Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Vishwaroop II: Review

Liam Neeson is three years older than Kamal Haasan. I mention this because when Neeson plays an ex-special-ops-ex-assassin-currently-very-angry-dad, you don’t think, hey, that’s a 66-year-old. But when Haasan plays a superspy in Vishwaroop II, it’s another reminder that this is a country uncommonly indulgent of old, unfit men as action stars.

Kamal Haasan has hinted that this sequel to 2013’s Vishwaroopam will be one of his last films before he gives up cinema entirely for politics. One can only hope that the other swansongs are more flattering. Film can be an unforgiving medium, and the canniest performers understand that you can only cheat the camera when you’re young and beautiful. To see Haasan, with his protruding gut and flabby face and neck, pretend to be Jason Bourne is to realise that some stars are simply too powerful and insulated for even well-wishers to say: this is a probably a bad idea.

In Vishwaroopam, Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), a nuclear oncologist in New York City, finds out that her husband, Vishwanath (Haasan), isn’t a kathak teacher but a RAW agent named Visam Kashmiri. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, that Visam was once an Al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan. There, he won the trust of jihadi leader Omar Qureshi (Rahul Bose), a relationship which soured for reasons unknown. These reasons are revealed in Vishwaroop II, which picks up soon after the events of the first film, with Nirupama, Visam and RAW officers Jagannath (a sleepy Shekhar Kapur) and Ashmita (Andrea Jeremiah) on a plane to England, having saved New York from Qureshi’s dirty bomb.

Vishwaroop II was intended to follow on the heels of the first film before it got stuck in development limbo; reports at the time had hinted at a late 2013 release. This makes sense, given how the two films are essentially one long story; it also ties in with interviews Haasan gave in 2013, in which he said that a large chunk of part two had been shot along with the first film. In the sequel, we flash back to the same Afghanistan scenes that played out in Vishwaroopam, except now we’re shown what we always suspected – that Wisam was a undercover agent, helping RAW and the Americans get to Osama bin Laden and Qureshi by posing as an Al-Qaeda operative. Qureshi, who escapes at the end of the first film, vowing revenge, also reappears, wheezier and weirder than he was before.

Haasan has full control over Vishwaroop II – he’s the writer, director, co-producer and star – and yet it keeps getting away from him. The film never settles into a satisfying rhythm: irrelevant scenes are stretched beyond reason and important ones are rushed through (I’m still hazy on the details of the London terror plot). Instead of the terse back-and-forth of Hollywood thrillers, we get scene after scene of exposition, the odd “political” statement (“Musalman hona gunah nahi hai” – It’s not a sin to be Muslim), and some awful banter from Ashmita (who once had a crush on Wisam) and Nirupama (who wants to jump her husband, now that she knows he isn’t gay).

The other problem – a potentially debilitating one for an action film, except this is India – is that the set-pieces look ridiculous. This is mostly because Haasan is no action star, and has to be shielded by cutting up the scene till it’s all but incoherent. The grisliness of the violence is emphasised: we’re shown arms twisted back at unnatural angles, necks snapped, fresh bullet holes, a wound squirting blood, all manner of knifings, a severed head. It’s as if the extreme nature of the violence is meant to show how grown-up this world is, but all it does is underline the cartoonish nature of the enterprise, like a cheesy old Kung Fu movie where someone’s eye is pulled out but he goes on fighting anyway.

As audience surrogate Nirupama, Kumar gamely offers comic relief, as does Bose, though that couldn’t have been his, or the director’s, intention (an antagonist who’s being laughed at constantly isn’t serving the film well). But the focus is nearly always on Wisam: robotically competent, supercilious and, for a spy, distressingly short on witty rejoinders (“Ashmita, puh-lease,” he says – twice). One scene, with Haasan and Kumar in a hotel room, fairly throbs with his tiredness, the sense of a long innings coming to a close. When she asks him if he’s really hurt or just pretending, he says, with what seems like genuine hurt, “What do you think? All the time – acting?”

There is one touching scene, though. Wisam takes Nirupama to meet his mother (played by Waheeda Rahman), who’s in an old folks’ home in Delhi. On the wall in her room is Haasan’s shrine to himself: photographs from when he was a little boy, from his teenage years, and a familiar matinee-idol portrait. Wisam’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, mistakes him for a friend of her son’s; she starts telling him how her boy used to be such a talented dancer (Haasan, as a teenager, studied dance). As she reminisces, a song begins, and we’re taken into Wisam’s memories of his childhood. It’s a strange interlude, not affecting in itself but, rather, because we can see how moved Haasan is.

This review appeared in Mint.

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