An insect goes about avenging itself on its human killer in the year’s most imaginative mainstream movie.
Sometimes, watching a hugely hyped film a few days after its opening weekend can be helpful. The excitement that you’re among the first few people – okay, thousands of people, considering that these big movies are almost always ultra-wide releases – watching the film on its first day of release is not there anymore, and you don’t feel you’re part of a pre-programmed cultural event. You feel you’re just watching a movie. Even so, The Dark Knight Rises was disappointing. Too long. Too consumed by a sense of its of-the-moment importance. Too many characters who promise much and deliver little. Too desperate to be anointed a masterpiece. It became better as it got along, but not all that much, and by the end, I was thankful that the director Christopher Nolan was done with his Batman trilogy. Now he’ll hopefully go back to doing the small-scale puzzle-box dramas he’s best at – films like Memento, Insomnia, and especially The Prestige, which is easily his masterpiece, a crafty little gem that yields more pleasurable facets with each viewing.
For a more engrossing comic-book saga, I had to turn to a somewhat unexpected source. Listen to the storyline of Eega, the Telugu film dubbed in Tamil as Naan Ee, and you want to laugh: a man dies, is reborn as a housefly, and avenges his untimely death at the hands of the villain. Actually, the storyline is fine. We’ve seen many reincarnation dramas where someone is reborn as someone else – Raj Kiran becoming Rishi Kapoor in Karz, or Kamal Haasan opting to retain his form, thank you very much, in the remake Enakkul Oruvan. These were stories about men reborn as men, and these reborn men were played by actors whose faces let us see what they were thinking and feeling. We could hear them speak. We could see them do things. But here, in what appears at first to be an act of monumental hubris or foolhardiness (or perhaps both), the director SS Rajamouli transforms his protagonist to a housefly. What can it do except buzz around?
But they pull it off. Naan Ee (which is the version I watched, in a full house) is the most insanely inventive movie of the year – perhaps of several years. Without a protagonist (or I should say, without a human protagonist), and with only a villain and a heroine, we are led through a story that’s funny, sentimental, action-packed, romantic – there’s even a bit of the occult thrown in. If I had to be picky and really, really mean-spirited, I’d say that the special effects could have been a bit better, that the fly could have been more convincingly animated – but I’m not even going to go there. When a film so audaciously and convincingly earns the audience’s suspension of disbelief, you don’t go picking holes about the small things that don’t work as well as they could have. You rejoice at the big things that are brought off so beautifully.
The story could be loosely described as deriving from the Ghost template (the hero-as-ghost there becomes, here, the hero-as-housefly; there’s also the pining heroine), but to harp on that similarity would be to accuse every doomed love story as harking back to Romeo and Juliet. The story has been around forever. It’s the touches Rajamouli imparts to it that make all the difference, right from the opening credits where, over a black screen, we hear a child pestering her father for a bedtime story. He’s tired, and he begins narrating a half-hearted “once upon a time there was a king” story, but the child – a stand-in for the audience that’s heard and seen too many of these “once upon a time” stories – demands something different. And the father, a stand-in for the director, begins his “once upon a time there was a fly” story. The child perks up. So does the audience.
The film is full of sprightly touches, like the heroine being a specialist in miniature art. This unique talent, which comes off at first as a gimmick, becomes crucial to the narrative later on, as she equips her housefly-lover with armour capable of withstanding the infinitely larger villain’s attacks. Rajamouli doesn’t humanise the housefly, the way we see in the Disney animated movies. It has no facial features, no voice, few anthropomorphic quirks, no superpowers – most of the time, we seem to be watching some kind of heightened silent movie. Let’s not dwell on how an insect comes to possess a human vocabulary of emotions and language. In a comic-book universe, this question is redundant. What matters is that the “hero” extracts his vengeance solely through fly-like means, and that, by the end, we root with gladiatorial lust for him (it?) to win. Forget bats, when was the last time you cheered on a bug?
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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