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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Spoiler Alert: Some parts of the plot that may have been intended to be twists in the tale are discussed below.

Cast: Suriya, Shruthi Haasan, Johnny Tri Nguyen

Director: A R Murugadoss

Rating: 1 star

One feels apprehensive when one hears a Tamil masala film director wants to take himself more seriously; the apprehension turns to trepidation when one learns this is the story of the Tamil link to the Shaolin monks. The problem with 7Aum Arivu is that, while it shows sparks of being a watchable mass entertainer at some points, it gets caught up in its own pseudo-intellectuality, and finally gets vomited out as an inaccuracy-ridden embarrassment to ambitious cinema, an ode in the wrong meter to Tamil pride.

The flaccid narration that accompanies the opening scenes states limply that the Shaolin monks worship Bodhidharman, who is a Tamilian. Then, we see the man himself (Suriya) demonstrating a series of stylised martial arts poses, which bear an incongruous resemblance to dance moves in several of the actor’s songs. This Pallava prince, who is portrayed as a master of martial arts and medicine, sets off on a whim to China, a three-year journey on horseback, to prevent a pestilence from coming to India. Fortunately for cinematographer Ravi K Chandran, this gives him plenty of scope to milk the locales for beautiful shots. Fortunately for Bodhidharman, the pestilence hits China years after he sniffed its impending arrival.

He takes the hostile reception he is treated to in China in his stride, and decides to win the locals’ trust by curing a child they have given up for dead. He cements it by defeating an army of raiders; well, if any of the powers the filmmakers attribute to him are extant, he should have been able to dispose of them in a jiffy. Instead, he takes his time, painstakingly demonstrating the components of his skill set, which apparently include changing the colour of his irises from brown to blue when he hypnotises people. While he was clean-shaven, except for a moustache, when he bid his family goodbye – yes, he has a family, complete with babies he made with his wife, despite being a monk – he grows his hair to keep count of time in China.

He stays on for years, and the village he has adopted prospers, as does the prowess of the Shaolin monks he trains. After all, the only blight he has no cure for is balding. But when he’s about to leave for home, the wise men of China – whose dialogues the filmmakers have decided not to translate – beg permission to poison him, because they believe his corpse will ward off all ills from the land. So, this patron of science decides stoically to humour them, instead of divesting them of their superstitions. We can only conclude that he doesn’t like his family in Tamil Nadu much. There is, of course, a chance that his will may have been distorted in translation, because Bodhidharman speaks Chinese – where the meaning of a single syllable depends upon intonation – with the unaccented musicality of Tamil.

Then, the filmmakers seek to shame all Tamils for not knowing who Bodhidharman – whom everyone in China knows – is. So what if Bodhidharman committed suicide instead of coming back home to wheeze out his adventures to his great-grandchildren by the fireside? As Tamils, we should’ve looked him up. They then show the audience a montage of Google, Wikipedia and other internet research sources, just in case we accuse them of getting their facts wrong.

We head to a conference room where a Shaolin expert, Dong Lee (Johnny Tri Nguyen) who’s adept at changing the colour of his irises from black to brown, demonstrates his skills to a group of Chinese leaders and diplomats, who speak broken English instead of their native tongue. They decide that the research of a college student will undermine a biological war they intend to unleash on India. Never mind the missile route; they’ve devised a complicated plan involving the injection of an ancient virus into animals in the hope that it will spread to humans, and enough humans will be killed for the Indian government to secede territories to China in exchange for a cure.

We meet Suriya in his second avatar for this film – sporting a Tintin tuft and threaded eyebrows; he will later discard this look for that of an IT professional, to slip into his role of assisting his friend-lover-doin’-the-nasty-buddy-whatever in her quest to resurrect forgotten Tamils. Despite his kingly heritage, Aravindan has decided to juggle things in The Great Bombay Circus, which incidentally has so many imports from Kerala, Africa, the Far East and Russia that the Mumbaiyya spirit is quite drowned. Aravindan himself seems rather more adept at grasping the minutiae of genetic engineering than the objects he chucks up in the air, and speaks more English than most circus hands may hear. But his linguistic accomplishments pale in comparison to those of Dong Lee, his own illustrious ancestor, and the circus elephant.

It’s rather more ironic that a tiring tirade on the sad state of Tamil sentiment is followed by a song whose only coherent lyrics comprise a refrain that goes something like ‘ragamuffin, eat a muffin’. On the subject, the producers seem to have cut costs on a lyricist and choreographer. All the songs have the same dance sequences, and most of the lyrics are onomatopoeia. Well, except for the song Yamma Yamma Kaadhal Ponamma, which contrasts the depth and durability of a man’s love with the fickleness of a woman’s, in amateur rhyme.

Aravindan meets Subha Srinivasan (Shruthi Haasan), who is apparently doing her Ph.D. with a whole gang of college students, when they come to the circus ostensibly to research a monkey. With much dramatic music, we find out later that they’re researching Aravindan's connection to Bodhidharman and exploring the possibility of switching his DNA with that of his ancestor. But then, Subha shuns him when he begins to stalk her – never mind that she’s spent a year and a half tracking him down. However, turns out she’s rather easy – all one has to do is pinch and then return her mobile phone for her to want to have lunch with an absolute stranger. In the course of a creepy treasure hunt for her phone, we find out that this genetic engineering student, the circus hand, and the director think Mickey Mouse is a dog.

This is quickly followed by a song whose scenes closely resemble Uyirin Uyire, and which features the circus hand drinking champagne, playing the saxophone, donating blood and sacrificing a few ligaments to break an acrobat’s fall. The song is inspired by an elephant ride from a bus stop, where Subha’s standing without slippers. You see, despite Aravind owning a bike and Subha a scooter, they lean towards using public transport – buses, autos and taxis – or circus animals. Blame the fuel price hikes, I guess.

And then the bubble breaks. Aravind finds out he’s been strung along for his DNA (ah, the scope for wordplay!) After Subha ticks him off for falling in love with the first non-circus-animal that grinned at him, he throws a tantrum. But a visit to a museum, and a crash course in DNA manipulation have him meekly consenting to an experiment that may cost him his life. In a meta moment, Aravind ponders over the pragmatism of resurrecting Bodhidharman in today’s world, but is convinced by a volley of information right out of a tour guide to Jantar Mantar. Subha herself seems to resort to astronomy after confusing cloning with heredity.

When Dong Lee lands up in India, and sets off on a killing spree, the two have several epiphanies – that his picking up an Indian man from his house must mean he has a collaborator here, that the executor of China’s biological warfare (the details of which they have kindly sent to the collaborator’s Gmail account) must be Dong Lee, and that people usually delete incriminating emails (but don’t empty their trash).

The implausible action sequences that follow are punctuated by poorly-executed graphics, Anti-Sino rants that border on racism, a Utopian imagining of Madras auto drivers who use their meters and chase SUVs with panache, a bunch of civilians who are hypnotised into performing karate manoeuvres, several diseased dogs, and a video diary on a mobile phone.

When the duo, assisted by a group of genetic engineering researchers who are impressed with Subha’s thesis, get their hands on the collaborator, they interrogate him themselves and tamely shove him into a room with an escape route, instead of handing him over to the cops.

The most troubling part of the film is the constant reference to Tamil pride, in all the wrong contexts. A diatribe on fighting for ideology says “nine countries conniving to kill one man” is no defeat – an obvious reference to slain LTTE head Prabhakaran. Apparently, Tamils must glorify a man who drafted women and children into his guerrilla army, and used civilians as human shields. Because, as long as you’re Tamil, you can’t be a terrorist; even if you have a penchant for mass killings, you’re simply misguided. Can’t blame the scriptwriters here; the State Assembly clearly endorses this view.

And while a heroine who speaks and understands Tamil may be a rare thing in the Kollywood industry, Shruthi Haasan’s anglicised accent makes rather a mockery of the content of her dialogues. She struggles to pronounce the ‘zh’ and hard ‘l’ sounds and, like most members of the urban elite, is clearly more comfortable speaking English than Tamil. While she handles her role quite all right for a newcomer, the accent distracts all through; it would have been far wiser to bring in a fluent speaker like Rohini or Anu Haasan to dub for the actor.

And one aspect that is even more incomprehensible than the storyline is how a movie containing as much violence and gore as this one managed to wrangle a ‘U’ rating from the censors.

Verdict: Watch this film only if you desperately want to see the lovechild of Shaolin Soccer, Hollow Man, Crash, Meet Joe Black and NatGeo's Himalayas: Science of the Mind, born with all the wrong wiring in its brain.


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