I suppose we should begin with this question: How is the animation, performance-capture and otherwise? Imagine that we had the kind of merchandising culture that Hollywood has perfected, wherein the release of a Star Wars movie would mean that the stores near you would carry figurines of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. You’d buy these for your kids, and they’d enter a fantasy world, re-enacting scenes from the film (or of their own making) by moving the arms and legs and heads of the toys. The movements would be stiff, disjointed, and the faces would remain expressionless, but the child’s imagination would take care of the rest.
Watching Kochadaiiyaan, directed by Soundarya Rajinikanth Ashwin, is a little like that. The actors look stiff, disjointed — especially while executing choreography for the (way too many) songs — and they display no discernable emotion, but after about 10 minutes, it didn’t bother me all that much. The trick, I suppose, is not to make comparisons with Hollywood’s animated features but think of the film as something made for Indian television, but blown up for the big screen.
The bigger question is whether Kochadaiiyaan, which heralds Rajinikanth’s return to the cinemas after more than three years, needed to be an animated feature. There are some advantages in opting for animation over live action. Some of the action scenes have the kind of sweep that is impossible to replicate with live actors — or live creatures, for that matter, in the instance of the dolphin that surfaces with the hero balanced on its snout.
Then, there’s the dancing, which was never Rajinikanth’s strength — but here, he performs a thandavam and, later, matches steps with the classically trained Shobana. And in his introduction shot, which is possibly the most important part of any film he’s in, he spurs his horse to leap over a chasm, pausing midway to be silhouetted by the sun. Try doing that with a real actor on a real horse.
But when he laughs that laugh, when he delivers those punch lines, when his hand scythes through the air tracing out that half-eight, we don’t feel it’s him. Kochadaiiyaan keeps reminding us that this is him — the charismatic star who gave us Mannan and Thalapathy and Ejamaan (all these titles are folded into dialogues) — and his character does do the things we expect of him, like liberating slaves and dispensing gnomic utterances, but this never feels like “a Rajini movie.”
Part of the problem is surely the generic revenge-oriented plot, which plays out between two warring kingdoms. This may still have worked in live action, but in this animated form (and with hardly any expressions on the characters’ faces), the excitement is muted. Scenes that should have been shaped with the peaks and valleys of high drama end up flat as a plain.
And there’s nothing else. There’s no comedy — unless you count the needless resuscitation of Nagesh, in a blink-and-miss part. There’s no romance either. Deepika Padukone plays the princess of the realm (she’s the villain’s daughter, naturally), and she falls for Rajinikanth’s Rana, but there’s not one memorable scene between them. (The film’s idea of detailing a relationship between two characters is to have them burst into song.) Instead, precious screen time is devoted to a baffling subplot involving the romance between Rana’s sister and a prince — after they get married, they’re never seen again.
For a brief while, in a flashback that features Rajinikanth in a second role, finally becomes “a Rajini movie.” As is typical in masala-movie storytelling, this is where we learn who Kochadaiiyaan is and how Rana fits into the picture, and even though the narrative — here, as elsewhere — is thoroughly generic, there’s at least a bit of energy in these scenes.
This is where we catch a glimpse of Rajinikanth’s peerless ability to infuse electric style into his screen presence, tightrope-walking between performance and parody. Otherwise, we’re left with a missed opportunity of historic proportions.
Kochadaiiyaan is truly history-making in a sense, because this is the first time that a huge star has allowed himself to be the hero in a full-length animated feature. Walking out, you may find yourself wondering: Did it have to be Rajinikanth?
Director: Soundarya Rajinikanth Ashwin
Cast: Rajinikanth, Deepika Padukone, Nasser.
Storyline: The standard-issue revenge plot, but set in ancient times.
Bottomline: Never really feels like “a Rajini movie.”