Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ra.One


I confess to approaching Anubhav Sinha's Ra.One (2011) with dread. It's exactly the kind of movie I usually avoid, filled with two-dimensional characters, chases, explosions, and special effects.

But I have to question my own aversion to these kinds of movies. After all, thrills, chases, and special effects have been important aspects of cinema since its invention. The Lumière Brothers' L'Arrivée d'un Train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station, 1895) reportedly had audiences scrambling to get out of the way of a train that appeared to be about to burst through the screen and crush them:


Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) was filled with chases, explosions, and shootouts, and ended with a bandit pointing a gun at the audience—and firing. George Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) showed intrepid adventurers entering a capsule, being fired at the moon from a giant cannon, striking the Man in the Moon in the eye, and emerging to discover themselves in a fantastical landscape, surrounded by moon creatures who disappeared in puffs of smoke when struck.

So Ra.One, despite its high-tech gloss, is just continuing a time-honored tradition that dates from cinema's beginnings. But I have discovered that my tolerance for loud, cartoonish movies has diminished pretty drastically since my teens, and the advance word on Ra.One from other Bollybloggers and reviewers was not good. Plus I had some cognitive dissonance to overcome: didn't Shah Rukh mock the clichés of superhero and action movies in Om Shanti Om (2007) and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made In Heaven, 2009)? And now here he was, starring in the most expensive special-effects extravaganza ever produced in India.

But despite my dread, I actually found Ra.One to be entertaining for the most part—as long as I remembered that, like a soccer ball aimed at a crotch, the movie is aimed squarely at 12-year-old boys. On the evidence of my enjoyment of (most of) Ra.One, a 12-year-old boy still exists somewhere deep inside me. (I can hear my partner thinking, "Not so deep!")

Even my inner 12-year-old, though, could see that Ra.One is a mashup of Krrish (2006), Spiderman (2002), The Matrix (1999), Speed (1994), Terminator 2 (1991), and Tron (1982). And I could identify the borrowings even though I haven't even seen half of those movies.

I'm not going to worry about spoilers, on the assumption that 99% of the people who are interested in seeing Ra.One have managed to see it already, and everyone else has heard so much about it from the film's relentless year-long promotional campaign that I won't be giving anything away. If you somehow fall outside those two categories, you have been forewarned.

And if you've been living on another planet for the past year and don't know the plot of Ra.One, Shah Rukh plays Shekhar, a dorky, soft-hearted computer-game designer who lives in London with his wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) and 12-year-old son Prateek (Armaan Verma), who is at the stage where he finds everything his father does to be embarrassing. In Prateek's defense, most of what Shekhar does is embarrassing, like a really terrible Michael Jackson impersonation.

At Prateek's urging Shekhar designs a game where the villain, Ra.One (= Raavan, the multi-headed demon king who abducts Sita in the Ramayana) is stronger than the hero G.One (= jeevan, soul/life force). On the night of the game's launch things go haywire, and Ra.One enters the real world in the guise of one of the members of the design team, Akashi (Tom Wu). Looking for revenge against "Lucifer" (Prateek's gaming name), Ra.One kills Akashi and Shekhar. But G.One (Shah Rukh again) follows Ra.One into the real world to protect Prateek and Sonia and defeat the villain, even though there is only a "0.01%" chance that he can do so. Many chase/fight scenes later, G.One, Prateek, and Ra.One meet in a final confrontation.

As Ra.One's second incarnation, Arjun Rampal is an excellent villain (as he also proved in OSO, so the jokes about him being typecast as a robot seem unfair). Kareena mostly just has to look astonished, which she manages to do convincingly enough. There's an intriguing moment midway through the film where Ra.One takes over Sonia's personality, and some Evil Mom possibilities are raised, but all too quickly she returns to normal. Apart from this brief mind-meld, Ra.One never takes Sonia hostage, as you might expect from the Ra.One-Raavan / Sonia-Sita parallels. We're even set up for this development by Prateek's early dream sequence where a damsel (Priyanka Chopra) is held hostage by Khal Nayak (Sanjay Dutt reprising his iconic 1993 role)—but it never happens.

The many chase and fight scenes are choreographed and filmed pretty effectively, although there are a few visual and narrative incoherencies (probably unavoidable in a movie on this scale). There are also lots of slow-motion shots of glass shattering and cars flying towards the camera, which were pretty clearly intended for viewers watching the movie in its 3D theatrical version. (In typical action-movie fashion, despite all the explosions, fires, smashed cars and collapsing buildings, no bystanders are ever hurt.)

There is one highly disturbing moment at the end of the runaway train sequence, which manages to combine images that suggest the famous train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895, and both the 9/11 World Trade Center and 26/11 Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus attacks. It's a jarring but momentary acknowledgment of the real real world, the one in which terrible things can happen, there are no special effects, and people actually get injured and killed.


But this moment aside, the movie rarely loses sight of its target demographic. There are so many blows to crotches and jokes about penises that I stopped counting, Kareena wears tear-away dresses not once but twice, and the song "Criminal" intercuts video game action and dancers in spangled hot pants making their booties go bop, bop, bop—all clearly intended to appeal to adolescent male sensibilities. I enjoyed enough of Ra.One to keep watching, but your response will vary, I think, depending on the degree to which you share (or at least are willing to tolerate) those sensibilities. For some, that will quite understandably be not at all.

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