Monday, January 19, 2015

I is for...

I is for image.

I is for innocence.

Or at least that’s what popped into my head somewhere in the second half of Shankar’s I.

The film is a revenge story, a cautionary tale about believing what you see, about what happens when you neglect to develop your inner life.

It’s also damned entertaining.

After a creepy introductory sequence in which a disgusting hunchback kidnaps a beautiful Amy Jackson on her wedding day, we’re dropped into a different timeline, following the adventures of one Lingeesan (Chiyyan Vikram), a townie bodybuilder from Chennai aiming to become Mr. India. Lingeesan follows a good diet, takes lots of exercise, and spends a lot of time pumping up his muscles at his gym. He’s a golden, glistening hunk of manhood… and he knows it. But Lingeesan isn’t a jackass. He’s an innocent. All wrapped up in trying to sculpt his body into the perfect specimen and daydreaming about the beautiful Amy Jackson from the soda ads, he has no idea about how the world works.

And it’s this innocence of worldly matters that earns Lingeesan a string of enemies of whom he remains blissfully unaware, beginning with Ravi (real life bodybuilder M. Kamaraj), whom he decimates at a Mr. Tamil Nadu competition.

In many ways Lingeesan would have been better off if he had taken the hint and let Ravi win the competition. But, alas, Lingeesan was too innocent to know what he did not know. Winning the competition threw him into the path of A-list model Diya (the aforementioned beautiful Amy Jackson) who uses him to get rid of creepy A-List male model John (a delightfully filmi Upen Patel). You see, John will not stop pressuring her for sex and Diya, despite her modely exterior is simply not that kind of girl. So, she uses Lingeesan’s crush on her to manipulate him into transforming his entire image from homespun to high fashion (with the help of top stylist the transgender Osma Jasmine, played real transgender stylist Ojas Rajani) and sells him to the marketing team of the perfume “i” as John’s replacement, “Lee”. Making John enemy #2.

But the thing is, whether he’s “Lee” or Lingeesan, he cannot act and he cannot tell a lie. Not ideal circumstances for somebody in advertising.

Diya is told in no uncertain terms that if she cannot get Lee to act romantic for the perfume ad then the campaign will be forced to call in A-List Creep John who may be a rapey dickbag but at least he can act. Diya’s fear of John wins out and she lies to “Lee,” telling him that she loves him. The trick works. The filming is a success.

And here is where things get complicated. Osma, in very typical vamp fashion, attempts to break up Diya and Lee so she can have Lee for herself. In a total by-the-book vamp move, she whispers to Lee that Diya is only using him and Lee, who deep down knew there was something off about his new relationship, confronts Diya with the information. Diya admits to her wrong-doing and apologizes but Lee is heartbroken.

Now, Osma really goes all in attempting to get Lee for herself. And Diya, watching, realizes that she is jealous. That maybe, once she wasn’t being forced to pretend she liked Lee, that just maybe, she actually does like him. In an adorable burst of townie slang, Diya confesses, for real this time, and she and Lee, seeing each other for who they really are, become a real couple. Osma is furious at being rejected in favor of Diya and becomes enemy #3.

Enemy #4 is earned when Lee, in all his innocence, declines to do an ad for a cool drink that was in the press for being tainted with chemicals. As he explains to the press, “How can I do an ad for a product that might cause people harm? People trust me. They see my face on something and buy it thinking they can become as healthy as me.” Lee is completely oblivious about the media, about corporate bottom lines, and about the depths of human pettiness. Despite looking like “Lee,” he’s still Lingeesan on the inside. To Lingeesan, it’s simply not right to do an ad for a potentially poisonous cool drink, who wouldn’t understand that?

Well… quite a few big money investors, actually. And they don't take kindly to falling stock prices.

Revenge comes hard and fast.

The hunchback from the beginning, as we might have suspected, is Lingeesan. And how he gets there is a complete surprise.

How Lingeesan handles the transformation is the focus of much of the second half of the film. For a man who spent all his time polishing his exterior to a fine sheen, to suddenly be ugly and weak... Lingeesan no longer knows who he is. The films most heartbreaking scenes come in this section, with Lingeesan’s best friend Babu (Santhanam, always need more Santhanam) as the only person whose reactions towards him don’t change.

But Lingeesan lets his newly ugly face poison his soul. He starts to become the ugliness he sees in the mirror.

Will Lingeesan be saved? Will he get revenge? How will the allusions to the doomed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai pay off? Why did he kidnap Diya?

And, most importantly, perhaps, why aren’t there more fight sequences set backstage at a Mr. India bodybuilding competition? WHY?

Once again, Shankar proves himself the master of melding philosophy and entertainment.

Shankar plays a lot with the idea of “image” in I. Casting Amy Jackson and Ojas Rajani as heroine and vamp, respectively, was brilliant. Amy, as heroine, is a white girl playing Indian. She is not what she seems… except that she is. Ojas, as the vamp, is a transgender stylist playing a transgender stylist. She is exactly what she seems… except she isn’t. Amy’s performance, and perhaps Amy herself, from what I’ve seen of her interviews, is so earnest and guileless. There isn’t a whiff of anything fake about her, except she’s not biologically Indian. Ojas, as a transgender woman, by necessity must manufacture an exterior image to match her interior one. She is all woman, except biologically she’s not.

But Shankar allows both actresses to play their roles “straight,” if you’ll pardon the pun. Osma is the worldly vamp; Diya is the desi heroine. Does it matter who they “really” are or is it enough to believe in the image they’re selling us?

And then we have the film’s setting in the advertising world, where images are crafted are sold to us. The first song picturization, “Ladio,” has Amy Jackson, as model Diya, working her way through a series of advertisements that recall ads for Longines, Slice, etc. The desire for the products, the desirability of the one selling them… we see it again in the second song, “Mersalaayiten,” which picturizes Lingeesan’s crush by visualizing his daydreams of everyday objects turning into a dancing Diya. It’s a clever concept and all manner of kudos given to Miss Amy for wearing some incredibly silly costumes and doing her little Daydreamy Girl dance in some ridiculously high heels.

The advertising storyline culminates, as mentioned before, Lee refusing to promote the poison soda. He has come to understand the power of image by that point, at least to a small extent.

Vikram, as Lingeesan/Lee was superb. Even in the gross, face-covering hunchback make-up, his eyes and his body language conveyed so much. To make it believable that this dopey, beautiful, happy-go-lucky guy could develop an ugly, twisted soul… but that we’d still sympathize with him… that couldn’t have been easy.

Amy was delightful as Diya. She isn’t--and may never be--a powerhouse actress but she has a certain charm. And she also seems to have respect for the genre she’s working in, which is important.

It was also excellent to see Upen Patel back on screen. Between him and Neil Nitin Mukesh in Kaththi it feels a bit like old home week. As A-List model John, Upen brought his melodrama A-Game. There were so many great John moments but my favorite was his breakdown over the local commercials he’d been doing. He just wails in frustration in such an appropriately over-the-top way. His performance pleased me so much. Cheers, Upen!

Santhanam. I always want more Santhanam but particularly here. His chemistry with Vikram in their scenes in the second half where Lingeesan has gone ugly and Santhanam is trying to remind him of his true self… it’s so touching and powerful. I wished we could have had a little more of that in the second half.

Ojas as Osma was also delightful. And she was brave to take on such a visible role. Not everybody may agree with me but I think Shankar did a good thing by including this character. Yes, Osma was a vamp and a villain but she was human. She was a person. She wasn’t a punchline and her identity as transgender, while noted in the film, wasn’t the origin of her villainy. She’s basically in the Shashikala role or the Helen role or the Bindu role--ladies outside of mainstream society who fall in love with the hero. She almost shares a kiss with Lingessan at one point. And it’s not framed as a gay panic joke but as something for Diya to get jealous about. I think it’s fantastic to have included both Osma and Ojas in the film.

There are a couple other characters of note--Suresh Gopi as potato-faced Dr. Vasudevan is wonderful, M. Kamaraj and all the oiled bodybuilders added something special to the beginning scenes, and just all the little cameos (Endhiran 2!).

Watching I was such a satisfying experience. Mentally, visually, emotionally. It leaves us with the idea of beauty. Is it in image or in lived experience? Do we ourselves have to be beautiful in order to appreciate beauty? In order to be loved? Isn’t it what’s inside that really matters? Inside ourselves, inside that bottle of Slice.


sree said...

nice analyasis.
i like amy jackson so much, i want pawan kalyan to take her in his next film

Lydia Lo said...

Interesting comment about Osma being vamp-like. I've noticed though, that in traditional films vamps often get the chance of redeeming themselves by taking the bullet for the man they love. Osma obviously stayed a bad-girl. Relatively speaking though her punishment although disfiguring, was not as painful physically as that which was inflicted on the other villains.

Filmi Girl said...

@Lydia I wouldn't "often" redeem themselves. I've seen a lot of older films and there were plenty of vamps who remain evil, conniving harpies until the end. And some who weren't really bad but just "drawn that way" to misquote Jessica Rabbit. And sometimes vamps were human but just not nice people. I think that's where Osma lands. She's selfish and is clearly insecure about her own attractiveness, which I think is why she overcompensates… like WAY overcompensates by draping herself all over Lee. And in the end, she can't let go of the slight against her femininity. The revenge against her plays on this but, also, Lee isn't violent with her because of it. Her revenge is the same one that would have been dished out to a vamp played by Ameesha Patel...

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