After ranting about the unfairness of the ban on Vishwaroopam in several columns and raging against it on Facebook, I decided to travel to Bangalore to watch the film, before it was chopped at the altar of political correctness – keep the peace, maintain law and order, delete the film’s most telling scenes and so on. The truth is, it’s a bolder film than any Indian has had the guts to make thus far in the mainstream arena, confronting realities without cushioning them, playing with the grey shades, and somehow fitting all of this into a commercial flick with high entertainment value.
One of my favourite things about Kamal Haasan is that he’s never tried to pretend he’s younger than he is – in this film too, the woman who plays his wife has a line about how her reasons for getting married were so compelling that she didn’t care about the age difference between her and the groom. And this vein of authenticity runs through the rest of the film too – a chunk of the dialogue is in Pashto, with Tamil subtitles. It appears all – or nearly all – the actors have done their own dubbing, and while this may make some of the dialogue hard to understand, it is in keeping with reality. An exchange in the film tells us how the Afghans learnt Tamil, and hearing this said out loud in a film comes as something of a shocker for those of us who’re used to cinema skirting uncomfortable truths.
Sadly, a lot has been revealed already about the plot and its twists, though one should ideally go in blind. Even so, the first twenty minutes keep us guessing about who is on whose side. They also keep us laughing, even as people get beaten up. As I left the cinema, I heard someone saying, “Dude, it’s like a Quentin Tarantino film, man!” And it is – not only in its stylised violence, but in the manner humour is woven into such a dark film.
A lot has been said about stereotyping in the film – of male dancers, of Tam Brahms, of secret agents, of Islamic militants. What we often forget about stereotypes is that generalisations tend to hold true. And I deliberately use the phrase ‘Islamic militants’, and not ‘Muslims’. Muslims aren’t stereotyped – in fact, with more than half the cast, and nearly all the extras, playing Muslims, we see more shades of that religion than any other.
So, the big question – will Muslims be offended by the portrayal of Islam in the film? That depends on whom they relate to. Do they identify with men who would sentence teenagers to ‘martyrdom’, or do they identify with a woman who wheezes over a tandoor because her husband won’t let a French doctor who doesn’t cover her face treat her asthma? Do they identify with men who trade in opium and stomp out music systems for being ‘un-Islamic’, or with a boy whose wooden leg is confiscated as punishment for teaching someone English?
It would also be incorrect to say the militants are dehumanised. Our empathy is called as much to a moon-faced jihadi with light eyes and a beatific smile, who tries to reclaim his lost childhood on an improvised swing, as to the pubescent dancing boys who’re stripped and beaten. We see men with purple prayer marks glistening on their foreheads, and twisted smiles curling across their faces, as they torture their American hostages. We see the same men laughing delightedly when their commander’s son mimes shooting him down. There is some poignancy in conviction too, in the proud, loping walk of men who believe they’re soldiers of God. And that poignancy hits home when we see their childlike fascination with posing for photographs, with sporting sunglasses.
If the film has a message, it’s this – good and bad are relative. We see glimpses of it in an in-joke, when Kamal Haasan’s character is asked, “Neenga nallavaraa kettavaraa?” (Are you a good person, or an evil one?), an iconic line from his film Nayagan. It comes through subtly, in the brutality of the “good” guys, and the kindnesses of the “evil” ones. It comes through openly in the gut-wrenching wail of an old woman whose village has been devastated by American drones. “First it was the Russians, and then the Taliban, and then the Americans, and now it’s you lot – monkeys with tails in front, that’s what you are!”
Can someone be “good” when his inefficiency causes an innocent man to be lynched? Even as Kamal Haasan unflinchingly deals with issues that most people are afraid to touch, he brings out with equal candour the prejudice against Muslims. A character, horrified by the framing of a scapegoat, says, “Allah won’t forgive us for this”, and his subordinate snaps, “Allah won’t forgive you. I’m playing a role here, my name is an assumed one. This isn’t my religion.” And the irony of battlegrounds hallowed by religion is brought out in irreverent comebacks.
In short, Vishwaroopam is no more offensive than a documentary on militancy, and far more engaging. Often, it feels like we’re watching journalistic reports come alive, with technology making some scenes frighteningly realistic.
The narrative is unhurried, and this allows the film’s sweep to be quite vast – from the opium trade to the underhand dealings involved in secret agencies cultivating sources, to everyday life in hostile, arid lands darkened by the shadows of guns and fighter jets, to the bacha bazi that has penetrated areas ‘liberated’ by foreign powers, it explores several dimensions of ‘Holy War’.
And it tells the story through powerful images that play on our fields of vision for hours and days after we watch the film – a man balling himself into a foetal position as he lies bleeding in a subterranean cave, pigeons searching for grain in an isolated village, boys who run away laughing from a public hanging, children who play with imaginary guns because that’s all the entertainment they’ve known, a crying child reaching up to be carried by a father who’s busy cleaning his rifle, a woman who hurriedly covers her face in terror when her husband walks in on her laughing with a child and a male neighbour, the silhouettes of men standing on jeeps, a militant shooing away his young sons who’re trying to get into the frame of a photograph, the expression on the face of a man as he shaves himself in preparation for higher rewards, the vanity that makes a terrorist want to get a video threat shot just right, little drops of water forming large puddles.
The film isn’t free of the trappings of a commercial film, and one could choose to nitpick over its inconsistencies. One could smirk at the indulgence Kamal Haasan allows himself in playing hero, at the masala sprinkled over a stark story. But even in the slight pulping of the tale, Haasan does make an attempt at explaining away some of it.
There is the odd actor who is miscast or redundant. However, all the actors with parts that matter throw their best work into this film. Rahul Bose and Jaideep Ahlawat stand out, both for their acting skills and their comic timing, and the cast in Afghanistan is convincing, even in tiny roles.
It’s about time we stopped walking on eggshells in looking at current affairs in cinema. When we don’t deny the existence of sleeper terror cells across the world, why do we brush them under the carpet in film? Vishwaroopam should be lauded for exposing commercial cinema to what has so far been the domain of ‘festival films’, and the cinema of resistance coming out of the Middle East. It should, in fact, be seen in its entirety, rather than the mellowed-down version that is expected to hit theatres in Tamil Nadu.
Read more from this author:
Do only 'upper castes' need to get over caste prejudice?
Vishwaroopam: It's time cinema stopped bowing down to bigots
Why does the idea of war excite us?
The Delhi rape victim's identity: Symbolism or voyeurism?
Honey Singh hungama: Why do we think with our vaginas?
The Delhi bus-rape: Why the reactions scare me
The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com