Dasavatharam – why it didn’t work for me

Even fans sympathetic to Dasavatharam have expressed their doubts about Kamal Haasan’s 11th avataram in the film: as scriptwriter. It isn’t necessary to do a close reading of the film to see what went wrong with the movie –even to the common moviegoer the script, for a movie so overwrought, feels clearly underwritten. For me, Dasavatharam also felt like the most expensive Indian comedy ever made. Underneath its epic scale, it is really one more typical screwball comedy that Kamal has patented over the years, starting with Michael Madana Kamaraj and ending (or so we thought) with Mumbai Express. But in Dasavatharam he has resurrected that formula again, except it now gets a 60 crore treatment.

Having shelled out 400 bucks for a ticket (the going rate for a first day, first show for this movie in multiplexes across the country), I thought if it didn’t live up to the hype, I could, in that time honored tradition of film critics, complain about what a hollow spectacle it was. But emerging from the theatre what I wanted to know was this–where’s the spectacle? Where did the 60 crores go? Because you don’t

see it on screen. The hype led us to believe we were in for an epic thriller that would, if not rival Hollywood, dwarf anything else in Indian cinema.

But Dasavatharam fails to provide a single set piece that is suspenseful, inventive or inspired. The grandeur, drama and intensity of the film’s prologue, set in the 12 century, are never again matched in the movie. As the plot unravels, you realize with a sinking heart (which has now joined your wallet) that the movie’s thrilling opening act has little to do with the rest of the story, except in the most tangential way.

A voice-over at the beginning tells us (and this should have been warning enough) that what is about to unfold is related to chaos theory. The movie ends with demonstrating how everything in the universe seems to have its own checks and balances: by intelligent design or unknown, evolutionary forces – you’re asked to take your pick. Nice. But a smaller budget, a more engaging script, with a little less America in it could have accomplished the same, and accomplished it with the comic aplomb Kamal is famous for.

What follows is one long screwball comedy (a race to save the planet) that begins in Washington D.C. and ends in Chennai, just as the tsunami is poised to strike. What is particularly offensive is Kamal and Asin (thrown away in a shrill, exasperating role) conducting a lover’s quarrel on a beach just devastated by the tsunami, littered with the wounded and the dead. Most of the comedy in Dasavatharam is intended, but part of it is unintended.

Kamal Haasan is a brilliant comic gifted with a rich comedic imagination, and he should really push that. We tend to forget that in the movie he not only impersonates ten different characters, but even speaks like ten different characters. The special effect here is not just prosthetics but Kamal’s gift for miming voices.

While his Indian avatars here are rendered with near-perfection, his American impersonations of George Bush and an ex-CIA agent are funny in a dreadful, embarrassing way. Kamal’s Balram Naidu, a maddeningly bureaucratic RAW agent gloating with Telugu pride, is his subtlest, most brilliant comic creation. Another character, that of a Christian dalit activist, is impeccably delineated. Kamal’s triumph here is rendering the Tamil spoken by this character pitch perfectly. A third, a Japanese martial arts master, also feels genuine, for the way the star is able to mimic a master’s body language (and a little Japanese). None of them are caricatures; they are complex, believable impersonations.

The American impersonations, on the other hand, are too broad, and without believable detail. Worse, the make up for them sucks. Why does Kamal Haasan’s George Jr. look like Jay Leno? Though the actor didn’t intend it, the joke is on Bush: all those sharp American stand up comics like Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman who’ve been thinking up ways to satirize Bush couldn’t have finished him off the way Kamal’s impersonation has. And when Bush swishes his legs like Rajnikanth, swaggers to the podium, and speaks a little Tamil, it was all I could do to keep from choking.

His ex-CIA agent avatar looks like that Mickey Rourke character from Sin City. Paired with Mallika Sherawat, the rogue agent-killer asks her if she can speak English. A reasonable question for an American to ask an Indian, if it wasn’t being asked in a Las Vegas strip club where he meets her pole dancing.

Kamal, the experienced auteur, should know well enough by now that the script shouldn’t be the 11th avataram but the first. Dasavatharam doesn’t add up to that spectacular movie experience I had waited so long and so eagerly for.

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