Making one’s way down a list of top-grossing Tamil films is like eating at a buffet – at some point, everything starts to look the same (though all of it maintains that delightful flair that brought you there in the first place) until you hit that rare oddball that sticks out on the palate, leaving you both wondering and being reminded of why you keep coming back. “Dasavathaaram” is one of these films, a film that is recognisably a part of its genre and fulfilling all the tropes it’s expected to, but also one which juts out in strange and not altogether successful ways.
This is not to say “Dasavathaaram” isn’t enjoyable. It’s a treat to watch, hitting all the right buttons and leading the audience through laughter as well as more tense emotional moments. The one liners are corny and delicious, and the jokes are spot on. While, as usual, some of the references fly over the heads of non-Indian audience members, most of the writing is very good and exactly what one is looking for in a Tamil action film.
The opening, especially, lays out an enticing appetiser for the rest of the film, laying out the expectation of something grand and glorious to match it. While the film doesn’t necessarily on the promise laid out by the opening, the song and the images that overlay it are moving and highly effective at explaining the film’s goal and themes.
It’s these goals and themes that make up the more interesting and savoury parts of the film. While all of the Tamil films I’ve reviewed thusfar have striven to say something more than just a basic action plot, “Dasavatharaam” is the most blatant about it, stating from the outset that it wants to consider the interaction between science and religion as well as the effect of random actions on each other. It’s a film that wants to talk about gods and what it is to believe, all while also telling the story of a biogeneticist cum terrorist as he struggles to prevent an engineered plague from wiping out humanity.
The question, of course, becomes one of how effectively “Dasavathaaram” helps the audience digest this message. The lead actor, Kamal Haasan, flits through numerous roles, ranging from a Christian Dalit to an atheistic biogeneticist to explore these relationships between people and gods, but what is ultimately explored to a greater degree is the relationship between people. In trying to discuss gods, Haasan created a world in which the gods themselves are replaced by the people who worship them, and it is these people who are far more interesting.
The Sikh singer Avtaar Singh (Kamal Haasan), for instance, is clearly meant to represent one version of communication with gods. He sings songs about how to commune with God. His entire plot arc is about accepting God’s will and God’s actions. However, it is Singh’s interactions with his family and with himself that become far more interesting than any message of faith. He is a powerful character, and his ability to accept his fate and explain why he does so is fascinating.
The same holds true of the main protagonist, Dr. Govind (Haasan) who, over the course of his misadventures, ends up partnered with an orthodox Hindu girl named Andaal (Asin Thottumkal). While she extremely faithful to her religion and her icons of her deities on the surface, the fact that she is willing to interact with and continue to follow a wholly inappropriate man states something interesting about her relationship with her faith and that possible fluidity. Equally, while the script may have Govind stating that he acknowledges the possibility of gods, the character never does. Instead, what faith people are and what they may or may not believe in shrinks away to simply be another part of character, and largely plays little role other than set dressing.
Can the film still succeed in exploring its message and themes if its main theme is watery at best? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that “Dasavatharaam” isn’t good at exploring other ideas. Its look at how we interact with other people – especially when they are different, be it due to age, faith, or caste –is good, and is a good look at how people can look past differences to see similarities. The arrival of the tsunami with all its implications drives this message even further home, with poignant moments of acceptance when it’s far too late to do so.
Interestingly, this acceptance and looking beyond difference extends only to Indian characters. The film is full of racial caricatures and stereotypes, especially of east Asians. All the Japanese characters are martial arts experts and nothing else, and the villain is a one-liner spouting ex-CIA agent hellbent on destroying the world for entirely unknown reasons. If one can look past these particular characters and the shallow thought they represent, the message of “Dasavatharaam” – even if it wasn’t the one the filmmakers set out to present – is a digestible one. Of course, this depends on being able to look past borderline racist caricatures.
That said, the villain (Hasaan) is highly enjoyable, and every moment with him on screen is a good one, even if one does sometimes feel the need to cringe or strain the ears to try and make out what’s being said in a very fake American accent. Christian Fletcher is a bit of cleansing of the palate, be it from the contemplation of God or from Hasaan’s innumerable other characters, very few of which are anywhere near as enjoyable as Fletcher.
Indeed, it is these other roles that represent one of the film’s huge weaknesses. One of “Dasavatharaam’s” major billings that it places at the beginning of the film is the advertisement that it will show its star in ten different roles. Unfortunately, not all of these are very good, and the horrific makeup in some of them just makes it worse. Rather than looking like people, some of these roles just resemble particularly ambulatory puppets dead set on getting up and explaining themselves despite having no real reason to do so. The moments with these side characters drag on and on, sometimes to the point of utter boredom. However, usually Christian Fletcher will arrive to bring back the plot, leaving the film to continue, only somewhat chewed and spat on.
On the whole, “Dasavatharaam” represents an interesting experiment. It’s colourful and flavourful, and a definite change of taste. It’s not entirely successful, though, sometimes looking a bit half-baked in some areas and overdone in others. It is highly enjoyable, however, and certainly worth a watch, though it may not deserve the full three hours that one has to give it. Still, it must be admired for its attempt, even if it was not as delicious as it first appeared.Continue Reading Issue #22
June 13, 2008
3 hr. 9 min.
Action Adventure, Drama
Kamal Haasan, Asin, Mallika Sherawat