Conceited, egotistical, narcissistic. The greatest?

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY writes: Brush it aside as a narcissist’s mindless natter on celluloid or a fading star’s exaggerated attempt to reaffirm his talent. Dismiss it as an egotist’s eulogy of himself or as another crass exercise in self-indulgence.

Bury the film, like sundry other critics have, in reams of cynicism if you may, but Dasavatharam, the maestro’s latest work, is a grand spectacle and Kamal Haasan is a goddamn genius.

And nobody can take that away from him.

The attraction is certainly not the script, which jiggles about as uncontrollably as Mallika Sherwat, who happens to be the villian’s moll in the film.

The film revolves around a US-based scientist Govind Ramaswamy, the primary protagonist among the ten. The upright scientist’s one-point obsession is to safeguard and retrieve a deadly virus vial from the many recesses it finds itself in.

From the safe vault of a lab in the US, the ‘vile vial’ traverses the globe to the southern Indian temple town of Chidambaram, frantically pursued by the scientist and an evil ex-CIA man Christian Fletcher—played by Kamal with a ferocity, that gets you in the gut and quite bloodily at that.

Even as the killer and hero blaze a trail across rural Tamil Nadu, punctuating the landscape with their Tom & Jerry escapades, the plot off-tracks into side lanes throwing up a bewildering array of characters, most of them enacted almost effortlessly by the doyen.

The heavy and layered prosthetic make-up, a tad overdone on occasions, does not subdue Kamal’s intensity in any manner.

The cantankerous Iyengar paatti (grandma) with a penchant to lock herself in cupboards; the activist Vincent Poovaraghan who spouts fiery Malbari-Tamil; President George Bush; the Telugu-loving, safari suit-clad RAW officer Balram Naidu; the gauche seven-foot-tall Kalifulla Khan, the revenge-seeking Japanese kung fu expert Shingen Narahasi; the cancer-suffering Punjabi pop singer Avtaar Singh…

With convincing and bold flourishes, Kamal builds the texture and nuance of each of these characters. The accent, inflection and intonation cutting across these characters are delivered with his trademark ease and felicity.

My personal favourite of the 10 avatars is the character of the 12th century Vaishnavite devotee Rangaraja Nambi. The film opens with Nambi who displays a pulsating brahaminical zeal, defiantly reciting the Vishnu Sahasranamam, even as the Chola king tortures him for not surrendering to the greatness of Shiva.

Nambi is tied to the stone deity of Narayana and ruthlessly consigned to the depths of the ocean. Asin Thottumkal, who plays Nambi’s devastated wife and later the role of the scientist’s accomplice in another birth, does a superlative job as a Brahamin belle. She is pretty but could have been less shrill in a few scenes.

Mallika Sherawat’s pole dance is most unsavory: I say this not because of a suddenly acquired refined sensibility, but for the simple reason that my seven-year-old son sitting next to me was gawking at her much more than I. The quick glances that I kept throwing his way did not seem to faze him one bit. My fatherly instincts revolted instantly.

Himesh Reshammiya‘s music plays somewhere but fails to resonate. Jaya Prada as Avtaar Singh’s wife is still beautiful. The other bit that deserves mention is Dasavatharam‘s special effects. The tsunami tearing into civilization and the havoc that it brings about is masterfully orchestrated.

Kamal also uses the movie to drive home some of his beliefs: When the delusional paatti clutches the dead body of activist Vincent mistaking him to be her son, the Brahmins trailing her are repulsed and attempt to convince her but she does not listen. Kamal who has written the story, screenplay and dialogues, for a brief, very brief moment makes a lofty caste statement through this scene.

In the end, disillusioned to see the heaps of corpses caused by tsunami-scientist Govind, raises the question of whether there is God at all. This could well be Kamal himself. A self-confessed rationalist and atheist.

His spiritual and social ideologies apart; Kamal will continue to dwarf his peers through his towering histrionics in Indian cinema. Dasavatharam is an act of arrogance, a creation of conceit, a maverick’s attempt to tell the world that he is the greatest.

And Kamal gets away with it.

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