Monday 8 July 2024

Kalki 2898 AD | review by Stephen Theaker

The last time I saw Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone in a film together, he was complaining about constipation and she was playing his long-suffering daughter, in the charming romantic comedy Piku. This time the stakes are even bigger, as is the budget – this is reportedly the most expensive Indian film ever made. Bachchan plays Ashwatthama, a character from the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. In one of several spectacular flashbacks we see his character in battle, firing an arrow of light into a far-away woman’s pregnant belly. For this crime he is cursed by Krishna to live forever, his wounds never healing, until the time when Krishna is due to be reborn, as Vishnu’s tenth incarnation, the Kalki of the title.

An animated title sequence then sweeps us through all the cruelties of our history and into a ruined, drought-stricken future. The rest of the world is dead and the last drop of water in the Ganges will soon be gone. Padukone’s character has no name at first, just a serial number: SUM-80. At the end of the world, few women are fertile, and those with potential are taken to a lab for implantation. If they were being used for breeding, that would be bad enough, but the women and babies are being juiced mid-pregnancy to produce a life-extending serum for a wizened dictator, the Baron Harkonnen-ish Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan). SUM-80 is hiding her pregnancy, not knowing her baby might be the reincarnation of Vishnu predicted six thousand years before.

The third main protagonist and his robot were introduced in a fun little computer-animated prequel on Amazon Prime, B&B: Bujji and Bhairava, which was my first clue that the film wouldn’t be as dour as it looked from the trailer. Bhairava, played by Telugu star Prabhas of Baahubali fame, is a beefy, cheeky Han Solo type, if Han didn’t have Chewbacca to act as his conscience. Living in Kasi, formerly Varanasi, the world’s last and first city, he is a bounty hunter, desperate to earn his way into the floating Complex, where the rich live in luxury. A flashback shows him sneaking in for the film’s one song and dance number before being caught and kicked out. In the cartoon and film, we see Bhairava do a bit of bounty hunting and fighting, before eventually getting dragged against his will into the main storyline. (He’s not on screen anywhere near as much as one might expect.)

I was looking forward very much to this film, ever since I saw the trailer, and it was just as enjoyable as I expected, especially after the interval, when it took off the handbrake and slammed down hard on the pedal. Like some other Indian blockbusters I’ve watched recently (for example the brilliant Leo, heavily inspired by History of Violence), it feels like a patchwork of earlier movies: Dune, Mad Max: Fury Road, Flash Gordon, The Matrix, etc. It looks like a Zack Snyder film but in its plot and sense of humour reminded me more of The Fifth Element. When the twelve foot tall Ashwatthama went into battle to protect SUM-80, it was like seeing Gandalf fight against a mech! Which is to say, it may be a patchwork, but it’s a patchwork of things I love, and highly imaginative in its own right too.

The audience I was with enjoyed it even more than I did. The cinema was packed, and they frequently applauded, whistled and cheered, sometimes for cameos, for example by the directors Ram Gopal Varma and S.S. Rajamouli, and at other times for revelations of characters having returned from the Mahabharata. It was like being back in the cinema for the “No sir, all thirteen!” moment in The Day of the Doctor, over and over again. I wish I had waited forty minutes or so to watch the Telugu version, though, rather than watching a Hindi showing. Although some scenes were reportedly reshot in Hindi, it was pointless losing the original voice performances for no benefit to my understanding. Even with subtitles I may have missed a lot, given that the English subtitles were sometimes inaccurate even for the English-language dialogue.

For such a long film – after an 8pm screening I left the cinema at ten to midnight – it leaves a lot undone, rather like the first two Rebel Moon films, but it’s hard to complain when it ends with a series of spectacular battle sequences. It’s full of fun supporting characters, my favourite being feisty rebel Kyra (Anna Ben). The special effects are superb. We’ve come a long way from the days when Indian films were renowned for being filmed on a shoestring in a rush. Kalki 2898 AD puts down a real marker, showing that the subcontinent, and specifically this talented director Nag Ashwin and his team, can produce science fiction blockbusters every bit as spectacular as those made in Hollywood. Maybe it isn’t an absolute classic, but it’s great fun and it strongly suggests a classic is on its way. I’ll be first in line for the sequel, albeit at a daytime screening. Stephen Theaker ****

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