Readers Write In #272: A decade of Shankar’s Endhiran

Posted on September 21, 2020


(by G Waugh)

In one interview to an American Journalist in 1958 to a question on mankind’s relationship with technology, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke about a curious incongruence that came to characterize man’s attitude in the last century– the speed of technological progress far outstripping the pace of his spiritual development that had resulted in the demonstration of absolute immaturity when it came to the question of his handling of the grand, earth-shattering inventions that he had so painstakingly brought about. I was reminded somehow of a scene in the 2010 Hindi film Shor in The City where a little boy toys with a plastic explosive with the wonderment and intrigue a boy of his age would associate with something like a remote-controlled car.

Endhiran, released exactly a decade earlier, talks about this crucial enigma of man’s inability to handle his own burgeoning intelligence and for a multi-crore film starring Rajnikanth and Aishwarya Rai, to pick a tricky subject as this, was itself a great achievement. But more than what it tries to say, what struck me odd with Endhiran is the way how it tries to. It needs no reminding that Endhiran is the rarest among Shankar’s films (apart from Boys) that doesn’t have a flashback and is one of the very few among commercial entertainers to employ so much linearity in the narrative- sometimes to a fault.

The film talks about Artificial Intelligence and its far-reaching capabilities including that of accomplishing life-saving tasks that require precision and quick foresight. All of these are still new concepts to the Tamil audience even a decade after the film released, but what baffles me most about Endhiran is the completely old-fashioned approach that it brings to its screenplay.

Every single scene of Endhiran, if you notice has a ‘defined purpose’, a beginning, a core part and a conclusion.There are virtually no abrupt cuts or loose ends in any of the scenes that are left to be tied later. No flash-forwards or jumps or parallel scenes can be spotted and I am reminded of the MGR-Sivaji era dramas where films were pretty much photographed stage-plays with no use for cinematic skills such as ‘editing’.

When Vaseegaran introduces Chitti to a Science Exhibition, the scene begins when all the audiences have assembled, filled with intrigue and anticipation (beginning) continuing with questions asked by them to test its intelligence that follows displays of sporting and dancing skills (core/middle) and culminates with a question on God where Chitti points a finger at its Creator Vaseegaran to confirm its ‘belief’ (conclusion). Almost all scenes in Endhiran follow this ‘pedantic’ approach to screen-writing like how a non-Hindi speaker trained in Hindi through the Prathamic-Visharadh-Praveen route would address an audience for the first time in the newly learnt language.

When Vaseegaran takes up the task of drilling the Robot with ‘feelings’ after it gets rejected by Prof. Bohra, a montage of Chitti’s ‘metamorphosis’ begins with a crash course of books in the British Council library, leading up to the installation of ‘software’ hormones by Vaseegaran. It continues with scenes that show the passage of time indicated by Vaseegaran’s growth of beard, lectures that happen with scribblings on all four walls of his laboratory with a final one-on-one session on a meadow located outside Vaseegaran’s place at night time. It is here that Vaseegaran tries to define what is meant by ‘life’ giving examples like Sodium and Bacteria and the next day, Chitti’s ‘rebirth’ happens completing its successful transformation into a Robot with ‘human’ feelings. If you notice, even this montage does not move smoothly with a simple segue to the final scene of the next day, where Vaseegaran in the company of Sana, is surprised to find out that Chitti has somehow made it through-to become a ‘human’ finally. The night scene at the meadow is simply thrust with a ‘conclusion’ which is not needed at all, in the form of a lightning that strikes an unsuspecting Chitti from the skies, out of the blue. And during this montage that compresses the passage of a lot of time, the screenplay is so focused on what is being shown, that the lives of others such as Sana and Bohra, both of whom form an integral part of the film’s core narrative, are not given even a few diversionary glimpses. It is this obsession to structure the sequences ‘properly’ with all its ‘sub-components’ in place throughout the film, eschewing any ‘rebellious’ attempts to parallelise the narration that struck me curious with Endhiran. When there is so much fun to be had in what is being told in Endhiran, a complete lack of it with respect to how it is being told, made me suspect whether the dull martinet, Vaseegaran too was consulted in the writing of the screenplay. However this paradox in some ways even mimics the core philosophy of the movie – man’s intellectual cretinism when it comes to handling high-end technology reflecting Shankar’s outdated technique to narrate a story with new, ground-breaking high-concepts.


But Endhiran cannot be faulted for what it is, since it knew exactly about what it was doing then. Shankar is a film-maker who wants to reach every corner of a heterogenous State like TN and this old-fashioned method was the reason why it did well all over the state, appealing to almost all ages. And to add further, this old-fashioned method is the very reason why this film still holds a bit of ‘charm’ for people like me who were increasingly being repelled over the last few years by the ‘Hari/KV Anand’ brands of cinema that preferred ‘pace’ and ‘shock’ over basic things such as character development and tonal consistency.

Even if the method is boring and outdated, Endhiran’s screenplay is still good in the way that it respects the content as well as the audience to whom it is speaking to. MGR- Sivaji era dramas too still hold up well for the same reason – they never took for granted the masses that had assembled in throngs to witness them and made sure they gave one thing or the other for them to munch – songs, good dialogues , performances and sometimes even the stunts and the set-pieces. And all of this points to only one factor that is a rarity in Tamil cinema nowadays- the writer. Almost all yesteryear films of the black-and-white era had influential screenwriters who transitioned from stage-plays into cinema and this factor ensured that the audience always got the respect they deserved.

All Shankar’s films up to Vikram’s I had Sujatha sharing credits with him and even a terrible film like Sivaji had some nice ‘writerly’ moments here and there. Endhiran was Sujatha’s last association with Shankar before his demise and from then on, it is only getting too evident that the latter is trying to make up for the loss with his obsession with gimmicks like ‘make-up’ and ‘graphics’. We all know too well that Shankar is fast getting outdated and without a grip on his ‘basics’, it is simply too difficult for him to stage a comeback.