Readers Write In #705: Kalki 2898 AD: A brave new dawn

Ruminating on the most epic, fascinating Indian mainstream film this year.

By Aman Basha

The 103 year old Telugu cinema culture is most notable for representing myth through the movies and pulling off spectacles for the ages. The myth may be a spinoff of the Mahabharata like Mayabazar or the Arabian Nights set in Baghdad, Telugu filmmakers did them all. Even the more realistic filmmakers of the 70s, K Viswanath and Bapu, constantly explored myth in modern times, be it the astonishingly made Gorantha Deepam or Swathi Kiranam.

It was thus destiny that the return of epic mythological spectacle to Indian cinema would be heralded by one Telugu filmmaker making a crazily ambitious two part epic that made history by being the highest grosser in some 28 Indian states. Rajamouli would go onto mix mythology and alternative history in the entertaining RRR, but RRR too, despite the Oscar acclaim, stirred nothing close to the box office storm that was Bahubali, even in the US where both Pathaan and Jawan outgrossed RRR with lower ticket prices. 

While Rajamouli failed to beat his own number, no one else was seen as having a chance to do the same except SSR himself, perhaps with his next starring Mahesh Babu. But today, we have a new contender for the same, whom Rajamouli himself has propelled by featuring for a meta cameo, the 3 film old Nag Ashwin who has made the most interesting and ambitious of the “pan Indian” films: Kalki 2898 AD.

For all its purported originality, Kalki 2898 is most reminiscent of a 90s telugu film; the similarly titled Aditya 369 by Singeetham, where a gem from the Vijayanagara era makes its way to a future ravaged by war. Here too, a gem makes its way to 2898 all the way from the Dwapara Yuga. Nag Ashwin seeks to do what no one before him had done on a scale unimagined here: mixing Indian mythology with dystopia.

While Kalki is seen as the last of Vishnu’s last avatars, Nag Ashwin wisely jettisons references to earlier avatars to focus on the incarnation that is closest to the Supreme Being: Lord Krishna. For it is only three avatars of Vishnu that directly flaunt their divinity, and Krishna is the most popular of them all, not to mention the latest. 

Kalki 2898 therefore serves as a clever adaptation of the Krishna mythos: a cruel king imprisons fertile women, killing one womb after another till the parent of the destined child slips away, braving a force of nature (be it water or fire) and moving to a idyllic retreat for safety.

Many of the epic films made after Bahubali (and Bahubali itself) are often accused of parroting the Hindutva line, which, while definitely true of Hindi filmmakers, doesn’t really apply to Rajamouli, who loves Pran from Zanjeer enough to fashion an Aslam Khan in Bahubali and even have Komaram Bheem disguise as Muslim in RRR.

Nag Ashwin goes even further in Kalki, reflecting on the universality of the chosen one myth through a character named Rumi and have a woman named Mariam help a mother through her “immaculate conception”. His conception of Shambala as a syncretic space combining Buddhism, Adivasi culture and even Sikhism stands in contrast to the godless Kashi, lorded over by an actor who is himself an atheist and yet is hailed as “Aandavar”.

It is not religious history that Ashwin weaves into his film, but film culture too. The logo of his production house zooms out to feature NTR’s Krishna blowing his conch, Arjuna is seeped with traits of Arjun Reddy, Ghantasala’s Gita recitation opens the hero intro, two of Telugu’s most iconic directors pop in for fun cameos (no surprise who got the bigger whistles), a board reads Mayabazar, Brahmanandam and Nag even reunites the pair of classic comedies, Rajendra Prasad and Shobana after 3 decades. 

Heck, even Kamal, in his brief but adequately creepy screentime, references Indian thatha in his self righteousness, Aalavandhan in appearance and in a lovely touch, quotes Sri Sri once again after his turn in Akali Rajyam.

Nagi’s best touch comes in designing the character of the last man standing from an ancient time, a giant both literally and figuratively overshadowing everyone around. Of course, it’s Amitabh Bachchan, who possesses the same effect on younger audiences today that he must have on your grandparents’ generation during Sholay. Legends truly are immortal.

Be it the easy chemistry he shares with his costars be it even a child, or how he summons gravitas with a single “Amma”, dubbing his great baritone in Telugu and even singing a telugu song to his awesome fight scenes where he, of 81, takes down and fist punches Bahubali into submission, to quote Kendrick, “motherfuck the Big Three, it’s just Big B”.

Nagi doesn’t succeed that well with his protagonist. His ambition is clear, to make a morally gray, fun character that is a throwback to Prabhas’ Darling era, but the execution is very miss. The jokes don’t work like they should, and seem to distract from the worldbuilding. There is however an extremely clever setup that will payoff big time in the sequel, strange that most have missed it (Hint: B_ _ _ _ _ r _ _ _).

He compensates with a genuinely unexpected twist at the end and some foreshadowing with a Mani Ratnam touch (mandatory Baradwaj Rangan blog mention) of the sun accompanying the protagonist in most frames.

With a staggeringly large cast, only a few actors get a chance to truly shine. Deepika gets another great mother role after Jawan with a rousing interval and Anna Ben makes the best of a very brief part, compelling me to google who she was. While a genuine director, Nagi is not genius enough as he misses the opportunity to feature the gorgeous Disha Patani in either a good role or a great bikini, even with a beach song. She’s the brand ambassador of Calvin Klein, goddammit.

Kalki 2898 is not perfect, but it is certainly unique and distinctive. These complaints of being derivative were heard even during Bahubali 1. Few films are memorable after being watched, and Kalki is the rare one that leaves its audience thinking in wonder. Kudos to Nag Ashwin for thinking different.

#Readers #Write #Kalki #brave #dawn

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