Rewind some 3 years back to Sivaji – The Boss, the first collaboration between mega-star Rajnikant and mega-director S. Shankar. Given the colossally exaggerated stylistic flourish of several of the films made by these two names in their individual capacities, one expected the end product to be the embodiment of chutzpah and ass-kickery in the realm of mainstream Dravidian cinema. Sadly, this was not to be. The rare bit aside, Sivaji proved to be despite its lavishness lackluster, and the combination of “Baas” Rajni and Shankar turned out a wasted opportunity. Flash to the present now, to another collaboration of these two phenomena in the form of Endhiran aka Robot. How does the die roll this time around? Short answer: THIS is what Sivaji should have been. THIS is, in capital letters, REDEMPTION.
The most important thing that anyone going to watch this film should keep in mind is that it is built around the legend of its leading man; putting it simply, the movie exists to show there's nothing Rajni Kan't. Yes, one of the lead characters is a scientist (Rajni) and the other is his humanoid robot (Rajni, again), and there are casually dropped remarks about cloning, fuel cells and electromagnetism. But you don't need to be even remotely geeky to see that the science is utter hokum. When you're the most expensive Indian film made (180 crore rupees or more, approximately US$40 million) in a nation where even basic literacy is at a premium, you can't conjure a techno-fantasy to appeal to the fetishes of high school nerds, and robo-Rajni's references to his “one terahertz processor, one zetabyte memory” are probably about as much technical jargon as the largest contingent of Rajni-fans will take before keeling over.
In the admittedly absurd narrative, scientist Rajni devotes all his attention to making an advanced robot soldier that he proposes to provide as an asset to the Indian armed forces. He goes rather far in said quest, bothering to give the robot artificial skin (even feeds the robot dancing modules, which could...umm, I don't know...help at those military balls). Scientist Rajni's work must really take its toll on his health because despite being depicted as an eligible bachelor with a medical student girlfriend, one could swear that at several moments he looks rather like grandpa in a bad wig. Harrumph, let's remind ourselves again that this is a Rajnikant film and push ahead. Robo-Rajni is proudly unveiled and takes his first steps into the living world, accompanied by a large number of simple-minded jokes about his bumbles with understanding humans, some of which, like his run-in with a corrupt traffic cop, are actually funny. Scientist Rajni then uses this evolved robot as a super-expensive valet (although given auto-rickshaw rates and attitude of drivers in Chennai, perhaps even actual servants cost a bomb and behave thuggishly). He also blithely loans him to the girlfriend (Aishwarya Rai, aged and dumb-mannered enough to support the character of a repeat failure medico). This affords the opportunity for Shankar to rub spit between the palms and break out some of his trademark visual chutzpah. A brilliantly mounted sequence where robo-Rajni takes on a small battalion of ruffians on and off a local train comes off as one of the best action sequences one has ever seen up till then.
In the meanwhile, scientist Rajni's erstwhile mentor, played by classy Bollywood baddie Danny Denzongpa, grows jealous of his student's success and after failed attempts to copy the magic formula (robo-Rajni's “neural schema”) makes use of his position in the regulatory board (for robo-research? I couldn't get that clearly) to reject robo-Rajni's entry as a combat soldier on the basis that he lacks “feeling” and cannot distinguish friend and foe. With the help of more absurd techno-jargon, scientist Rajni apparently “injects” feelings into his creation. This brings up a whole slew of problems as robo-Rajni with his “humane” outlook falls for the scientist's girlfriend and asserts his right to “live and love”. Cue then to spiraling chaos as “now feeling” robo-Rajni is turned to evil to achieve his end, even making a clone army in the process. What happens then and how his mega-menace is finally vanquished forms the remainder of the proceedings.
Having Rajnikant play the lead in a film is a double-edged sword. On the one financial success is almost a given; his fans care nothing that their superstar is in real life a bald, paunchy 60-year old with total disregard to sartorial trends. But it also severely limits his onscreen character. Presenting him as anything other than the super-heroic “protector of the poor” and “son of a thousand mothers” or daring to show him getting even slightly roughed up by a baddie has proved to be often dangerous to the makers and exhibitors of films in that part of the country. Shankar has circumvented this major limitation with his double-role gambit. Who better to provide a serious challenge to the heroic Rajni than a villainous Rajni? The superstar, who in the early days of his acting career played several roles with negative shades, grabs with palpable relish the long-lost chance of portraying a baddie again, and with his characteristic aplomb, significantly effaces reservations of him being the right actor for the role. In short Evil Rajni rocks!!!
But the foremost reason for seeing this film is its sequences of large scale daredevilry and visual effects audacity. My biggest fear after the aforementioned train battle was whether the rest of the film would have stuff to match it. As it turned out, that scene was not only matched but pounded to the ground by the sheer awesomeness of the action that followed. The CGI may not have the polish and integration that the typical Hollywood summer blockbuster has, but in my view Shankar's conception and choreography of the action rivals and even surpasses the work of the Wachowskis and Michael Bay. The climax with the shenanigans of the clone army of robo-Rajnis is the apogee of the imagination and painstaking effort taken to make the film. Also, thanks to the very malleable standards of the Indian censor board, this “U” certificate film happily shows us such sights as the large scale massacre of policemen, which even the Terminator franchise had to nerf in its sequels.
There are caveats, yes. The filler in between the action can be tedious, though I'd assert no more so than any other stereotype Rajni film; most scenes featuring Aishwarya Rai fall in this category. You'd think at least a film of this scale and intent would stoke him, but AR Rahman continues his trend of “Money for Nothing” scores, and only the song sequences shot in Machu Pichu and in the WTF futuristic lair of evil Rajni match up to the hallucinatory goodness of Shankar's erstwhile song picturizations. But to my mind the good parts of this film by their sheer impact far eclipse its weaknesses and I can confidently regard Endhiran/Robot as one of the most entertaining films in the repertoires of both Rajnikant and Shankar. Viva la combinación!