A young filmmaker way back in the early nineties had the gall to tell the story of a seemingly grey-shaded protagonist who accuses the top government official of the state after looting crores of government money, for his debut film. As if he thought that it was way too much for the audience then to handle, he decided to masquerade it amid-st the rollicking fun of ‘Chikku Bukku’, Gounder’s crude antics, beautifully choreographed yet overtly long action sequences and sadly a cliched heroine’s sister character. The film which was made at a budget of more than five crores for the first time in the South raked in 22 crores at the box-office and shot the young director to instant limelight.
And thus started the journey of a maker who chose to think ‘large’ (read ‘expensive’) and brand ‘Shankar’ was born. We loved him for what he seemed to be best at – narrating a compelling (though at times flimsy) conflict in the commercial space, while making mainstream cinema seem a lot richer and grandiose than it used to be. He proved this without doubt quite recently in his dream project with the Superstar, when he didn’t sacrifice his story-telling even for satisfying Rajni’s mass appeal, in the process giving us a sincere film that still managed to send the fans into raptures.
Today after seeing his two and half-year old year old mammoth project ‘I’, I had a nagging doubt if Enthiran was only an exception. Had Shankar unknowingly or knowingly reversed his formula yet again? With I, Shankar seems to have taken extraordinary pains to make the final product on-screen look technically astounding, aesthetically stunning, ornament-ally rich and visually exquisite, but has he narrated a compelling conflict in an engaging way? The answer to that would be a more emphatic ‘NO‘ and a less resounding ‘Partly’.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that Shankar is indeed a magician, if not any thing else. It takes a special set of skills and lots of guts to even attempt to visualize and pan out a ‘beaten to death’ linear story of such monotony (believe me when I say that I’s script actually qualifies for a brilliant ten minute short film) into a seeming complex maze of convolutions and grandeur, that we, at times, actually give in to the audiovisual sorcery that is being played on us. Given the discernible illusion of brilliance that Shankar nonchalantly brings to screen, our visual signals to the brain on many occasions trick us into forgetting that the film is dangerously pretentious and shallow. But not for long. Soon reason takes over, and we start questioning the tiresome length and painful predictability. With the film lagging with reference to the key ingredient of good cinema, the I experience turns out to be less wholesome than expected, with visual stupefaction and narrative disappointment constantly at loggerheads.
This is not to say that the writing (by Shankar and Suba) is downright uniformly bad or soul-less. I has its moments of cheer, vibrant energy and some really heart-wrenching poignancy that are lifted by the acting performances, but they are very few and far apart. The treatment falters big time, in the way things pan out in a totally expected manner, with no sight of the thrill factor in a purported romantic thriller. The dialogues at many instances are uninspiring, and fall flat, no way measuring up to the gravity of the situation.The antagonists are all weak unlike earlier Shankar ventures, and they mostly come across as a bunch of jokers.
Another issue with I is the way Shankar seems to go on and on with sequences that literally don’t seem to have any say on the proceedings. And its appalling to see a man of Shankar’s caliber resorting to demean a character by her looks and the consequent stereotyping that happens is all in bad taste (for the reason that she seemingly looks like a transgender). The film’s last forty minutes didn’t work for me totally, and was more a mockery of agonising human suffering. It’s highly unbecoming of the writers to deal with life disasters like fatal disease and burns with such insensitivity, in whatever justified circumstances they are depicted in.
To put things in the right perspective, if at all you decide to see I, it’s for two people who have worked their asses off (for lost causes?) and probably given their career best. No prizes for guessing that they are Vikram and PC. Sreeram. Vikram to me, is more of a hard worker and non-quitter than a naturally gifted actor, and he proves it yet again with tons of conviction in I. The grueling torture that he has willingly submitted his body and psyche to, for slipping naturally into the multiple looks catches us literally gaping and dumbfounded. The more you see his inhumane efforts, the more you doubt the ability of this screenplay to tap it to the maximum potential.
Nevertheless this man, Kenny, gives every scene his two hundred percent and makes the film his own to the extent that if you remove him from the equation, it seems like the film (for whatever its worthy of) is non-existent. Here he takes up the quintessential ‘revenge drama’ script and makes it at-least watchable with his drool-worthy body, electrifying screen presence and stylish charm. As the ghastly kyphotic victim, he comes across more than convincing, managing to communicate with his sharp eyes even with at that heavy prosthetic make-up. But how much of all these can save an average script?! Amy Jackson looks a million dollars and slips into the skimpiest of costumes without seeming lewd or inappropriate. Surprisingly she emotes well too, utilizing her meaty role to the fullest. Suresh Gopi has been wasted in an insignificant role.
PC. Sreeram deserves a handful of awards for redefining ‘cinematic elegance’ and setting a benchmark in cinematography in I. Be it the action sequences or the magnificently shot songs, he essentially makes the film what it is. The ‘Ladio’ and ‘Aila’ tracks scream of world-class visuals, keeping our eyes glued to the screen, as we involuntarily forget to blink. The VFX by Weta Workshop in the ‘Mersalayitten’ number is top-notch and the pristine beauty of China in the ‘Pookale’ track is a sight to behold. Art director Muthuraj deserves special mention for creatively designing the beast’s abode in the ‘Unnodu’ song. Despite the fact that I is more about painstakingly conceived and splendidly executed songs, its also true that their abundance make a coherent narrative totally impossible. A.R. Rahman scores well with his vivacious numbers and a highly relevant background score. The costume design, stunt choreography and makeup are all bloody brilliant, making it probably the strongest technical film to come out in a long time,
Shankar with I proves that he is more of a visual sculptor than any kind of story-teller. His weakest script till date, is made occasionally engaging and watchable by Vikram’s sincerity and PC’s insanely lovely frames. I walked out of the theater with this thought eating my mind, “Didn’t Vikram deserve better?”