set in the 1400s, Rana would feature an extended flashback done in 3D motion capture by Soundarya Rajnikanth. However, on the very first day of shooting in 2011, Rajnikanth fell ill on set and was rushed off to a Singapore hospital for nearly two months to recuperate and Rana was never heard of again, until Soundarya Rajnikanth announced the filming of Kochadaiiyaan (the spelling has changed a bit over the years) in November of 2011. Same basic plot, same character names and actors, but all parties involved insist that it is a different film, including Kochadaiiyaan's writer, KS Ravikumar.

Two and a half years later, following nearly a year of delays to the film's actual release, including a last minute delay two weeks ago, here we are with a final product. So, after all that time, why does this feel so half-assed? Why does Kochadaiiyaan feel as though it is the product of an underdeveloped industry grasping for technological mastery that it simply does not have the infrastructure to support? Because that's exactly what it is.

Even the best 3D motion capture films have been the subject of critical ravaging for a decade or more. It wasn't until James Cameron's Avatar that people stopped talking about the poor technology and instead talked about the abysmal script. However, when Avatar costs $200 million dollars to make that miracle happened, but Kochadaiiyaan costs less that 10% of that, so it's hard to compare, except for the fact that this is exactly what the marketing machine behind Kochadaiiyaan has been asking us to do for years, compare. Kochadaiiyaan isn't a poor film because it's technology isn't up to par, though it really isn't, it's a poor film because that lack of competence has drained the life from a film that needed human and humane characters to make its outlandish story work.

Over the top melodrama, double, triple, and quadruple crossing characters hiding their motives and taking revenge against anything and anyone in sight is are all elements that are well-worn and effective tropes in Indian film. It isn't the premise that bothers me at all. It's the fact that every time I was supposed to be getting emotional charged and attached to these characters all I could do was to stare into those lifeless eyes and be reminded that this wasn't real. It's difficult to lose yourself in a world that keeps reminding you that it isn't really there.

Nearly all of the animated characters suffered from the same problems. Dead eyes, wonky animation, poor rendering, often they even appeared slightly out of focus on screen. Glitches, perhaps, but the curious thing is that none of those issues affected Rajnikanth's appearance. This led me to one conclusion, to which I alluded in the opening of this review. Rajnikanth exists in this world so clearly because in his live action performances, he's always acting as an animated character. His mannerisms, his famous walk, a cock of his eyebrow, it's all captured perfectly for the mo-cap cameras. Partly, I'm sure, because he is the main selling point and you don't want to leave your marquee name hanging, but also due in large part to the fact that Rajnikanth's entire on screen persona for almost the entirety of his career has been a living breathing cartoon. It's a strange thought, but the more I watched, the more clear it became to me.

While the stiffness of Kochadaiiyaan's world managed to suck the life out of a film that would have, in live action, been wonderful, vibrant, and humane, Rajnikanth's Rana never missed a step. In a live action film, this might have been enough to save the film, to draw attention away from its shortcomings, however, in this case it only served to sharpen focus on Kochadaiiyaan's shortcomings. Songs and dances, of which there are many, lacked immediacy, lacked romance, lacked the passion that comes with a pair tearing up a dance floor and pressing their bodies together as if they want nothing more than to be one. In fact, the only song that delivered any kind of emotional oomph was a solo dance from Rajnikanth's title character (in a flashback) in which he dances in ecstasy. You can see the fire in his eyes, which is a rare occasion in this film.

I've been waiting for Kochadaiiyaan for years, since the film was a rumor, but with all of the hype, delays, and eventual disappointing final product, I feel that my enthusiasm was at best wasted and at worst betrayed. Rajnikanth is an international treasure, a film hero like none ever seen, and Kochadaiiyaan is a project beneath his abilities and less than he deserves. While the film tries and tries and tries to deliver, it consistently left this viewer feeling flat, unfulfilled, and wanting. When the final few frames arrive and the film *spoiler* teases a sequel, it feels more like someone saying, "Hold on a minute, we didn't quite finish", than something I actually will look forward to. If you couldn't get it right the first time, how am I to trust that you'll get it right a second time?

Kochadaiiyaan is a true and crushing disappointment. With every passing rumor and delay my expectations dropped a few notches, but somehow, I was still underwhelmed. You can't base your films success on novelty, trumpeting its innovation, and comparing yourself to the best the world has to offer and then deliver this. Before the film played, the theater showed a clip of Amitabh Bachchan, the big daddy of all Bollywood superstars, claiming that when the history of Indian cinema is written, there were be two chapters, one before Kochadaiiyaan and one after, and if that's so, it's all downhill from here.
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