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Endhiran (2010)

Sweet Gig

Before watching Endhiran yesterday, I'd never seen a Bollywood* film. What better introduction to the genre than the most expensive and spectacular movie of its kind? Had Stephen Chow made Terminator 2 as a romantic comedy with a nasty streak, it might have looked like this. I'm a huge fan of Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, and wouldn't be surprised to learn that Endhiran's director, S. Shankar, is, too.

The movie stars Rajnikanth as Dr. Vaseegaran, a computer scientist obsessed with developing the perfect android. With his two bumbling lab assistants, Siva (Santhanam) and Ravi (Karunas), he constructs Chitti (also played by Rajnikanth), a head-to-toe approximation of himself with gargantuan strength and light-speed intelligence. Vaseegaran hopes to win the approval of AIRD, the robotics council, so that he can sell Chitti to the army; he reasons that using capable, humanoid drones in place of flesh-and-blood humans will help prevent senseless death (except for the other side, I guess).

Standing in his way is mentor and council member, Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa), an evil genius who's building his own legion of killer androids in secret, which he plans to sell to terrorists for use as suicide bombers. His research has hit a snag, though--namely, he can't figure out why his robots are so dumb. Chitti, sends his mind into overdrive, plotting ways to separate creation from creator.

Sana (Aishwarya Rai Bachan) wants the same thing, but for different reasons: she's Vaseegaran's girlfriend, and played second fiddle to Chitti even before he was created. Once the robot emerges fully formed, she becomes infatuated with both its innocence and curiosity with her; Chitti, in turn, begins to encounter a bizarre and nefarious virus that corrupts his programming: emotions.

Endhiran is divided into three parts, which I like to think of as, "Creation", "Devotion", and "Destruction". They're pretty evenly spread across each of its three hours; because I had to watch the film in three sittings over the course of a day, I can highly recommend this as the best way to appreciate the story. As Chitti becomes more emotionally aware, he becomes a threat to Vaseegaran, then to Sana (who doesn't appreciate his weird advances) and, ultimately, to the world.

There's way too much plot to cover here, and doing so would destroy the awesome discoveries that await you. From the first recorded incident of android-assisted birth, to a bargaining conference with mosquitoes, to the most insane freeway chase/police stand-off you will ever see (until Endhiran 2, no doubt), Shankar packs his movie with more spectacle, surprise, and heart than most American action blockbusters of the last decade.

If you're thinking about looking up scenes or trailers on YouTube first, allow me to warn against that. My friend, Phil, lent me the movie, sight unseen, and was prepared for a cheesy laugh-riot. He came away disappointed. In turn, I expected gaudy, cheaply made, indefensible junk. After fifteen minutes, though, I was completely caught up in Shankar's weird world. Sure, the computer effects pale in comparison to mainstream CG houses, but they work in the same cartoonish way that similar gags worked in Big Man Japan or Kung Fu Hustle. The effects artists don't seem to care about how the audience will perceive the "reality" of their work, and pour all their energies into making what amount to Ray Harryhausen-style destruction sequences. The images look goofy at first, but quickly blend into the goofy world in which they're allowed to exist.

But it's not all fun and games. I mentioned a "nasty streak" before, and there are scenes in this film that dropped my jaw like it was made out of lead. Though it's mostly a comedy, and partly a romance, Endhiran deals with the dark side of giving emotions to machines that only understand logic. Chitti harms people. At first innocently, and to great comic effect; eventually, he becomes a full-on, girl-obsessed terminator--with all the crushed heads and eviscerated bodies that implies.

Shankar and co-writers Karky, Swanand Kirkire, and Shree Ramakrishna also inject some fascinating social commentary into the screenplay regarding Indian cultural perceptions of nudity. What begins as a cause for celebration quickly devolves into a nightmare of persecution and deadly shame. You'll know exactly what I mean when you watch the film.

I'd be remiss in not bringing up the musical numbers. There are, if I recall correctly, six or seven of them, and they pop up about every twenty minutes. These aren't musical numbers as Americans typically think of them. Mostly, they're full-on fantasy music videos in which the characters perform the emotions they feel in the real world. These elaborate affairs with dozens of extras, outrageous costumes, and some of the most unintentionally (?) hilarious lyrics ever to be recorded are like everything else in Endhiran: there's not a cynical beat in them, and the actors sell the epic, otherworldly profundity with each movement and verse. The music is catchy, too, even if you don't speak Tamil.

What began as a lark turned out to be one of the most fun and satisfying viewing experiences I've had in a long time. As Endhiran played, I kept wishing I'd been able to see it on the big screen in an old-time movie palace. Rather than the empty idiocy implied by the term "blockbuster", Shankar delivers an upbeat, soulful love story that's as sure to satisfy fans of mushy romance as well as sci-fi geeks who love seeing CG extras get torn in half. If every movie were as giddily entertaining as this one, the market for antidepressants would shrivel up and die in a week. 

*For the uninitiated, "Bollywood" is short-hand for Indian (Hindi) cinema.

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