Review: Shankar's I: A Tale Full Of Sound And Fury, Signifying... Something?

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Review: Shankar's I: A Tale Full Of Sound And Fury, Signifying... Something?
I have a problem.

I am a great admirer of Shankar, the director of I. Even when his films aren't great, as in the case of something like his take down of India's insidious corruption problem, Sivaji, they are engaging and wildly inventive, as is the case with Enthiran. I, however, strains the boundaries of self-indulgence and modern tolerance in a way that has become something of a plague among Indian blockbusters. The film is amazing to look at, features a number of amazing set pieces, and some appropriately over the top action sequences, but even with everything including a few kitchen sinks thrown in, it may go on a bit too long for its own good.

I is not the first collaboration between Shankar and his leading man, Vikram. That title belongs to the incredibly uneven but totally spellbinding Anniyan. That film was a kind of mash up musical comedy horror thriller action version of Se7en, with Vikram taking on the role of a consumer safety advocate with disassociative personality disorder (multiple personalities). The tonal swings in Anniyan are wicked, but Vikram plays each of his three roles with ease, and engages us in the idea that this meek, milquetoast man could also be a swinging playboy and serial killer who only kills those who deserve it. Vikram specializes in these kinds of roles, and his over the top performance suits I to a tee.

Vikram has found space on ScreenAnarchy's pages with his past performances in films like the execrable Thaandavam, his chicken suited superhero film Kanthaswamy, and the absurd looking I Am Sam riff, Deiva Thirumagal. In the last two, Vikram has proved that he not only has the good looks to carry a proper blockbuster, but also the balls to go full-bonkers when necessary, and in I he continues that tradition with an incredible method performance for the ages. Even among the din of light and sound that is Shankar's modus operandi, it is Vikram who sells the film and makes it relatable.

I tells the story of Lingesan (Vikram), a humble Schwarzenegger worshiping bodybuilding enthusiast with the goal of becoming Mr. Tamilnadu, and eventually Mr. India. Lingesan has only one weakness, the beauty of Diya (Amy Jackson), a spokesmodel. When the fates align to draw the two together, first as fan-idol, and then as lovers, the requisite complications rear their ugly heads and the story begins to twist and turn out of control. Lingesan soon enters the vindictive crosshairs of a competing super model, a corporate CEO, a love lorn stylist, and a defeated bodybuilding rival, among others. This sets the stage for a number of increasingly absurd and drawn-out fight sequences and telegraphed plot twists all staged in a swirling vortex of dayglo colors and immense, immaculate production design.

While the temptation to further elucidate the plot tugs at my conscience in an effort to fully render the crazy world in which I is set, the problem is that there just aren't enough words to explain the experience. The 64 second teaser that mauled YouTube a couple of months ago, gaining nearly 10 million views (a record for a Tamil language film), only began to hint at the barely constrained brilliant madness of the film. I is roughly two hundred times the length of that teaser, and while some films never quite live up to their own hype machine, it only magnifies itself in the transition.

A few weeks ago as I was sharing my impatience and enthusiasm all over social media, I shared the full trailer on my Facebook wall. It was then that I got the perfect response from one of my friends who'd watched it for the first time, her comment was, "Jesus, does everything happen in this movie?" I couldn't have said it more succinctly myself, and yes, Jovanka, literally everything happens in this movie.

Kung fu battles with Chinese BMX gangsters? Check. A woman transforms into a cell phone/motorcycle/TV set/bunch of bean curd/fish? Check. A song sequence more than a little reminiscent of Meat Loaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love", with the participants in a full on wire fu battle staged as demons and devils versus a winged flock of angels? Check. A ten minute fight sequence between 40 bodybuilders wearing Speedos? Check. A vengeful hunchback sics a 30,000 bees on a sunbathing Goliath? Check. A predatory transgendered stylist attempts to sexually assault a virgin mourning a lost love? Check.

That list only scratches the surface of what I has to offer in terms of broad spectacle. While I do have some serious, complicated issues with the last item on that list, there's absolutely no doubt that I goes for broke at every opportunity. Behind it all, though, the backbone of the film and the only thing keeping its wildly divergent threads from spinning out of control is Vikram, an actor who does his very best work when asked to go over the edge. The Nic Cage of southern India, if you please.

It is Vikram's transformative performance in I that will convert the uninitiated. When the film starts to bend over backwards and Shankar's penchant for self-reverence begins to get out of hand, Vikram's sympathetic performance as the unlikeliest of heroes pulls us back into the emotional core of the story. Unlike Shankar's most recent efforts with Rajnikanth in Sivaji and Enthiran, (we'll just pretend that Nanban never happened) Vikram never becomes invincible. His vulnerability, in spite of his massive bodybuilding frame and/or modelling fame, remains in tact and a core part of the Lingesan character throughout the film.

The film is not without its glaring weaknesses though, most of which illuminate the stark divide between what Indian mass audiences expect and what Western film audiences will tolerate. The film is too long. At over three hours, there is nothing in the narrative that couldn't have been done in 45+ minutes less time. Foreign audiences will be left scratching their heads at the uncountable in-jokes regarding Tamil film actors, Shankar's own filmography and predilections, and Vikram's own movie history (including a blink and you'll miss it moment with Vikram dancing atop a building in drag, surely a nod to his drag-tastic fight scene in Kanthaswamy). But my main issue, and the one that made me squirm in my seat right up until intermission, is the implicit transphobia of Vikram's character in the film, and how it is used as a way to show him as a stand-up guy who wouldn't stand for all that.

The ridicule of gays and transgendered people is nothing new in Indian film, or any film, frankly, but the way in which it plays out in the film made me uncomfortable. The more I look at it, the more confused my view becomes, though. The character, Osma Jasmine, is a stylist hired to turn Lingesan from a bodybuilding bumpkin to a fashion plate. Jasmine is played by real life superstar stylist Ojas Rajani, who is also an openly transgendered woman. It's Vikram's reaction to her flirtations, which admittedly do go from playful to desperate, that raised my alarm bells. 

Lingesan is a country boy, and his reaction to Osma could be justified in that way, however, the film chooses to further justify her villainy by condoning his actions against her and his visible discomfort. At first viewing, it was obvious, but the further away from the film I get, the more complicated the situation becomes. While I could go on forever about my confused feelings regarding this one aspect of the film, I will concede that by the time the second half of the film resumed its breakneck pace, I'd largely allowed myself to get swept back up in the increasingly dramatic story arc.

On the whole, I is an experience that can never fully be appreciated by reading about it. That famous quip comparing the merits of writing about art to dancing about architecture comes to mind. You'll never believe or understand it unless you see it for yourself. Broadly, some would say impossibly, romantic, determined to push the envelope India's cinematic capabilities in every aspect, meticulously and marvelously staged, I is a film that demands your attention, the only question is, will you listen?
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