Viswaroopam

[Cast: Kamal Hassan, Rahul Bose, Pooja Kumar, Andrea Jeremiah, Shekar Kapoor; Music: Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy; Direction: Kamal Hassan]

Viswaroopam is a very good film. Looks like Kamal Hassan has been preparing for this kind of film for a long time. Make no mistake, he is one of the best script writers in India. His greatest strength has been his ability to write intricate scripts. And his weakest point has been the same too: his ability to write intricate scripts, which gets him carried away and write films that are often confusing. Not confusing in the sense that we won’t understand, but in the sense we won’t see a point in the proceedings. They are not simple three-act structures. It is sad that even that factory-like technique is not properly followed by other film-makers. Kamal Hassan has been practising these techniques like a monk and often attempting to transcend them, landing in creative vortex.

It is a bit difficult to pin point whether this is a weakness of Kamal the writer, or Kamal the director. As his mentor, Balachander, remarked once, Kamal needed to tone down his excitement in storytelling and tell simple, neat stories. And, lest we forget, tell original stories.

With Viswaroopam, he has achieved both. A simple, neat story of terrorism versus espionage has a restrained Kamal presenting a quasi-thriller. It doesn’t work like a typical Hollywood thriller. In this tale of a ‘diffuse a bomb or a city goes boom’ story, Kamal weaves inner tales of fidelity, terrorism, religious extremism, moral dilemma, etc., surprisingly all of them aiding the main narration, rather than impeding it. Of course, we don’t watch it with bated breath wondering how the bomb is going to be diffused. It is not that kind of a film, not your ’24’ variety, although the bomb and espionage and chases provide an engaging watch. Viswaroopam questions the fickleness of waging religious wars and even narrowly explores the psychology of rural, tribal jihad. Such explorations were attempted elsewhere, like ‘Paradise Now’ from Israel, ‘Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame’ from Iran, etc. Such an attempt, albeit a frivolous one, has never been made in Tamil. It’s a triumph that Kamal made it and for that he deserves a pat on his back. He manages to deliver a subdued, under-stated performance and also extract good work from others. Rahul Bose never comes across as a villain, even during his harsh implementation of Afghan tribal customs masquerading as sharia. He is just someone who strongly believes in those customs, with a bent of perverted ideology that comes out of a life long-ingrained in the war-torn terrain. Afghanis, Pasthos, Pakistanis, they all interact with each other through their common link called Islam and shared anger against the US and crushing poverty. War is there everywhere, inescapably, with children playing with imaginary guns and bullets being sold in the markets, like vegetables, on weighing scales. These scenes are subtle and effectively non-judgemental.

Of course the film is ideologically skewed. Americans are good people and the GI-Joes even curse themselves when they ‘accidentally’ fire upon innocent civilians. Afghan Jihadists are opium-selling, women-oppressing, Osama-protecting lethal fighters.  There are, plausibly, even factual inaccuracies: Is Indian Army part of the NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan? Are RAW agents working clandestinely in the US unbeknownst of the FBI? Also, Kamal might be nurturing a slightly right-wing perception of the war on terror, yet it cannot be used as a yardstick to measure the craft. ‘The Birth of the Nation’ is one of the 100 best films not because of its white-supremacist message, but purely for its amazing cinematic achievement. Kamal might have slightly erred on his pro-American stand, but that message is suppressed in excellent suspension of disbelief.

It is a bit of let down to see that finally it all boils down to having to disarm a nuclear device, albeit a dirty one. But it’s a relief that it doesn’t determine the rest of the outcome in the film. The film itself doesn’t come to an end with diffusing it, and, crucially, the hero doesn’t do it either. It’s the heroine who comes up with the clever idea. (Remember it was used by Indiana in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!). The film ends not with good triumphing over evil, but a grey momentarily scoring over the darker grey, with the promise that more battles are to come. We can’t wait!