Saturday, 5 March 2016

Robot

Director: Shankar
Writer: Shankar
Producers: Kalanidhi Maran, Hansraj Saxena
Cast: Ashwairya Rai, Rajnikanth, Danny Denzongpa
Country: India
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: UK theatrical release

I don’t get out to the cinema much nowadays, what with the family and the job and everything. Most of what I watch is on DVD. So it was pretty unusual this week for me to be at the cinema on two consecutive days.

Given how infrequently I see anything on the big screen, what are the chances that both films would be foreign? Well, pretty good I suppose. I like foreign films. What about the fact that both movies were about robots? Not unbelievable - I like movies about robots. Oh, and they were both two and a half hours long. That is stretching coincidence a little far.

Yes folks, within a 33-hour period I spent five of those hours sat in a cinema watching overseas robot movies. But the above notwithstanding, they couldn’t have been more different. Sunday afternoon was spent watching the restored version of Metropolis; Sunday evening’s viewing was the most expensive Bollywood film ever made - Robot.

Actually, I saw three films that weekend. On Saturday, Mrs S and I watched Made in Dagenham, the story of the machinists’ strike at Ford in 1968 which precipitated a worldwide movement towards equality of pay for women. It was good fun and even featured Marysia Kay in a small, non-speaking role. There are actually parallels between Made in Dagenham and Metropolis (alliteration aside). Both are about a worker’s revolt against injustice, led by a woman, and both manage to be watchable movies without falling into the trap of tedious left-wing polemic which such a scenario suggests. Admittedly, one does this by being a feel-good, lightweight comedy-drama and the other does it by being a powerful, thrilling sci-fi epic - but I never said they were the same film, did I?

Also, obviously, one of them is silent. And black and white. And German.

All the above proves is that you can find similarities between any two films, no matter how different. Well, almost. I’ve tried to work out if Made in Dagenham has any parallels with Robot and I think I can honestly say that it doesn’t, beyond the fact that they’re both in colour, and talkies. Which isn’t saying much, is it?

Metropolis, by the way, is a whole new film with the extra material. It still doesn’t make complete sense but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than it used to.

But anyway, this isn’t a review of Metropolis or Made in Dagenham. This is a review of Robot. And I am here to tell you that this is an awesome film. I enjoyed the other two very much - I enjoy a lot of films - but Robot is one of those movies that takes you to another level. It is both magnificent and magnificently bonkers.

This is pure Bollywood. It’s nearly three hours long, it has lots of singing and dancing, the women are unbelievably beautiful and the men wear jackets that I would swap my entire wardrobe for. Unlike some other Bollywood flicks - and certainly unlike the public perception of Bollywood - it’s not a blatant rip-off of a Hollywood movie (or even two Hollywood movies). Although admittedly some of the imagery is derived from The Terminator, The Matrix and their various sequels. But I think that falls more neatly under the category of ‘homage’.

Rajnikanth (aka Superstar Rajni) pulls double duty as independent scientist Dr Vaseegaran (‘Vasee’) and his robotic creation, initially named Robo but then rechristened Chitti. (The name is suggested by Vaseegaran’s mother because it’s what she would have called her second son, if she had one.) Vaseegaran has a gleaming high-tech lab, a couple of idiot assistants, two smaller humanoid robots wandering around (one of which is referred to as ‘R2’!) and no obvious source of income.

For reasons unexplained he gives his full-size, ‘andro-humanoid’ robot a rubber mask modelled on his own face, giving rise to a marketable situation of Rajnikanth acting opposite himself. Except that, for a lot of the time, he doesn’t. There’s probably a few split-screen shots in here but often, when creator and robot appear on screen together, the latter is a stand-in wearing a mask. It’s a decent enough mask and the fact that the robot has (a) a wig and (b) large, never-removed, wrap-around shades helps to disguise the fact that it’s someone else.

Vaseegaran has a beard - initially long and straggly, later trimmed to a neat goatee - but this doesn’t quite succeed in distracting the audience from noticing that the ‘identical’ robot has a significantly bulkier jaw. Also, in some shots, the robot is clearly a couple of inches taller!

The reason for Vasee’s unkempt appearance is that he has been working solidly on the robot for months(!) and consequently has been completely ignoring his girlfriend Sana. She has sent him 200 texts and e-mails, even tried to get to see him in the lab, but he has been completely out of contact.

Is he mad? His girlfriend is Ashwairya Rai. Aishwairya freaking Rai!

Former Miss World Asjwairya Rai. Bollywood queen Ashwairya Rai. Very probably the most beautiful woman on the planet Ashwairya Rai.

Listen, I’m not one for mooning over sexy film stars. Okay, I wouldn’t exactly fight off Angelina Jolie or Kiera Knightley or Megan Fox or... well, I’m only human. It’s nice to watch attractive, glamorous people, purely on an aesthetic level. But I’m not the sort of fanboy who goes crazy over some actress.

However, like any heterosexual male, I would crawl naked over broken glass to touch the hem of Ashwairya Rai’s sari. She is smoking, simple as that. She’s now 36 (she was Miss World in 1994) and she gets more stunning every year. The fact that she’s evidently very intelligent and successful is, of course, terrific too. (I’m base, but I’m not that base.)

But still: Ashwairya Rai. I know this is a lightweight science fantasy but the idea that even the nerdiest nerd would prefer a robotics lab over Ashwairya Rai just doesn’t hold water. I mean, okay, yes, suspension of disbelief and all that but dude, there’s a limit!

Vasee and Sana are on the verge of breaking up but they decide they love each other really and this is the cue for the first song and dance number, which sees the two actors in some stunning desert locations. This is one of those Bollywood films where the musical sequences are all fantasy sequences rather than everyone on screen suddenly breaking into a big production number (unless they’re actually in a scene at a party or some similar occurence when folk would actually dance).

This is a film of two halves - literally, as there is an intermission about an hour and a half in. But also figuratively as part one is basically a comedy. Chitti has to learn about the world, starting by learning not to take things literally (a bent traffic cop who asks for ‘a cut’ gets a bleeding palm). Everyone is impressed by the robot, including Vasee’s mentor, the shifty Dr Bora whose own robotic prototypes don’t work properly and who would dearly love to get his hands on Chitti’s ‘neural schema’.

When Sana asks to borrow Chitti for a couple of days, she finds that he is the perfect man. Sana lives in - and may actually have set up - a women-only retreat for war widows, young and old. Chitti is only allowed in because, though he appears male, he’s a robot, not a man. He proves himself an excellent cook and superb at tidying and cleaning, using vast amounts of knowledge that were inputted by Vasee.

Sana is studying to be a doctor, possibly a midwife, but her revision is disturbed by noisy yobbos who live in the next house. Chitti goes over there and calmly destroys their stereo. When loud music comes from down the street, he once again is a gallant, using his high-tech powers to eliminate the noise-making equipment. When the street gang threaten him with knives, he simply magnetises his body and all the knives stick to him, along with the youths’ jewellery (which would of course be non-ferrous). In one of many funny and original gags, Chitti arranges all the metal objects around him to make himself look like a particular god whom the locals are busy worshipping.

Chitti helps Sana with her revision but, being naive, he also helps her to cheat in her medical exam, using a high-tech device to see the paper in front of her and pass the answers into her ear or even project them onto the answer sheet for her to trace. This relates to a never-clearly-explained remote viewing/communication wotsit that is part of Chitti which does feature more significantly in some other scenes. A couple of senior doctors come across this man sitting alone on a park bench spouting advanced medical knowledge out loud for no apparent reason and Chitti, being naive in the ways of duplicity, explains that he is helping Sana cheat but she gets away with it by claiming that she doesn’t know the man and he must be a lunatic.

More disturbing than this betrayal is that Sana, the film’s heroine, is prepared to cheat in a medical exam. This isn’t just a qualification, this is recognition that the student actually knows this stuff before she starts treating people. That she would even consider this is deeply worrying and frankly inconsistent with the character who is otherwise a good person.

Later, Sana and Chitti are attacked on a train by the combined yobbos from the revision sequence who have diligently armed themselves with weapons made only of stone and wood. There follows an extended fight scene, presaged by the data input scene in the lab when one of the categories of info uploaded into Chitti is clearly labelled ‘martial arts’.

Thrown from the train because his battery is running low, Chitti recharges himself, gives chase (using wheels in his feet) and reboards the train to finally put paid to the whole hoodlum gang, punching and kicking and generally beating them up. Of course, you know what this makes Robot, don’t you? It’s a late flowering of that quintessential 1990s subgenre, the KCM - or Kickboxing Cyborg Movie.

The one thing which Chitti lacks, it seems, is feelings. So Vasee adds them and Chitti has a whole new set of problems to deal with, not least that he falls in love - predictably - with Sana. After helping to deliver a breach baby when mother and child are both close to death (a well-handled, very emotional scene), Chitti receives a peck on the cheek from Sana and reacts in the same way that any man would if he had the lightest of kisses from Ashwairya Rai: he falls hopelessly head over heels in love with her.

This leads to probably the oddest sequence in the film when he visits Sana in her room and she sets him the challenge of catching a mosquito which has just bitten her. Not only does he chase the mozzie across the city to a smelly sewer outlet where millions of the things live, not only does he identify the insect in question, but he actually has a conversation with the (CGI) mosquitos. This really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film and, even in a Bollywood fantasy, it stands out as making no sense.

Nevertheless, Chitti loves Sana. He fixes his hair, puts on a really fabulous jacket and cuts a rug with her at a party, making his creator understandably jealous. But Sana makes it clear that she loves Vasee, she is engaged to Vasee and she will not consider a relationship with a machine.

“And so the story begins,” smirks Doctor Bora in a scene designed to close the first half as the curtain descends.

So essentially what we have here is a version of the Pinocchio story: the innocent, artificial man-boy who longs to be human. We’ve seen it many times. It’s Data from Star Trek all over again, it’s Edward Scissorhands without the garden shears. In fact, the film it reminds me of most is the 1987 John Malkovich comedy Making Mr Right, in which a scientist creates an android in his own image who then falls in love with a real woman, creating what might be termed a two-sided triangle.

But if the first half of the film is Pinocchio, the second is Frankenstein as the movie turns into an all-out, action-packed, sci-fi thriller. Where the first half was a comedy with some action elements, this is an action film with a few comic elements, even getting quite horrific at times. This is a movie which, despite its lightweight, light-hearted over-story isn’t afraid to have some quite unpleasant moments, including an attempted rape of Sana in the train sequence (which the surrounding thugs all want to film on their mobiles) and a genuinely shocking road-death.

Vasee has designed Chitti specifically to work as a soldier, with the long-term aim that an army of such robots would help to protect India and would mean that no wife or mother ever had to lose a husband/son. There is even a statement in the dialogue that, for this reason, Chitti does not comply with Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics. (Asimov gets mentioned in the chorus of one of the songs too, along with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein,)

But adding feelings to Chitti has caused him to fall in love and he now refuses to demonstrate his abilities to army top brass, telling them instead that there should be more love and peace. Furious and embarrassed, Vasee takes Chitti back to the lab and, to quote a famous book, gives him a reprogramming with an axe that he’ll never forget. The pieces of robot are thrown into a skip and taken to one of India’s many biggest rubbish tips.

But... you can’t keep a good robot down and the pieces manage to just about reassemble themselves enough to make contact with Dr Bora, who is still scheming to get his hands on Chitti’s schema (whatever that is). Rebuilt once again in Vasee’s image, but with sharper sideburns and a white streak in the middle of his hair, Chitti is supplied with some sort of red memory chip doodad. And that’s what turns him completely evil...

Chitti goes on a crime spree but, working with the police and army, Vasee manages to destroy the errant android - except it’s not Chitti. At which point the slow-on-the-uptake Indian coppers realise how come Chitti has been stealing vehicles, supplies, jewellery and shoes in multiple places simultaneously.

Yes folks, the original Chitti has built an army of Chittis, all played by stuntmen in Rajnikanth masks, with those same large shades but now a different wig. He has taken over the Indian Robotics Institute and, to top it all, kidnaps Sana in the middle of her wedding to Vasee. This leads into a quite magnificent car-chase (with some deliberate nods to The Blues Brothers, I think) as vast numbers of Indian cops pursue Chitti, with the robot leaping in and out of his convertible to wreak vehicular damage by mashing lorries together and other tricks, while the terrified Sana looks on helplessly

Escaping the police and taking Sana back to his base in the Institute, he installs her as his queen in a palatial suite and offers her all the jewellery and shoes she could want. He also outlines a very creepy plan to create an artificial phoetus and implant it inside her so that she will give birth to the first human-robot hybrid (shades of Demon Seed!).

In a clever and original sequences, Vasee infiltrates Chitti’s base by disguising himself as Chitti - sharp sideburns, two-tone hairstyle and everything - in order to pass as one of the Chitti copies. So he can effectively hide in plain sight because every one of the robots around him is designed to look like him. When the android realises that there’s a human present, he lines up his minions in rows and then walks among them, armed with a sword, trying to work out which one isn’t real (or is real, depending on how you look at it). This is a tense and very effective scene, let down only (and possibly only in the case of this one viewer) by calling to mind the very similar scene when Alex tries to identify Marty among a herd of zebras in Madagascar 2.

Eventually the army move in and everything is set for the big finale in which about a hundred identical Chitti robots, including the original, form themselves into huge geometric shapes through the marvel of (a) CGI effects and (b) the director having watched the Matrix sequels. So actually this is quite effective because it’s all the fun of the big effects sequences from The Matrix 2 and 3 without any of the pretentious bollocks.

So the multi-Chitti forms into a sphere and rolls around, crushing cars and blasting guns. The Chittis stack up into a cylinder or become a carpet and at one point (seen briefly in the trailer) they actually transform into a giant snake which eats up cars. Holy shit, that’s what I’m talking about! Eventually, the multi-Chitti becomes a huge drill and tunnels underground. Then we see one Chitti emerge from a manhole cover and the whole audience starts thinking: ooh, ooh, I know what’s coming next! Is it going to be...?

Yes indeed, it’s a giant Chitti! It’s MegaChitti, formed from lot of individual Chittis. Although once again an unhelpful comparison sprang into this reviewer’s brain. It’s difficult for any fan of Family Guy to watch this and not think: “Men, form a crippletron!” Although one can banish this image to some extent by comparing this with the CyberKing from the Doctor Who Christmas special ‘The Next Doctor’ instead.

Sana and Vasee escape in a truck full of high-tech gubbins and, although the ensuing chase is exciting, there’s a slight let-down in the way that Vasee’s desperate scramble to finally defeat Chitti effectively involves punching lots of calculations into a computer.

But it is all jolly thrilling and a real roller-coaster ride of a movie. This is the sort of film that can be enjoyed by anyone, whatever their level of familiarity with Bollywood cinema. If you like exciting sci-fi action romcom musical thrillers, this is the motion picture experience you’ve been waiting for!

The musical numbers are as spectacular as one might expect (and the music very catchy indeed) although there’s a really odd dance sequence filmed in, of all places (and for no apparent reason) Machu Pichu. The costumes therein are extraordinary (and change every few lines, for both principal artistes and chorus) and there’s an old Peruvian woman who lip-syncs a couple of lines, plus a considerable number of llamas.

More successful (and pertinent) are the two big robotic fantasy numbers, one of which features the two robo-panthers seen briefly in the trailer. These two dance sequences look like they were arranged by someone who had watched a couple of Kylie videos and thought, “Well, it’s okay as far as it goes but it’s really not sci-fi enough...”

As well as being the most expensive Bollywood movie ever (US$35-40 million, which in LA would buy you a medium-sized romcom), Robot had the widest opening of any Bollywood picture, on 2,253 screens worldwide, 300 of them outside India. There was even a red-carpet London premiere with the stars in attendance although curiously most of the western media seem to have ignored this, just like they ignore Bollywood in general.

There are three versions, apparently: one in the original Tamil, entitled Endhiran (which I assume means ‘robot’), one dubbed into Telugu as Robo and one dubbed into Hindi as Robot, which I assume was the one I saw (that would make sense: far more people in the UK speak Hindi than Tamil or Telugu). The on-screen title was Robot although if the dialogue was dubbed it wasn’t noticeable. But then, I was reading subitles rather than checking for lip-sync.

The subtitling was good although occasional words disappeared against a light background. Interestingly, there were brief parenthetical explanations of Indian terms like ‘biryani’ and ‘Diwali’. I realise that some people are unlucky enough to live in places that don’t celebrate Diwali (here in Leicester we have the biggest Diwali celebrations outside India!) but surely everyone knows what a biryani is.

Mmm, biryani...

As is common in Bollywood films, about ten per cent of the dialogue is in English, usually as complete sentences rather than just odd words, occasionally an entire speech. These are faithfully reproduced as subtitles too. Well, I say faithfully but there are several instances of characters saying “Oh shit!” which, according to the subtitles, is Hindi for “Oh no!”

There is one scene that adds a whole new level to subtitling and takes a while to get used to, when Dr Bora meets a couple of German terrorists who want to purchase the killer robots he’s developing. The lead German speaks German, which is subtitled in English, Bora speaks Hindi, again subtitled in English, and inbetween them sits a character who speaks without subtitles. Eventually I worked out that he was a translator so he was just repeating what the other characters have said.

Aishwarya Rai should actually be a fairly visible face and name to western audiences as she has had several non-Bollywood roles in films like The Mistress of Spices, The Last Legion, Bride and Prejudice and The Pink Panther 2. Okay then, I can see why she’s not as well known in the west as she should be. But she was also in Devdas and Dhoom 2 and a whole bunch of other major films which, by rights, should have been global successes rather than global-sized successes among a niche global audience.

Incredibly, Rajnikanth was 58 years old when he made this. I mean, it’s clear he’s older than his co-star and no spring chicken but crikey! His 178 IMDB credits include haunted house comedy Chandramukhi, jungle adventure Bloodstone and a version of Aladdin called Alavuddinum Athbutha Vilakkum.

The slightly oriental-looking Danny Denzongpa, who plays Dr Bora, has almost as many films on his CV as Rajnikanth including western-distributed historial epic Asoka, 1980 horror picture Phir Whi Raat and Brad Pitt starrer Seven Years in Tibet. His distinctive looks - and the number of Himalaya-related films and film roles he has amassed - betray his family’s Tibetan origins. Vasee’s idiot assistants, whose comic-relief clowining is actually quite funny, in defiance of tradition, are played by Santhanam and Karunas.

Visual effects were overseen by Srinvas M Mohan, Frankie Chang and Eddy Wong: Mohan is CEO of Indian Artists Computer Graphics Pvt Ltd and was overall VFX supervisor for the ten companies contributing to the film’s visual effects. Animatronics are credited to Legacy Studios which is parenthetically noted in the credit block and on-screen by its former name of Stan Winston Studios - which makes commercial sense, I suppose. Chung and Wong are Hong Kong VFX guys from Kinomotive Studios and Menfond Electronics and Arts. Another HK contribuior is the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping who arranged some fights although the actual credited stunt co-ordinator is Peter Hein.

Adding another Hollywood link is costume designer Mary E Vogt whose credits include Men in Black I and II, Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The composer - a far more important role than in Western cinema - is AR Rahman who also worked on Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Slumdog Millionaire.

Writer-director Shankar is one of the big names in current Bollywood, a hot talent who specialises in films like this, ones that make even the residents of Mumbai and New Delhi says, “My gracious, that’s a bit spectacular and over-the-top.” His company S-Pictures has released at least two interesting genre pictures: supernatural revenge chiller Eeram and ghostly thriller Anandhapurathu Veedu.

It’s a couple of years since I last watched a Bollywood movie on the big screen and Robot reminded me that it’s something I should indulge in more often. Frankly, there are moments in this film when you find yourself wishing you could be Indian. Although I suppose that won’t apply to most audiences as they already are.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 12th October 2010

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