[There's a minor spoiler about a short, non-cumulative scene about halfway through this writeup, and I will alert you to its beginning and end so you can skip it easily by searching for "spoiler" to find its location.]
Why should a person even bother writing about a film that is introduced by the credit S-U-P-E-R-S-T-A-R? That one word, which Endhiran stretches to its orthographical and conceptual limit, is really all that needs to be said - or at least might be the only thing that a majority of audiences will care much about. As my friend Aspi wrote on his blog at the Times of India, "Rajnikanth doesn't act with other actors at all. He pretty much acts all by himself in a movie." Endhiran offers a spectacular triple role with Human (Dr. Vasi), Good Rajnibot, and Bad (Very Bad!) Rajnibot. This was my first Rajnikanth movie, and I am eternally grateful I got to see it on the big screen with a lively crowd that hooted and clapped for each Rajni entry and song, even when that song was "Kadhal Anukkal," the snoozy sun and sand number with Rajni standing around playing guitar and Aishwarya flapping her arms in a very un-alluring manner. This man elicits shouts of joy when he's got his back turned, wearing a sweater vest, fiddling with a computer. Dayum.
To this novice, it all seemed a bit meta - the only villain who can offer a real fight for a Rajnikanth hero (if in fact "hero" is the right term to call his Human version, and I'm not sure it is) is a Rajnikanth anti-hero, but the only one who can best a Rajnikanth anti-hero...is Rajnikanth. Just as Bad Rajnibot clones himself a hundred times to make an unstoppable fighting force, Endhiran clones the raw force of Rajnikanth to make an impressive force of...whatever it is we can call the sum effect of this film: craziness, awe, entertainment. All the Rajnis and their collective powers cohere to offer audiences at least a little something for everyone, whether that's a giant snake gobbling up police cars, Rajni trying on a ton of different wigs, or an earnest student being crushed when he fails to meet his mentor's approval.
That sense of generosity is one of the things that first hooked me on Indian cinema and has kept me watching. This may be a one-man show but it sure packs a lot in. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would, the action sequences were generally impressive (though some effects struck me as not nearly up to the standards of others), and the song picturizations were mostly either interesting or lovely or both. My favorite parts were Rajnikanth's impressive ability to make three very distinct roles, so much so that the climatic battle between man and an army of dystopic selves (that is, Human vs. Bad Rajnibot) was a thrilling concept, and the many ethical quandaries that arose from the multiple iterations and combinations of Rajnikanth's roles. The writers could have done a lot more with these than they did, but I was glad to see them at all. Not that I'm an expert, but my favorite sci-fi is in some ways ethnological, illuminating human behavior or cultures. The writers were very clever to do this in part with the character who is first clearly marked as a villain, Dr. Vasi's former professor Dr. Bohra. Danny Denzongpa is brilliant in this role, and he's a welcome bit of tempered calm amid the madness of the rest of the film. Bohra is both greedy and wise, and I loved that he was the person thinking most clearly about the risks to humans posed by artificial intelligence. It was also very clever to make the ultimate villain, Bad Rajnibot, an amalgam of both Vasi's and Bohra's technologies, giving humans the full responsibility for what we invent and how we use technologies.
There were some other questions the film raised but did not explore very well, such as Sana (Aishwarya Rai) cheating on a medical school exam with absolutely zero formal or personal consequences. The final scene following the courtroom was interesting, as was the inclusion of the courtroom discussion at all, underscoring the importance of questions about "How can we actually use technology?" I loved that the judge said that Vasi's (and I think Bohra's too, by implication) work could not fit with our current lifestyle. That's a nice open end to a thorny question. Ending the film in the future was also a pointed reminder that these issues aren't going to just disappear. And hey, museum! I wish the film had given us a confrontation between Good Rajnibot and Bad Rajnibot, but I think I know why that was omitted. And no, it's not because the universe would explode if Good and Bad Rajnikanths were in perfect balance of power with no triumph for either of them. It wouldn't have have such a clear ethical position as the other combinations did. Our loss - Rajnibot vs. Rajnibot would have been mindblowing!
[spoiler but not about anything that really affects the story]
On the topic of of illuminating cultures and assigning responsibility: I sat with my hand clamped over my mouth for a good three minutes during the horrifying scene of the girl Good Rajnibot rescues from the fire. For those of you who haven't seen it, here's a quick summary. A big apartment building is on fire and Good Rajnibot uses his life-detecting scanner to run in repeatedly and save people from the blaze (also demonstrating an ability to fly via magnets that was previously not shown). His "skin" and clothes long burned up, his last target is a girl caught in a bathtub surrounded by flames. As he bursts in the door, she shrieks at him to go away because she is naked. He looks down at himself, all metal and parts, and says "So am I," then picks her up and zooms out of the building to safety. The film helpfully pixel-blurs parts of her body to reinforce the inappropriateness of her current situation. Upon delivering her safely to her screaming mother, Rajnibot is criticized by Vasi for not covering the girl up and thus exposing her to shame. The girl is so mortified that she runs away from the crowd of onlookers and press directly into the path of a bus, and her dead body flies through the air (in perhaps the worst effects in the film).
What I got from this is that it is better to be modest and dead than naked and alive, even in a terrifying, life-threatening situation. The film revels in the drama of the shaming of this girl and of her irrational and lethal embarrassment. The victim of society's values is immediately killed and there is not one word (at least in the subtitles) of context-based reason that maybe it is not, in fact, the end of the world that she has appeared unclothed in front of a crowd given that she 1) was in a bath, not in any kind of titillating or sexual situation, and 2) just escaped any number of grizzly and horrifying ends like asphyxiation, drowning, or even falling to her death if the building had collapsed. No no. It's faaaar worse that she is naked for maybe 45 seconds.
I understand perfectly well that the scene is included to demonstrate how little of "humanity" the Rajnibot can understand and process, but to me it just showed how little of real humanity we humans are interested in. Even when a life is at stake, we'd rather shriek about propriety. This is "blame the victim" in the worst possible way. Shame on you, people-determined society. This tragedy is solely your fault. It could also have been very easily avoided by having the onlooking crowd turn the other way before Rajnibot came out with the girl - her mom had already announced she was in a bath before Rajnibot went back in to look for her, so everyone could have been informed and made ready. If a girl being seen naked is so awful, then stop effing looking at her. The fact that none of them helped prevent or even defuse the situation, including Vasi himself, who was right there when the mother mentioned the bath, indicates how much the writers were interested in drama over any kind of sense. I do not watch Rajnikanth movies for sense, but when a completely innocent child's life is at stake and everyone is freaking out about decency yet not behaving decently, I'm far less charitably inclined. RRRR this scene made me so angry!
The use of robots to help in rescue conditions that humans can't go in to was a very nice touch, though, and I thought it was by far the most successful and sensible option the film showed for how robots can really help and integrate into humankind. Even if the robot could suddenly fly and even when surrounded by roaring flames its metal structure was not too hot to contact human flesh. Details? Pish. This scene lurched from such a good beginning to such a cheap and nasty end.
The only element of Endhiran that consistently failed for me was the attempt at romance. For starters, Aishwarya's entire role as Sana, Human Rajni's neglected and childish girlfriend, felt mostly perfunctory - and totally token, as the only female character with more than a few lines - and each of Sana's...uh, "entanglements"?...with a version of Rajni fell flat. Maybe because of their oogy age difference, maybe because Sana had no real personality. (Yes, I just criticized something involving Rajnikanth. I trust you call can deal with it.) (And can I just say a big EWWWW to the idea of a human-machine romance and subsequent implications of canoodling?) Somehow Sana did not feel like a fully finished adult female character to me: she's supposed to be key to the big plan to fell Bad Rajnibot but that didn't pan out; she cheats on her exam with silly giggles; and she otherwise serves to be a victim for Human and Good Rajnibot to protect and save. Another robot would have filled this need just fine - maybe one of the little servant robots we saw toddling around the lab serving coffee, who could get into scrapes and giggle and coo on command. What a blah role - a punching bag for reprehensible testosterone-fueled assaults (I counted at least two human-based rape attempts, one chillingly documented by a dozen cameras, and another one implied in which a robot was the assailant) that serve only to create ways for males to be heroic and then, in the climax, just a wide-eyed, supportive bystander.
Good thing her Incan ostrich song was every bit as amazing as I hoped it would be!
I loved her looks in the robot-themed songs too, though the weird leaping dance she does while swirling her purple cape behind her like a peacock tail had me perplexed. Delighted aesthetically but perplexed. I'm generally an Aishwarya apologist and I thought she was fine here but had very little to work with. I've read some other writers complaining that she is or looks to old to play a medical student. To that I would roll my eyes towards the pleather-clad double standard for 60-year-old bald heroes and point out that Aishwarya is and looks way too young to be opposite Rajnikanth, though I also thought her screen presence held up to his pretty well. The real problem is that Sana as written is juvenile enough that she has a discordant age gap with her portrayer's actual age and with the hero.
This isn't quite the right place for this point but I'm not sure where is. I was surprised and fascinated that Sana studied obstetrics and gynecology and there were plenty of images of her medical diagrams as well as lots of talk about reproductive anatomy and topics. The film was so refreshingly calm about this fundamental aspect of human life which is so often ignored or shunned by anyone not actually going through it. I assume this thread represented humanity and "soft," i.e. feminine, topics as a contrast both to Vasi's more calculating engineering (all the people involved in the robotics labs and review panels were male) and as a way to highlight what Good Rajnibot was able to learn about people's squishier and less predictable aspects when he had a people-oriented, i.e. feminine, guide. In the end, however, Good Rajnibot's ability to feel is what dooms him and it is the masculine science that saves the day. Of course.
The music...was fine. It's a long way from my favorite Rahman soundtrack, even though each song had interesting and creative elements, if not to my particular taste, and the songs were fun to look at. I got very tired of all the electronic effects on voices, culminating in the excessively-autotuned "Irumbile Oru Idhaiyam." Why is A. R. Rahman doing in 2010 something that Cher played out in 2000? (Yes, I just criticized Rahman. I trust you can deal with that too.)
And the hopeless lyrics (by Kash n Krissy [!] and Kaarki, if I read correctly): the idea of Sana as anyone's "rapper girl" was just too much to handle. "Heeeeey, hey yeah yeah yeah! Watch me robo-shake it. I know you wanna break it" sounded just like the processed Britney songs of yore. Ugh. It's like that encounter Rahman had with the Pussycat Dolls had a surprise hangover. Partway through its run, that song reminded me of "The Humans Are Dead" from Flight of the Conchords, and I couldn't stop giggling until it ended.
"Binary solo! Zero zero zero zero zero zero one...." Come to think of it "binary solo" would be a great way to describe this whole film..
The horns and other symphonic elements of "Arima Arima" were awesome and felt appropriately martial and foreboding. The only song I'm humming - and I've been humming it for over 24 hours - is "Kilamanjaro." I could watch it a dozen times and never get tired of all the patchwork, blinged-out sandals, headdresses, and stray llamas (a nice new-world counterpart to the stray cows in the train scene and garbage dump, perhaps?), though even after that many viewings I probably wouldn't understand why it was filmed at Machu Picchu when the lyrics specifically name other sites. Ah, but ours is not to wonder why, is it?
And that probably sums it up. Despite a few jokes (the mosquito bit) or action (Vasi, seriously, just hit "select all" and "delete," for crying out loud) that dragged and its repellent treatment of women as targets of rape and shaming, I really enjoyed Endhiran, even though the impressiveness and beauty of its action sequences were probably mostly lost on me since I don't really care about stuff like that or have any idea what the current global standards are. The film had far more substance than I expected, even if it didn't do as much with those seeds as it could have. Danny Denzongpa was perfect and the effects of cloned robots, including picturizations and continuing through very end of the climax, were amazing. I found Bad Rajnibot genuinely frightening, if over the top with his creepy laugh, and the more of him there were the scarier he became. My favorite version of Rajnikanth, other than dancing like a robot, was his portrayal of Vasi when he was out of the lab and having to deal with people who don't behave like his carefully-engineered parts. His human avatar was not at all the point of this film, but Rajnikanth made him a real character anyway. Domo arigato, Mr. Rajnikanth!