Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy/curiosity factor: About a month ago, a YouTube clip of a glorious CGI clusterfuck from the Indian movie Enthiran started circulating the Internet, racking up several million views from people enthralled by this strange movie featuring a paunchy, Elvis-looking actor multiplying into a shape-shifting mass of robots and causing massive, hilarious destruction.
But Enthiran is more than just an accidental viral hit: That paunchy guy is Rajinikanth, the biggest Indian movie star (he’s actually billed as “SUPERSTAR Rajni” in his movies) and the second highest-paid actor in Asia after Jackie Chan. His co-star in Enthiran is a former Miss World, and probably the only Indian film star recognizable to American audiences, Aishwarya Rai. Enthiran is the most expensive (around $38 million U.S.) and highest-grossing (roughly $82 million U.S) film in Indian history. Those special effects were done by Stan Winston Studios (of Jurassic Park, Aliens, Terminator, and more) and Industrial Light And Magic. And the music was composed by Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman. This isn’t just some random Indian movie that happened to stumble into the American consciousness; it’s the Indian blockbuster, essentially the Avatar of Tamil cinema (often referred to as “Kollywood,” the South Indian cousin of Bollywood). And yet most Western audiences are only familiar with it through a 10-minute YouTube clip they guffawed at with coworkers over lunch one day.
Obviously, there’s a major cultural gap between Indian and American cinema that’s going to give movies from that region a patina of “otherness” that results in alienated giggling from Westerners (and, presumably, vice-versa). But perhaps viewing Enthiran in its entirety would provide more context and deeper cultural appreciation for something that has entertained millions of people around the world. At the very least, it would probably have a bunch more CGI craziness to ogle at, right?
The viewing experience: Before you go into Enthiran hoping for a something like an Indian Crank, nothing but high-octane action featuring K’nex-style robots, be warned: It isn’t that. It can be loosely defined as a science-fiction/action movie, yes, but it’s also an Indian movie made for Indian audiences, which means it gives over a lot—and I mean a lot—of time to the chaste romance between Rajinikanth and Rai, as well as many musical numbers. It’s also three hours long. Films of that length are common in Indian cinema, but it’s definitely a butt-burner. The musical numbers aren’t integrated into the story the way they are in Western musicals; they act like music-video segues whose songs are only loosely related to what’s happening in the story.
Before I go any further, a couple of disclaimers. First, I’m not well-versed in Indian cinema—I’ve seen a handful of Bollywood movies, but that’s it—and I’m assuming most of our readers aren’t either, so I’m reviewing Enthiran through a Westerner’s perspective. I will try to be as inoffensive as my lazy American sensibilities will allow. Second, I don’t speak Tamil—one of many reasons I’m not well-versed in Indian cinema—which means I had to watch a subtitled copy of Enthiran that didn’t display the most nuanced grasp of the English language, so I’m going to mostly avoid discussing the dialogue, as I’m sure some things have been lost in translation.
The plot of Enthiran is essentially Frankenstein via Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics. Dr. Vaseegaran creates a super-intelligent robot named Chitti, designed in his own likeness. (Rajinikanth plays both roles.) Chitti is capable of everything from advanced mathematical calculation to cooking and cleaning to helping Vaseegaran’s girlfriend Sana (Rai) cheat on her medical exams. And, of course, dancing. When Vaseegaran presents Chitti in front of a panel from the Artificial Intelligence Research And Development Institute, his former mentor and current bad-dude, Dr. Bohra (who’s trying and failing to develop his own super-robot to sell to terrorists) manages to confuse Chitti, causing the robot to almost stab Vaseegaran, thus proving that Chitti does not conform to Asimov’s laws. Things get even worse when, in the process of saving a bunch of people from a burning building, Chitti rescues a young girl from certain death in the bathtub, only to deliver her, naked and shameful, in front of the gathered TV cameras. Things go downhill from there:
After berating Chitti as a “stupid machine” for “killing an innocent girl” (who was totally going to die anyway if he didn’t intervene, but whatever), Vaseegaran realizes Chitti can’t understand concepts like honor because he doesn’t grasp human emotion. So, in a move that will certainly have no repercussions at all, he decides to modify Chitti to give him human emotions. Things start out well enough: Chitti takes flowers to the dead girl’s grave and helps Sana’s friend through a difficult labor and delivery, which he learned how to do by scanning Sana’s medical books. But Sana’s frequent giggling and kisses on the cheek begin to have an effect on Chitti, and he falls for her, leading to many awkward discussions about the ethics of human-robo love and the feasibility of robo-sapien offspring, as well as this weird sequence where Chitti proves his love to Sana by hunting down the mosquito that bit her:
Soon, Chitti is demanding a salary from Vaseegaran so he can buy gifts for Sana, and interrupting their engagement ceremony with his sweet dance moves. But when Chitti botches his presentation in front of the Indian army, reciting poetry about Sana instead of kicking ass, Vaseegaran decides it’s time to kill his creation.
After tossing what’s left of Chitti in the dump, Vaseegaran falls into a deep depression. Sana attempts to distract him by flirting with another man in front of him, but she nearly get raped—for the second time in the movie, by the way. When Vaseegaran saves her, their love is rekindled, and they celebrate by dancing at Machu Picchu and singing a song equating love and cannibalism:
While they’re busy dancing, Dr. Bohra rescues what’s left of Chitti from the dump and reassembles him, adding his own modification—a “destruction program”—to make him a killing machine. But before Bohra can sell him to German terrorists, Chitti goes all Franken-Terminator on his ass, killing Bohra, kidnapping Sana from her wedding, and setting up a robo-fortress staffed by anywhere from several dozen to several thousand Chitti clones. Things get pretty predictable from there, as Vaseegaran and the Indian army struggle to invade the fortress and destroy the Chittis, leading to the aforementioned CGI mayhem. Thankfully, Vaseegaran remembered to add a “destroy all robots” function to Chitti’s interface, and he manages to dispose of the robo-army and remove Chitti’s destruction chip.
Unlike many action movies, Enthiran then deals with the messy task of addressing the fallout of Chitti’s rampage, with the government sentencing Vaseegaran to death as punishment for the hundreds who died and billions of dollars in damages. But Chitti comes to his defense—thank God he has those human-emotion thingies, right?—with this logic bomb: “If a machine malfunctions and humans die, it is not murder, it’s an accident.” He then offers to dismantle himself instead… but not before giving a lecture on the human nature of evil that basically boils down to “I learned it from watching you, Dad!”
Taken in synopsis form, Enthiran sounds pretty good: It manages to combine moral issues, a love triangle, and whiz-bang action sequences. But there’s so much material cluttering the story between the plot points that it’s easy to disengage. The musical interstitials are pretty impressive, with MTV-caliber production values—one song looks and sounds remarkably like a Black Eyed Peas video—but they drag on for five minutes at a time, quickly losing their luster. A generous helping of humor is sprinkled throughout the movie, but it’s big, broad humor of the sight-gags-and-puns variety. (The first of many nut shots comes four minutes into the film.) And the pacing is interminable, at least for Western audiences used to smash-cuts and 80-minute run times, rather than 15 seconds of Rai making sad faces from different angles:
As for the action: If you’ve seen that YouTube clip, you’ve seen the best of it. A lot of good practical effects are used throughout Enthiran, but much of the CGI has an uncanny-valley, videogame quality. To be fair, $38 million only buys so much, and expecting the effects in Enthiran to equal something like the $300 million Avatar, even when adjusting for the currency exchange, is unfair. And even with the plastic-y veneer, the modeling, animation, and fight choreography is well-executed. Just pretend you’ve gone back in time 15 years or so, and it will seem much more impressive.
Watching Enthiran is alienating, but not wholly unenjoyable. There’s so much crammed into the movie, chances are good something in it will speak to you, be it shiny dance sequences, hyper-violent action, or Three Stooges-like humor. And there’s certainly a WTF quality to the whole thing—see: that mosquito sequence—that lends itself well to quippy group viewing in the MST3K vein. But without friends (or a fast-forward button) to alleviate the tedium of the film’s many draggier moments, sitting through Enthiran seems like a lot of work for modest pay-off.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time: It depends on how much you like Indian-language musical numbers. If you prefer elaborate costumes and dance music mixed in with your killer-robot action, expect to enjoy up to an hour of Enthiran. If you dig Indian movies in general and/or nut shots in particular, expect to enjoy even more. Otherwise, you’re probably better off just watching that YouTube clip again.