Kalki 2898 AD Movie Review: This incredible spectacle needed more compelling storytelling

Kalki 2898 AD Movie Review: This incredible spectacle needed more compelling storytelling

While this ambitious attempt is rich in imagination and visual splendour, with technical brilliance to back it all up, the storytelling leaves much to be desired
This incredible spectacle needed more compelling storytelling(3 / 5)

While watching Kalki 2898 AD, I remember, from time to time, being so enchanted by the world-building and the scale and detail of it all, that nothing else seemed to matter. The neon signs, the rusty structures, the futuristic (decadent?) designs (of Kasi, of guns and ammo, of the vehicles…), the hanging, inverted pyramid, the costumes that speak of conflicting worlds, the suspended villain, the Matrix-like technology that feeds into wombs… I could go on and on. Every few minutes, I’d look around the theatre if only so my eyes could meet someone else’s, and we both could go.... Are we really making films that look like this? This could give a Marvel film a run for its money, couldn’t it?

Perhaps that’s why the image of Star-Lord (Peter Quill) is hard to shake off, while considering Prabhas’ Bhairava. He seems to carry emotional baggage from his past which has convinced him that the only reasonable way to survive in the world is to be selfish and aspire for material joys. He’s got friends with whom he’s exchanging plenty of banter. He’s a cool warrior too who’s great with gadgets. It’s all a Guardians vibe. And yet, his fun portions don’t zing with as much entertainment as they should; his brief emotional portions don’t zing with as much pathos as they should.

There’s a bit of Rebel Star indulgence around Prabhas’ introduction, which is a strange choice in a serious film built on mythological foundations. If the ambition of the film is to immerse us in a painstakingly created fictional world, why distract us with star-pandering that is a reminder of the real world? Prabhas’ Bhairava is meant to be the life of the film, the Vanthiyathevar of this Ponniyin Selvan, but the joys from his character aren’t consistent, and his portions seem to exist as an unavoidable indulgence.

Nag Ashwin offers some compensation in the form of casting-related joys. Woah, this actor is playing Prabhas’ dad? Woah, there’s a homage to this director? Wait, who’s this Bollywood actress? The carousel of cameos keeps us quite engaged, but I wish it were supplemented with narrative joys too. A flashback about Bhairava and his father that’s presented quite seriously, results in a character crying—but there’s no real emotion. As Bhairava and Roxie flirt about, it’s supposed to be cutesy romantic entertainment, but it only fuels impatience. It’s not a good sign when a film over three hours—despite visual and sound glory—makes you wish every few minutes that it would hurry up to get to the point. The film’s individual moments are not powerful enough; the writing doesn’t necessarily make us resonate with its characters.

A problem perhaps is how Kalki 2898 AD seems to linger a bit too long than it needs to with its moments. The Ashwathama-Bhairava fight is set-up as an important duel. One is immortal, the other is invincible. But some sparring later, you see the pattern. Bhairava captures; Ashwathama breaks out. And as this duel goes on, the repetition begins to grate. Again, the visuals are great to marvel at. Ashwathama is imposing and channels an ancient form of fighting. Bhairava, meanwhile, relies on gadgets. But once these charms wear off, we are left to negotiate with scenes and fights that seem to hold the story from speeding along.

The film, however, provides us with plenty of ideas to chew on. It’s fascinating how Nag Ashwin equates the impending birth of an avatar with the concept of The Chosen One (which, of course, has mythological foundations and so, is a natural fit). Who, after all, is the best candidate for The Chosen One, if not God himself? Unstoppable, inevitable (as Thanos would say). The problem though is, how do you establish vulnerability when you know God’s arrival cannot be stopped? For this reason, it’s hard to believe that Sum-80 (a resplendent Deepika Padukone) is ever going to suffer any serious harm. Add to this her ally, Ashwatthama, who we are told cannot be killed too. What are the real dangers then? Who’s the big, menacing villain in this film? Commander Manas (Saswata Chatterjee), with all his soldiers, is a candidate, but never feels enough, even when armed with futuristic aircraft and laser guns. There’s the looming figure of Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan, who looks incredible in this role), but this film offers us little about his character. Any losses Team Sum-80 suffers, ring cursory. Mariam (Shobana) glitters briefly and is expectedly dispensed with. Kyra (Anna Ben) fizzes a bit too, and has a great stunt moment, but fizzles out, again, to no real effect—and not even her boyfriend crying is enough to rustle up any emotion.

And this perhaps is the fundamental issue with Kalki 2898 AD, which, despite boasting of iconic world-building, finds it hard to create any real attachment towards its characters. You know there’s a problem when innocent women sliding off into an incinerator registers as a quirky visual. Around the beginning of the film, we see some beautifully presented snapshots of human horror (hunger, corruption, war, genocide, all of it). This compilation of drawings does more to present a sense of dystopian horror than the events of the actual film. This film, whose story begs for the arrival of an avatar, needed to communicate way more despair. But with Bhairava—for long portions—waltzing about with vehicle-buddy Bujji, there simply isn’t much time in which to do this. Sure, there’s material in the film for you to think about and attribute cause. Women are dispensable objects. Their foetuses are extracted by a Matrix-like machine for the villain’s survival. The film also establishes that this world, lacking any real life, seems on the verge of extinction already. So, yes, if you ponder over these details, this world does seem horrific. But the film’s job isn’t just to inform and expect you to ponder; its job is to make you feel too.

What I did feel strongly was admiration for Nag Ashwin’s ambition and imagination, which has also attracted the who’s who of Indian cinema. What I also felt was a strong sense of pride about Santhosh Narayanan’s score which comfortably matches the scale of Nag Ashwin’s universe. But as for the storytelling itself, I regretfully didn’t feel much—except during those two big moments when the film recreates a scene from the Kurukshetra. Nag Ashwin is smart in how he builds up to this moment towards the end, in how he taps into our collective love for the Mahabharata and for one of its central underdog characters. When Krishna points out to Arjuna that their chariot, protected by Hanuman, driven by a god-charioteer, has still been attacked, it feels like the mother of all punchlines for a hero figure. No Rebel-Star reference can match up to such writing, and for that reason, I can’t wait for us to recreate more stories contained in the Mahabharata, if not adapt the epic in its entirety. During Kalki 2898 AD, I thought about various great films from recent times. The Marvel films, the Dune films, the Mad Max films, The Hunger Games films, and somewhere as a pregnant Sum-80’s clothes burned away, Game of Thrones too. And perhaps for the first-ever time in the history of our cinema, Nag Ashwin has filled us with confidence that we can create such authentic worlds too, never mind whether it’s set in a forgotten past or a dystopian future. And this… is its own sort of achievement.

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