(Warning: No spoilers in the review. However, storyline and characters are revealed. Proceed at your own risk)

DasavatharamFinally here. Passing through its quota of controversies, production delay and legal attacks, Aascar Films’ Dasavatharam has finally made it to its destination. Dubbed as the most expensive movie made in India, the film has been in the making for over two years. If it was Sivaji – The Boss for 2007, it is very much Dasavatharam for this year. Apparently, the time between consecutive movies of Kamal Haasan has been larger than that of Superstar Rajnikanth‘s. The promos have been, surprisingly (for a Kamal movie), extremely low key. So, have the team’s efforts paid off? Let’s see.

The movie opens in a non-traditional fashion (for Indian cinema) with a preface that recounts the spat between the Shivites and the Vaishnavites of the south during the 12th century. Rangarajan Nambi (Kamal Haasan) is a staunch Vaishnavite who does not wish to relinquish his ideology even at the cost of his life. Rangarajan is portrayed as a very strong person, physically and mentally. As a result, he is dumped into the sea along with the prime Vishnu idol. Cut to the 21st century, where the remainder of the story is to take place. It is December 2004. Govind Ramasamy (Kamal) is a biological scientist in the US and is involved in developing a powerful biological weapon for the military of the country. Govind decides to hand over the formula to the FBI when he senses that the weapon sample is all set to reach unsafe hands. Things take a difficult turn when the package is couriered to India by mistake. Govind manages to track down the package in the intention of returning it to the officials. He is closely tailed by Chris Fletcher (Kamal), an ex-CIA and a mean trigger-happy machine and Jasmine (Mallika Sherawat). This character, with his near-invulnerability and I-don’t-stop-at-nothin’ attitude , is reminiscent of T-1000 of Terminator 2: The Judgement Day (1991).

The rest of the film follows Govind’s attempts to retrieve the weapon and escape the gunpoint of Chris. He is assisted by Andal (Asin), the grand daughter of Krishnaveni Srinivasan (Kamal) who does no help by dropping the package into a Vishnu idol. Andal is not only a love interest for Govind but also his antithesis. The atheistic, borderline-scientologist Govind is balanced by the whole-hearted theist Andal. She completes him, romantically and ideologically. Chris and Govind are also being followed by the local police led by Balram Naidu (Kamal), a true-blue “Andhrite”, who provides a rip-roaring comedy both with his accent and his lines. And there are Shinghen Narahasi, a Fujitsu master and the brother of Govind’s dead friend Yuki, Kalifullah, an overgrown yet innocent Pathan, Avatar Singh, a Punjabi pop star with a Tamil Nadu connection, Vincent Poovaragan, a Nagercoil-based activist and environmentalist and George Bush, the president of America (played by Kamal, Kamal, Kamal, Kamal and Kamal respectively!) whom Govind meets on his pursuit. The most appealing character is definitely of Vincent Poovaragan, the most humanitarian of all the characters in the film. He stands against the unquestioned plaguing of the nature by humans for monetary benefits and faces trouble for the same. The script draws a parallel between Rangarajan Nambi and Vincent Poovaragan (apart from the more obvious adversarial relation between Govind and Rangarajan), both of whom go down fighting for their principles and what they think is the meaning of their existence.

The film’s narration is fraught with twists and suspense but can be boiled down to a large treasure hunt. As a consequence, it is action right from the word “go” with no questions asked. Hand-to-hand combat, gunfight, car chases, daredevil stunts – you have them all. With the characters consisting of a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh, a Buddhist and even an atheist, it is but inevitable that the story has slight religious overtones. The film, however, does not hurt the sentiments of anyone and even silently calls out for religious tolerance in the society. Believers and non-believers would just have reinforced their respective faiths at the end of the film without contradicting each other, which itself is a success for the movie.

Though all the ten characters are given considerable screen time to make it seem like they all have equal weights, only a few of them actually contribute to the plot and take the story forward. In fact, one feels that a couple of characters could have been entirely done without. As a result, many scenes involving the non-pivotal characters become fillers for the shallow central motive. But one does not complain because something new (a new character for most of the time) pops up regularly to keep you engaged. Only after the ten characters are familiarized that you realize that the film has been extended needlessly. After this point, the film is nothing but overlong is spite of the adrenaline that’s oozing out of the screen. It is now a unanimous feeling that the climax could have been trimmed down.

It is just a formality to speak about Kamal Haasan’s performance. Right from the impeccable accents (especially the Nagercoil accent) to the don’t-tell-me-he-is-acting body-language (George Bush and Krishnaveni noteworthy), Kamal has put in more than everything to realize the film. It is not that his performance is worthy of such a grand movie, but it is his performance that has made Dasavatharam a grand movie. I, however, would personally like to see him in roles such as Shaktivel (Devar Magan), Balu (Sagara Sangamam) and those of Erland Josephson and Philippe Noiret, without much concentration on make-up. But nobody nowadays has the guts to produce such films. Asin‘s performance, which is like a torchlight amidst a Supernova, is going to go unspoken. She has done justice to the charater(s), to say the least. The (remaining!) minor characters are done satisfactorily by Kamal regulars Nagesh, Santhanabharathi, Ramesh Kanna and Vaiyapuri to name some.

K. S. Ravikumar‘s midas touch is alone what Kamal needed for this otherwise one man show and he has got that. With long pseudo-takes used at proper places, the movie “appears” to have larger than life cinematography. Himesh Reshamiyya‘s music is at times melodic, at times bubbly and at times jarring. Devi Shree Prasad‘s inspired but spirited background score has nothing to complain about. It is a known fact Kamal gets carried away with prolonged stunt sequences and Dasavatharam is no exception to that. Some illogical scenes corrupt the otherwise decent stunt sequences that are saved by the CG most of the time. A special mention for the CG that is seamless in scenes where multiple characters appear and also in many shots in the initial and final part of the film. Much is talked about the make up which is really fantastic agreed, but the harsh lighting exposes the prosthetics’ and makes one a bit alienated from the character. The editing is so prudent about the run-time that one can feel how large the original footage was. Huge production values in the preface speak for themselves.

There are two things Indian cinema has always been haunted by – Religion and Science. No one (fabulous exceptions always there) has dared to pass a judgement or even to make a documentation of these two issues. Dasavatharam, though superficial, tries to blend these two concepts into the simple narrative and that too, in such a risky venture. For this reason alone, one can argue for the movie. It is not something new to the medium altogether, but is definitely like nothing that Tamil cinema has never tasted before. Dasavatharam may not be what Kamal wants, but is very much what his fans want.

P. S.: Be alert to spot the brief homage to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) in the film!