Viswaroopam – the world of possibilities

<Spoiler alert. You’ll be able to put the whole story together at the end of this post.>

For an action thriller about terrorism arising out of Afghanistan, Viswaroopam is tad too rooted in Tamil (the language) Nadu (the place) – for its own good. Kamal Haasan is a master story teller – he tells you a story and leaves you to build a few hundred ubakadhaigal depending on your value systems. While you are already gagged by the overload of imagery and meanings, you reach out to every bit of energy left to consume some more.

Nothing above Godliness

While the most propagated aspect of Viswaroopam is religion, it is the most understated. For a film that is about crime/ terrorism in the name of religion/ God, Viswaroopam cannot talk enough of it. There is some reference to religion in every sequence and for one to remove religious scenes would be to ban the film entirely. Oh wait.

A good number of characters in this film are Muslims, they dress like the Muslims we’ve seen on TV, they cover their heads, they sport beards and guns, they speak Arabic and are fighting a J!hadi war. The women cover their faces, are subservient to their husbands and carefully bring up their children. As a community, they are also friendly, trusting, loving, intelligent, driven and political. At one point Wisam (alias Viswanathan alias Viz – Kamal Haasan’s character) and Omar (Rahul Bose’s character) mirror each other – as if they are both looking towards the same end only through different means.

Talking of religions stereotype, the scene where Dawkins convinces an antique store owner that he is a Muslim is clever. Instead of sending someone who looks Asian or African – easily identifiable as a Muslim – they send Dawkins, a Caucasian male. He goes there and identifies himself as a <insert Muslim name that I forget now>. The store says “are you the guy?” and he confidently and hastily replies “yes yes. I converted. Allahu Akbar.” In fact, just before this scene, the FBI let him go from a locality without a word – note that they’ve surrounded the area suspecting terrorist activity!

On the other hand, when Viswanathan, Dr. Nirupama (Viswanathan’s wife) and Ashmita (Viswanathan’s ally) get caught by the FBI, there is a rather philosophical conversation that Dr. Nirupama has with the investigating officer (who happens to be an African American woman).

Investigating officer asks Dr. Nirupama: Who is your God? Allah?
Dr. Nirupama: That is my Husband’s God. Not mine. (So nonchalantly as if that does not contain any deeper meaning at all)
Investigating officer: Then who is your God?
Dr. Nirupama: My God is one with four hands.
IO: Then how do you crucify him?
Dr. N: We don’t.
IO: Then?
Dr. N: We dunk him in the sea.

Caste-ing the wounds

While it would have been easy to write characters that are neutral to everything else, Kamal fills them with an identity that real people would be made of. Viswanathan and Nirupama are a Brahmin couple – Nirupama engaged in oncology research while Viswanathan is a home maker (?), dance teacher and cook. They speak the language – in fact, while Nirupama goes back and forth between pannindrukkel and pannindrukkinga and I was going back and forth about calling that callousness or a subtle representation of her identity crisis. There is not much show that she is indeed Brahmin – no prayers, no vegetarianism, no madisaar.

In a rather unimportant scene, Kamal Haasan takes a dig at Brahminism when he says “vaama paappathi. Idha rusi paathu uppu kaaram sariya irukka nu sollu” and feeds meat to a Brahmin girl – who, mind you, tastes it with utmost enthusiasm. (While all of you who want to take offence to this can, I believe it is a very strong political statement and its welcome.)

Manavaatiye manaalanin baagiyam

The film begins with Nirupama seeing a psychologist about her unhappy marriage (or the guilt about her affair because of her unhappy marriage). She calls it a marriage of convenience that she agreed to because she wants to run away from the middle class life in India and pursue her PhD. She explains that she was found this groom and she agreed because he was also in the US (adding to my understanding that she is also a Brahmin and she had been found a groom who is Brahmin). While all these sound like random statements, I believe they add such cultural context to the story which (I started this post by saying) is essentially Tamil.

Nirupama goes on to get attracted to her boss (who is also Tamilian – only rich) and employs a detective to follow her husband in the hope that he’d have an illicit relationship too. He, on the other hand, proudly claims that he’d cook meat for his wife because she likes meat and he likes her.

Men must be men

In that conversation with the psychologist about why she isn’t attracted to her husband (where she also claims that she doesn’t sleep with her husband – “naan avar kitta sollitten. Naan inge padikkadhaan vandhirukken. Enakku paduthunde padikka pidikkaadhu”) is the scene where Viswanathan is introduced as this effeminate Kathak dancer.

The scene is played out in a way to say: as a solution to her lack of attraction towards an effeminate man, she falls for Deepak (her boss). As if he is the man that her husband is not. While you are chewing on it, Kamal Haasan plays that back on your face a few scenes later. When Viswanathan and Nirupama are held captive, they slap her and she asks Deepak to man up and save her. He, in response, asks her to get Viswanathan (calling him idhu – as a dig at his unmanliness) to help her. She then tells the captors, “ipdi katti pottu adikkarele. Katta avuthuvittu adingo” and the response that Viswanathan gives for it is priceless! Just while you are charmed about it, Viswanathan mans up (goes to masculine body language) and saves her indeed. Sigh.

In the end, she accepts Viswanathan as her husband and sleep with him only after she learns he is a quintessential man – bravery, righteousness, masculine body language and short hair in place. In fact, Kamal Haasan goes that extra mile and rubs it in your face when Nirupama says “he is my husband” one too many times in the last 20 minutes. She goes on to tell his she is sorry for her behaviour earlier on. Sigh. The unbearable oversimplification of s3xuality and the glorification of manhood – in tact!

War and Peace

This film is about Jihadi warfare and it couldn’t have been made without the debate on war and peace. Of course there is. In some places it is subtle, for example when Wisam, Omar and a few others go to a village that was attacked by the Americans, they meet an old lady who says “modhalla englishkaaran, apram Russian, apram American, ippo neenga….munnaadi vaal molaicha korangunga” and walks away as if a small child stole a few fish from her basket and she does not want to venture beyond cursing.

Omar has this mannerism where puts his two fingers on one’s forehead (like a gun) and makes a boom noise when he means to forgive someone for an act of friendly defiance. He does that to his own son (who wants to become a doctor but Omar wants him to be a warrior) when the boy is seen playing doctor-patient with his mother. The son picks up the gun-with-fingers-shooting-noise gesture and runs out doing it. Other children in the village join him along with a few elderly people and they run around enacting their state in a war torn land as if it were a silly game.

In a few situations, it is also melodramatic, still meaningful. This scene where Omar loses his family and sheds a few tears, he asks if they weren’t God’s warriors and fighting for the sake of Allah: Wisam simply says your question has the answer. We are warriors we have no time for tears, only for blood. Suicide bombers who love playing the swing, people who expose themselves to radiation and are ready to die a slow death, children who want to be doctors, Pakistan!s who bring in information from the !SI, opium sellers who are hanged for a genuine mistake, the film is filled with messages of injustice and inequality, which almost empathises with Jihadi feeling, rightfully so.

Death, guilt and the extra baggage

When he is not shooting horses to death to relieve them of their pain, Kamal Haasan fills every little gap with dialogues. In the scene where Obama is talking about Osama being captured, he goes, “oruthar saava ippadiya kondadradhu Deepavali madhiri”. Ashmita says, “asurargala irundha appadithan”. The Sir/ Mama (played by Shekhar Kapoor) goes, “idhappoi andhe asuranoda uttraar uravinar kitta sollu”.

When Wisam realises that the opium seller is going to be hanged because of a mistake Wisam’s accomplice did, he says, “idhukku allah nammala mannikka maattar”. His accomplice says, “unga Allah nu sollunga sir. Enakku idhu punaipper mattum thaan”.

In a not so serious occasion, the scene where Nirupama tells Viswanathan she isn’t coming home for dinner (while she is away with Deepak) and takes offence at every question Viswanathan asks about it, the guilt reference is masterfully done.

The feminine soft power

In spite of all the layers of meanings that Kamal Haasan adds to the film, he sticks to basic stereotypes about femininity – perhaps an attempt to make a realistic film (?). Ashmita is a strange (mis)fit into the film. I can’t much recollect what she does in the film except agree to the accusation (?) that she is a smart ass. Working so closely with Viswanathan and his boss, I am presuming she is also some kind of a RAW agent (that Viswanathan is). Oh wait. She stitches up Viswanathan’s wounds. Ya. She does.

I spoke about the effeminate man and a woman’s inability to be s3xually attracted to him just a few lines earlier. Nirupama is this quintessential woman (albeit some nuclear oncologist) – she seeks to be protected, wants to close her eyes (quite literally) at the sight of trouble, is ready to ‘die’ with her husband. She is shocked at the mention of the word bra (which she gets used to when practically everyone in the scene has said it – another brilliant scene). In spite of all the high talk of philosophy, Nirupama is an ordinary person.

In the end, Viswanathan does all the physical fighting, while Nirupama waits in the Police vehicle for the bomber to be murdered, runs with a microwave oven to save New York City from a disaster! Handsome men, pretty women – don’t ask me what’s there to change!

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13 thoughts on “Viswaroopam – the world of possibilities

  1. I did watch the movie, though in Hindi (since the Tamil version is yet to be released in Mumbai). Good to note your observations. I usually follow reviews only after watching a movie (which I was waiting to watch). Just a point which I would add.. Kamal has for the first time in his own film played a subdued role which actually helps the story telling and gives a chance to understand several issues.
    In the end the movie hints of a sequel and that to in India..!! which looks unlikely..!!

  2. I have been waiting for this review (and my mom too). You see the movie in a totally different way and it gives us a different perspective, R.

    My mom is a die hard fan and was so upset that she cried out a lot when the movie was being banned in Tamilnadu. So anyways, we ended up watching Vishwaroop in Hindi and was really nice.

    It was not something exceptional and certainly not Kamal’s best, but there are moments in the film that are so brilliantly portrayed. Like the scene where Omar’s elder son sits on the swing.

    There are some wtf moments, or may be it was because I saw the movie in Hindi. Overall, I thought the movie sends some real good message of peace, although the ending could have been a bit better.

    Nicely written as usual. More power to you!

  3. THE COMMENTS ARE GOOD, STILL TAMIL NADU , AWAITING RELEASE, BUT HOW COME SUCH MOVIES WILL WELCOME HERE, BECAUSE OF SUCH HIGH STANDARDS

  4. As always, you’ve done a great job of relating to so many themes and covering a lot of detail. I thought it was a good Tamil movie but not something one would call a classic. I found it very disturbing in some parts: violence, blood, hangings, beheadings etc. And all the related imagery adding to typecasting terror as belonging to the domain of a certain people.

    The plot was ordinary. A RAW agent with Kashmiri as his last name, befriends a key Taliban man (close enough to know where American soldiers are being held captive), cannot speak Dari or Pashtun, relies on Tamizh so much that even in key combat situations someone has to translate directions to him. And in the end, the hero saves NYC from annihilation and gets praise from India’s Prime Minister. If someone were to narrate this story, you would probably think Vijaykanth would suit the best.

    There were inconsistencies most of which you’ve pointed out. My favourite one being Pooja Kumar’s Tamil (pannindrukkel and pannindrukkinga) which you’ve leniently interpreted as an identity crisis. I would be very difficult to imagine the US Government seal on a location tracking equipment. Dawkins passing off as Munavar perhaps was the silliest.

    I too didn’t quite understand why Andreah was in the movie. One man, two women implies that the man is better (in all aspects). Pooja Kumar, despite all the positives people were quick to point out, was very irritating.

    Quite honestly I don’t know how to judge Kamal Hasan as a filmmaker. He tries hard and tries very hard I must say. But for all the hype, talent and brilliance he is known to have, very little gets translated into world class cinema.

    I would love to go on an anti-Kamal rant but it’d be of little use. On a serious note, if a man had pawned his house (and all that he had etc.) to make a movie, I would have expected something better. But Vishwaroopam has made supernormal box office collections and hence the world proves me wrong.

    • Hi! Thank you.

      //I thought it was a good Tamil movie but not something one would call a classic.// As @fibnazi was saying last evening, the film is a bunch of great bits. But the sum of the parts doesn’t make up the whole. I agree with him. It has got some great moments and like this post goes on and on about – it has some lovely metaphors. But if you ask me if this is the best spy thriller ever, I wouldn’t think so. The brilliance in the details don’t make it to the big picture (that said, I ignore it in my original post because that isn’t my priority)

      //My favourite one being Pooja Kumar’s Tamil (pannindrukkel and pannindrukkinga) which you’ve leniently interpreted as an identity crisis.// Haha. Among Brahmins, I think is a common inconsistency itself. I knew this woman who’d speak to her main in pucca Cheri Tamil and the when she speaks to the neighbour all your “saattamudhu and kariamudhu” and all will come off. It could well be an identity crisis. The possibility is there.

      //Dawkins passing off as Munavar perhaps was the silliest.// I thought this was very well played.

      //One man, two women implies that the man is better (in all aspects).// Enna logico idhu.

      //I would love to go on an anti-Kamal rant but it’d be of little use. // You should. Or at least send me a mail, I say. I genuinely want to know. :)

  5. I agree a lot of us make the transition between the two dialects of Tamil. If Kamal has put in the inconsistency to portray an identity crisis, then it is perhaps a stroke of genius :p

    The one lead male, multiple female leads is quite common these days. Supposed to signify strength, macho-ism and uber-maleness (a lot of biological precedents point to this ‘logic’)

    Rant about Kamal? It is not essential that it be discussed in a public forum. Will send you an email. But ever since I tried watching Hey Ram I seem to have lost the ability to appreciate his work.

    • // But ever since I tried watching Hey Ram I seem to have lost the ability to appreciate his work.// i’m really dying to know why. Share us your perspective please.
      thanks

  6. THE FIRST TIME IN TAMIL / INDIAN CINEMA THEIR IS NO HEROISM / HERO IN THIS PICTURE. LOT OF CHARACTERLESS HAS BEEN GIVEN PROMINENCE THANKS TO DIRECTOR KAMAL, ONE THING WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF BRAHMINS DANCER STORY AND AS USUAL HE WANTS TO DIG MY COMMUNITY FOR NO FAULT OF US. BUT WE ADMIRE HIM FOR AN ACTOR PAR EXCELLENCE IN INDIA, NO PERSON CAN GET NEAR. WE HAVE ADMIRE HIM FOR HIS GUTS TO TAKE A PICTURE ON TERRORISM IN A GLOBAL ANGLE. ALSO THE PICTURE UNIQUE IS THEIR IS DUET SONG THAT TOO SHOT IN EXOTIC LOCATIONS ACROSS THE GLOBE OR LIKE S HANKERS FILM ART WORK, NOR THEIR IS NO COMEDY TRACK WHICH IS A MUST IN ALL SOUTH INDIAN FILMS ESPECIALLY TAMIL. HATS OFF THE KAMAL FOR HIS VISIIONERY . LET HIM IN FUTURE TAKE FILMS FOR GLOBAL AUDIENCE BUT NOT WITH HUGE BUDGET, THE BEST PART OF THE FILM IS THE AURO SOUND AND WORST PART IS DIOLUGE ARE DIFFICULT TO HEAR . FOR THE HUE AND CRY BY THE SO CALLED OFFENDED COMMUNITY THEIR IS NO SCENE WHICH IS PALATABLE

  7. BUT YEAH…WHAT’S THERE TO CHANGE?
    //In spite of all the layers of meanings that Kamal Haasan adds to the film, he sticks to basic stereotypes about femininity – perhaps an attempt to make a realistic film (?).//

    Would you like a nuclear oncologist heroine who fires small arms and automatic rifles at the drop of a hat? Why is she an ordinary person? She is strong in her own way…fought her way out of poverty and dependency and made her way to the USA (for which she marries Viz, a very cold and calculated move). Maybe it was not the protection or the machismo that she liked. Maybe she liked him because he was an “achiever” like herself. And she was not ready to fall in love with a “homemaker” of a husband. d it is to be noted that none of the flexing muscles or cutting the hair short was done by Viz to impress her. And I thought she was a strong feminine character.

  8. If you take a closer look at kamal’s movie so far. you can find he is a male chauvinist to the core.Whether it is his personal life or professional life.Whether it is a causal reply in vikram when lissie says women can do everything that men can do, to the woman characters he created in Alavandhan, heyram, manmadhan anbu, vishwaroopam.Either they are used for lip locking or portrayed as someone who cheat on their husbands or pity creatures who root for this wandering warrior who is on a quest to put a stop to all violence in the world through extreme violence.you hardly find a mother(waiting for vish2) or sister character in his movies.

    Symbolism in vishwaroopam was plain stupid.It is not as if MGM did not know how to add some symbolism/mottif’s in a james bond movie.There is no point in adding symbolism just for the heck of adding it to boast to everyone that the director is intelligent.The audience who is there for an adrenaline rush entertainment is not going to go into deep thinking on the meaning of various symbolism.

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