The surprise about Vishwaroopam is how straightforward it is, given Kamal Haasan’s track record. (It’s basically a big, dumb action movie, but with smarts.) What hasn’t changed, though, is the actor’s ongoing attempt to carve out for himself, within the commercial film mould, some space where he can be the hero as well as be more than just a hero. So we have, on the one hand, the kind of boosterism that no Tamil film hero can do without, as when an awestruck FBI agent asks Wisam Ahmad Kashmiri (Kamal Haasan), “Who the hell are you?”
Then there’s the godliness of the name Vishwanath (also Kamal Haasan, this time an effeminate Kathak dancer), which points to the divine manifestation suggested by the title. And, of course, there’s all the express heroism, a Tamil who doesn’t just operate within his home state or the nation but whose heroics play out on a global stage — in a New York City that the jihadi villain Omar (Rahul Bose, in fine scenery-chewing form) threatens to contaminate with radioactivity.
For a while now, Kamal Haasan’s films have acknowledged the interconnectedness of the nation — the Telugu-speaking love interest of Nammavar, the Oriya native of Anbe Sivam, the Bengali wife of Hey Ram, the cocktail of pan-Indian characters in Dasavatharam. But of late, we have seen an increasing interest in the world beyond India. In Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Kamal Haasan’s character got himself an American colleague, and in the Europe-set Manmadhan Ambu, he was married to a Frenchwoman. Vishwaroopam is very much of a piece with the actor-director’s recent work — the characters hail from Kashmir, Mayavaram, Afghanistan, America; there’s even someone from Nigeria.
And this means, for one thing, that we have to deal with Tamil spoken with a glut of accents. It’s clear why this is necessary — because the film is in Tamil, and so that we register, at the same time, a semblance of foreignness, that this film is taking place outside Tamil Nadu, and with non-Tamils. But the ultimate effect is distracting. The film, for obvious commercial reasons, cannot feature extensive subtitles under characters speaking their own language — but how can we not giggle?
Other Kamal Haasan staples are amply evident, like the writer’s unflagging determination to interpolate into his screenplays segues to pet philosophies (about God, Hitler), technology (nuclear oncology, Faraday shields) sexual hints (a wife walks in on her husband being unzipped by another woman), outré props (a Mughal-era dagger, nitroglycerin pills, pigeons that are decidedly not agents of peace, and even unceasingly dripping water), and a wicked sense of humour.
The film’s finest visual gag is also its grisliest — a cell phone vibrating through congealed blood. Speaking of blood, is there another Indian actor who so loves being smashed to a bloody pulp on screen? In other words, fans will cheer him on; non-fans, as always, will find it all unbearably pretentious.
But this cannot be denied. Vishwaroopam is further proof that Kamal Haasan is much more interesting, these days, as a writer-director than as an actor (he gives a typically solid performance; it’s just that, given the span of his career, we’ve seen it all before) — and the film’s finest stretch takes place in a jihadi settlement in Afghanistan, with the portions in Pashto subtitled in Tamil. Where Tamil cinema villains are usually demonised, these militants are humanised.
Amongst the suicide bombers and opium traders, we see an asthmatic wife, a young boy who dreams of being a doctor, a father fluent in English but who doesn’t want his son to grow up speaking the language of the infidels, families and friends who smile and pose for photographs, teams of volleyball players, a mission-ready lad who sits on a swing and enjoys what are surely his last days of life. We also see the other side — bullets on weighing scales, being sold by the kilo, and a father’s pride when his blindfolded son can feel an automatic and identify it as an AK-47.
And this is where the other aspect of Kamal Haasan’s character comes in, where he’s more than just a hero. In this section, he recedes to the background, playing a supporting actor’s part, while Omar occupies centre stage. A regular masala movie would never stand for this, especially one featuring such huge action set pieces. Even towards the end, it isn’t exactly the hero who saves the day (which also plays into the fact that few people in this “double role”-heavy film are who they seem to be; if only they’d been better actors as well — the cast includes Andrea Jeremiah and Pooja Kumar).
The story doesn’t offer anything new, but these small subversions make the leisurely paced Vishwaroopam more than just another entry in the ticking-clock genre, where we wait breathlessly for the villain to be vanquished before everything goes boom. And the end isn’t so much about closure as a cessation. Our feeling at the end of these movies, usually, is that of relief, that the world is safe. Here, our emotions are a little less cheery: the world is safe... for now.