I was lucky that my trip to India coincided with the release of 2.0, the visual spectacle that had been eagerly awaited by movie fans. The expectations also were skyrocketing because of the fact that the film had a budget at Hollywood standards. It also boasted of two big stars, Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar. I didn't read any review or follow any social media discussions around the movie just to ensure that I get a fresh experience of this one of its kind production.
Also, there was some competition among fans on social media. There were repeated discussions and polls on whether 2.0 will be bigger than Baahubali and whether Shankar is bigger than SS Rajamouli. Even within my friends' circle, there were discussions on these subjects. In my opinion, it is an unfair comparison as what Shankar is attempting is much more difficult than what Rajamouli attempted. Rajamouli is a great storyteller and uses visual effects to tell ‘big’ stories. Shankar is a visionary and a super creator who uses VFX to imagine extraordinary possibilities. For Raja stories, we have a lot of reference in India and also, from the west. But for a concept like 2.0, there are lots of references in the west but there is not a single reference or benchmark in the Indian context. The closest reference is the movies of Ramanarayanan and we know what quality we are talking about. What Shankar attempted is to create a new reference and new benchmark for not just Indian films but for films outside of Hollywood.
Shankar is the hero
The film’s staging to establish the conflict is extraordinary. Shankar takes the entire first half to spectacularly stage the conflict with some surreal use of visual effects. What is the staging? Cell phones randomly disappear and they move like a bird swam, like a lava and even like a Tsunami. This force kills a leading businessman and a minister in charge of the telecom industry. When the army was deployed, it finishes them off completely. A scientist who was asked to study this phenomenon tries to track this phenomenon and witnesses the swarm of cell phones destroying the towers. This scientist had earlier created a Robot which was brilliant but was shelved because of how it was used in a destructive fashion by an evil competing scientist. The government grants permission to use the Robot and with the help of the Robot, the scientist figures out that the swarm is the fifth force orchestrated by the energy of Pakshi Rajan. Pakshi is a bird enthusiast who fights for protecting the birds who get killed by the increased frequency from the cell phone towers and when all his efforts fail, he hangs himself to death. Now, the stage is set for two non-human entities — a fifth force that moves like a bird and a bird swarm Vs a super intelligent Robot. What is going to happen now? Did the Robot manage to neutralize the fifth force? How? These are questions that arise with 45 mins left in the film. The stage was set for an epic climax.
Almost scene after scene, your curiosity starts building up and the VFX gives you goosebumps. When the swarm moves around, the pace sets in. When the leg of the monster bird reveals from the swarm, it was spectacular. Finally, when the bird reveals fully, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling proud that this was a vision that originated in India. Being from the VFX industry, I can imagine how much hard work would have gone into each and every frame. Every second has 24 frames and you can imagine the scale of VFX in this film. Also, the level of detail is unimaginable. The frames look so rich and with the 3D effect, especially on the depth, the impact of the visual effects multiply several times. One can write a complete case study on how they managed to pull this visual spectacle.
There is a reason why Shankar is great. It is not about the visual effects alone but the way he contextualizes such a grand setting for the local audience with a problem that any common person can relate to in their everyday life. Be it the guy who tries to take a selfie with a dead body or showing scientific evidence to make the case of the bird deaths or the presence of aura, Shankar is like a researcher who presents his thesis to the audience in a compelling way. There were some scenes where I was made to think larger than my everyday life. Two scenes, in particular, stand out — when the drooling guy realizes that Amy Jackson is a Robot, you can either take it funny or you can see the spirituality behind it. When Pakshi talks about how birds clean up the insects and the systemic connections, we are made to realize the need to protect the larger ecosystem. To do all this in a movie that is about Robots is the real success of Shankar.
I was in Davos earlier this year where a Professor from Princeton University was ‘imagining’ about Robots having feelings. Shankar & Sujatha had already done this in 2010 with Endhiran where they also imagined it and their imagination is far bigger than any scientist in the world today. The number of times I said ‘wow’ during the first half could not be counted. At the end of the first half, I sent this message to my friends’ group in Facebook ‘Shankar is the James Cameron of Indian Cinema. I cannot believe that this was done by an Indian director’.
Shankar is the Villain
What is going to happen now? Did the Robot manage to neutralize the fifth force? How? With 45 mins left, now I am left with tremendous curiosity about these three questions. But here, Shankar becomes the film’s villain. Instead of contextualizing the VFX for the story, he contextualizes the story for the VFX. There were extraordinary visual effects, grandiose, but the tempo was not there in the last 45 minutes. But the audience sitting in the theater enjoyed the last 45 minutes. They were clapping for every Rajini dialogue and there were whistles when Rajini did ‘Cuckooooo’ or ‘3.0’.
How to criticize
Before I criticize, I am going to make some caveats.
Was the film worth its ticket cost? The first half is worth 10 or 20 or 100 times the ticket worth. It is a super worthy film.
It is very easy to criticize anything these days but we need to be responsible for what we are criticizing. To criticize Shankar’s work, we should have done something in life. If you are an Engineer, this is the equivalent of building the tallest statue in India. If you are a historian, this is the equivalent of uncovering Keezhadi near Madurai. If you are a cricketer, this is the equivalent of Sachin scoring a magnificent hundred but the team still not able to cross the finish line. It is a laborious and painful work. The following quote sums up the magnitude of this work.
‘Persistence is the hard work you do without ever giving up. Perseverance is the hard work you do after you are tired of doing a hard work’
Shankar persevered and one needs to take their hat off to salute his work. With this understanding, I am going to place some criticisms but as I write this, I am still feeling guilty that I haven’t done anything at this level to share my criticism. But again criticism is not cynicism. Cynicism is being negative and dismissing without respecting the other person’s work. Criticism is being critical of a work fully respecting the other person’s work.
The 3D technology captures depth (third dimension) effectively but the 2D (length and height) goes for a toss. The scale looks off most of the time because of this technology. The cell phone tower looks like a miniature and the characters look like dwarfs in many scenes. It is a choice between capturing the depth versus capturing the height & length effectively. In 2D, the visual effects may not have been this impactful. A director faces these kinds of decisions almost on every frame and in this case, Shankar chose 3D. One can question the choice but I have already presented the tradeoffs for each choice. We also have to realize this is being made in India for the first time.
In the last 45 minutes of the film, Shankar had to choose between making the storyline compelling by using VFX or make the VFX bigger and accommodate the storyline for VFX. Shankar gets carried away by technology and this is not the first time. In Indian, if Kamal Hassan alone had the prosthetic make up, it would have been very impactful. But he used it for Suganya and then, the two didn’t blend overall with the film. In Boys, especially in the Ale Ale song, he used the matrix shot countless times. If it were used once, the wow element would have stayed longer. In the same fashion, the last 45 minutes lose the objective of using VFX to tell a story and ends up with the storyline modified to accommodate VFX.
In the title credits, instead of car ‘drivers’ it was written car ‘dirvers’ and that was completely off the standards of Shankar. Also, one could clearly see (especially myself being from the VFX industry) that the shots were made in so many different studios. There were variations in quality but I was also aware that the director had to move his entire work to a new studio after the original vendor went bankrupt.
Shankar is the hero and Shankar is the villain. Both are difficult characters and he has to be celebrated. He has taken the bar so high for everyone and if someone like Rajamouli or another filmmaker exceeds this bar, then it is good news for Indian cinema. He was on the right track till interval to reach the impact of Jurassic Park or Terminator but the film ends up like a Hulk/Godzilla towards the end. But as you can see, we are comparing with Hollywood films which itself is a huge win.
You may be wondering why I didn’t mention anything about Rajinikanth or Akshay Kumar or AR Rahman. I am a Rajini fan and a AR Rahman fan. If one can put a bird alone in the poster of a Rajinikanth film, then you know who is the biggest superstar in Indian cinema.