I was psyched, absolutely psyched to see Robot at my annual film festival blast of Indian films. Usually they only have Hindi films on display, usually only one, but this year they delivered big time with this, 7 Khoon Maaf and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which I'll review once I've seen it. I'd been anticipating Robot for ages - it was Shankar, it was big budget, it looked like it'd be crazyfun, so to see it in theater was a dream come true.
The audience certainly delivered, as did the surround sound in the theater. I think most Finland-dwelling Tamil speakers made the showing and put up an impressive display of whistling and cheering for the Superstar, and of course at every mildly naughty suggestive line of dialogue. No, it wasn't seeing the film open in a packed Madras cinema, I'm sure, but it was the closest we could get to such an experience in this cold country.
So what about the film itself? Well, it was Shankar alright. Rajni pulls triple-duty for the joy of his fans, as he's both the titular robot Chitti as well as his creator Vaseegaran, and even the version 2.0 we see on the second half. The big budget allows Shankar to go all out and I really do mean ALL OUT - besides the nice-looking visual effects, there are lavish song sets, foreign locations, and a climactic showdown unlike no other, in both good ways and bad. There's a certain insane visuality to Shankar films that everybody who's seen one recognises. That's all here, too.
So if I wasn't smiling ear-to-ear, I was laughing, clapping my hands, despite myself, even doing the clichéd slapping of the knee. But the full enjoyment of the film as a watching experience doesn't sadly take away the problems the film has. While I definitely think it's a must-watch for the insanity, the megalomaniac budget and the sheer show of Rajni-mania (the fans cheer him when he's good, but they also cheer for his villainous avatar!), these are some of the reasons why it doesn't quite jump on top of my must-buy list as well.
1. Aishwarya Rai dances gloriously but her character is underwritten to say the least. She throws nonsensical tantrums, her romance with both the creator and the robot is bland, her character is materialistic and acts bizarrely at best, annoyingly at the worst. She's just not very fun to watch.
Shankar's never been known to write fantastic female characters, but at least some of his heroines, like Sada in Anniyan, seem to have a good head on their soldiers. Aishwarya's Sana is merely a prop to allow for Chitti, then Vaseegaran to display different facets of their characterizations. Yes, even the robot is infused with more genuine personality traits than the female lead. This veers on insulting, to be quite frank.
2. As silly as it sounds as a criticism for a Shankar movie, as the dude is all about visuals, the story is hopelessly hollow. Gone is the usual social message, placed with a couple of moralistic conclusions towards the end. Usually the visual effects are a side-show, gratuitously used but only one of the tools that Shankar uses to tell his story. This time, they play the lead role.
I want to hope that because of the visuals, whatever story there was, I merely missed it in the flurry of eye candy. But I'm afraid that if I look again, there's very little there to hold onto.
3. Last but not least, and cover your eyes in Tamil Nadu because this might be blasphemous for the Rajni-fans: he's a good actor, so why not let him act? Sure, he hams it up on the second half and there's a couple of choice moments here and there, but while the whole point (and this I get) is that he's playing a robot, not known to emote very well, I still wonder why there was barely any effort to carve a real character out of the man who created him.
Or is this a gripe like you could level at many actors, that once they become famous, they become famous to such an effect that say, Rajni the Actor had to take a step back to make way for Rajni The Star? Pardon me, Superstar.
Point being, I really need to watch older Rajni films as it seems that he's not cast to act in these films: Shankar's merely putting him on display for the fans. And for me, the Star has little appeal unless I also get a glimpse of the Actor inside.
But as I said earlier, if you've not seen this one, for goodness' sake, do!