Having seen just one other work by Shankar (Endhiran), one other performance by Vikram (the Hindi Raavan) and just a handful of other Tamil films, I'm flying blind on this one and unqualified to guess much at that "coherent" why (or its potential absence). There are passages and details in I that I simply cannot process, some of them because they blew some part of my brain out and I haven't yet reassembled the pieces. Here are some of my personal truths with this film.
- In I, Shankar continues some of the ideas seen in Endhiran about creation and re-creation of individual people. In my opinion, this is a very rich and worthy theme to explore, so I am happy to see him take it on again. This time, the focus seems to be on the tension between self-and externally-authored changes—and one type of them being much riskier than the other. There are multiple characters whose very jobs and natures is to transform or excavate identity. By definition, bodybuilders, models, and makeup artists all ply transformation and some version, probably not internally-defined, of perfection. The film revels over and over in physical transformations (and even mutations)—a song depicting beauty and the beast, while another one turns the object of affection into literal objects, plus all the disfigurement, makeovers, and costume changes—but there are also several internal transformations in characters' emotions, outlooks, and priorities. Each person in this movie struggles in some way with questions of who they are and whether they will let other people define them. To me, this is an endlessly fascinating shuffling of cards in terms of how people respond and move forward, and I love it. Instances of this range from huge, like when Diya (Amy Jackson) gets her career out from under the thumb of the sexual harasser John (Upen Patel), to more concise yet still interesting, like when a character refusses money for a job that he wants to do because the work is meaningful to him.
- The corollary to self-identity, knowledge and judgements about others, is not commented upon as directly but is also in play all the time.
- The hero treats the trans character terribly, but oddly (and thankfully) no one else does. Heroine and villains are fine with her, whereas the hero expresses repulsion at her advances rather than simply "No thanks, not interested" or "I'm in love with someone else." I do agree with the critiques of this film as homophobic and transphobic, and she is the only character who is condemned as much for who she is as for what she wants, but it's probably worth noting that this character is as fully-written and carries the same dramatic weight as several others. She is neither a one-off joke nor comic relief, and she is respected by all her professional peers.
- Speaking of repulsion, heeeey there, 25-year hero-heroine age difference. You might think that this is somewhat offset by the man-child nature of Lingesan (Vikram), but somehow that just jarred more awareness of the actor's actual age. It was less icky in the stage when they're a supermodel team (in which she is the more experienced), but I certainly didn't need any more of their romance for this and other reasons. Hey, I'm squicked out by Jane and Rochester too.
- When this movie needs to make you to have an emotion about a person or situation, it really goes for it full tilt.
- I have a hard time being sympathetic to any character distraught over an obstacle to their success in modeling. Even in this film, which treats the heroine's chosen profession with as much respect as films ever do and gives her strength and great autonomy in it and (at least in subtitles) illustrates how much actual acting and storytelling can go in to posing with products and demonstrates (and perhaps exaggerates) the role of modeling (and celebrity) in sales and thus business blah blah, I fundamentally give only the tiniest of figs about modeling and wish vehemently that these people could find something more worthwhile to do. Bodybuilding is not not compelling to me either, but at least in this film it is loosely associated with health by showing what muscle-experts can do in service of fitness.
- Upen Patel has come a long way since 36 China Town. He wasn't nearly as bad as I feared, and he certainly looked the part (I was transfixed by how well he wore that sherbet orange leather jacket in his penultimate scene). Amy Jackson was also better than I expected, though modeling should be the easiest thing for her to do, so no points there. Neither of them seems a necessary choice for their role, and if this were a Hindi film I would gleefully consider my mental recasting options.
- Shankar's concepts of women...I don't know. They're at least complicated, I'll give him that. At times Diya is shown as strong ("Ladio" has moments of power and strength in it, visually and aurally) and smart and reasonable. She gets to make mistakes, learn from them (and notably without being particularly punished), and change her ways. She tries to escape danger multiple times, she takes charge of her career, and the film never makes her a whimpering accessory to fights nor has her encourage her boyfriend to beat the shit out of people. But at others Lingesan's dopey infatuation almost minimizes and flattens and dehumanizes her, and in his head his love turns her into actual objects imagined in very revealing outfits that he can hold, poke at, and even ride. It's visually fascinating and impressive, even magical, but philosophically I'm not on board. She has moments of very egotistical manipulation. I think I could deal just fine with all of this, chalking most of it up to her being a complicated character, if one established by and for the hero (nothing unique about that in films), but late in the film there is some regressive and very dangerous stuff about her marriage and worthiness thereof that made me groan "Oh noooo" out loud in the cinema. It reminded me very much of that horrible moment in Endhiran when Chitti saves the little girl in the bathtub from fire and the crowd shames both him and her for her being naked in public no matter the circumstances, except this time we have no Chitti to critique humans for their inhumane attitudes. To add to the pain, in I, much of the manipulation of Diya is by her mother. Fortunately, Diya has a great older female figure in her work life, an agent who is both supportive and realistic with her.
- As long as this movie is (Rajeev Masand calls it "butt-numbing"), I was rarely conscious of the time. It has so much going on that there's always something to think about or shift attention to. I only yawned during the visually lovely but utterly standard "Pookkalae Sattru Oyivedungal," aka "love song in which we pose in many, many different color-coordinated outfits." "How many movies have we already seen?!?" said my very impressed viewing companions at interval. Its structure is unusual and so smart—you don't know exactly where you are in the story even on repeat iterations of segments. Multiple threads of Lingesan's history run concurrently but unevenly, and the transitions between them are not always expected.
- The advertisements within the film are absolutely glorious and worth the price of admission. "Aila Aila" is a whirlwind of extreme creativity beautifully executed. The guillotine moment is my favorite thing in the whole movie.
You may not be able to tell from everything I've just said, but I loved I. It's enormously entertaining and philosophically compelling. Even with its problems, it's actually about something, a trait I've recently realized can make all the difference for me in feeling positive about and wanting to engage with a film. Vikram is a treat to watch. He did wonderful physical work on top of a significant structure of distinctive writing, wardrobe, and makeup, and the result was all effect rather than effort. There was no strain in all that work, just joy, which is such a treat. It's an exuberant, interesting film, and I can't wait to see more of Shankar's and Vikrams' filmographies.