Made Overseas: Robot (2010)

If there was ever a movie that was made for the internet, it was Enthiran (which was released as Robot in English). The internet had built it’s bones on curating (and snarking on) international curiosities such as Turkish Star Wars and Italian Spider-Man (actually an Australian parody film). We love our things that look like weird versions of other things!  And now it looked like there was a new contrender, something people were dubbing “Indian Terminator.”

Indeed, the over-the-top sequences do look like a strange fever dream of what a non-Western society would think was cool and action packed. The Terminator has that one shotgun, right? Well, what if our Terminator had, like, a fifty assault rifles! This leads to some highly gif-able scenes, such as the one below.

And it’s true: movie does have plenty of Terminator influences. There’s a scene where Chitti, the titular robot, looks in the mirror while extracting bullets out of his skull. He replaces his damaged eye with a glowing red one. The homage is unmistakable.

However, for most of the running time, Robot feels like a Transformers movie mashed up with Bicentennial Man.

Robot is an effects-heavy movie trying its damndest to ape Hollywood blockbusters. At the time, it was the most expensive Indian movie ever made. The SFX were handled by American studio Legacy Effects, which has done practical work for Marvel movies, Pacific Rim, and, most appropriately, Terminator Genisys. Admittedly, they were working on a reduced budget here, and for good reason: until fairly recently the gross of a foreign film anywhere would never reach the levels of a Hollywood film.

Yuen Woo Ping, who worked on the Matrix trilogy and the Kill Bill films, was brought in as a stunt coordinator. A.R. Rahman, fresh from his Oscar wins with Slumdog Millionnaire, was brought in to do the soundtrack. The stars were India’s biggest. Rajinikanth, who plays both the inventor (Vasee) and the robot, was once the second highest paid actor in Asia next to Jackie Chan. The female lead, Sana, was none other than the incredibly popular Aishwarya Rai, an actor with over 40 acting credits and who Roger Ebert once called the second most beautiful woman in the world. (When asked who the first was, his response was “Aishwarya Rai is also the world’s most beautiful woman.” Roger, you fool! When anyone ever asks you that question, the correct response is always, “My wife”!)

In the end, it paid off.  Robot did quite well, and its $42 million global take was the second highest grossing Indian film of all time.  It’s since dropped to 22nd, which is a testament to what a strong decade it’s been for Indian films.  (It’s almost exponential.  The number one film, Dangal, was only released six years later and it took in $330 million.)

Vasee creates a robot, hoping to save human lives by putting it into service for the Indian Army. When he introduces his android to his parents, then name him Chitti, as that was the name they would’ve chosen for his brother.  This makes Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa) quite upset.  He’s been trying to develop his own robot (which he plans to sell to terrorists), and he can’t stand the thought of that his student has achieved the dream of artificial intelligence before he could.  So he sabotages Vasee’s invention in the only way he knows: by being right.  During a demonstration, for example, he has Chitti stab Vasee non-fatally.  “It doesn’t know good or bad or friend or foe, it’s just a stupid inference engine,” sneers the bad guy who backs up his argument with previous incidences where Chitti has gone of the reservation.

Dr. Bohra, how dare you make a reasonable point!

Vasee eventually comes to the same conclusion.  He programs Chitti to feel emotions, a course of action that leads to some unforeseen consequences.  First,  Chitti finds religion and decides that he doesn’t want to fight.  And second, he falls in love with Sana, Vasee’s girlfriend, who he’s been helping with her college courses.  Incidentally, Sana looks way too young for him; there’s a 23 year age difference between Aishwarya Rai and Rajinikanth.  Rai’s role as a college student only manages to bring that age difference to the forefront.

That love cannot be reciprocated, despite some help from a talking mosquito that he has apologize to Sana for sucking her blood.  (Seriously.)  This also understandably causes friction between Chitti and his inventor.  After Chitti refuses to perform in front of the Indian Army, Vasee decides he’s had enough.   He chops Chitti up into pieces and throws him into a garbage dump.

Bohra, though, recovers him and upgrades him with a red evil chip… and that means the big special effects extravaganza can begin.  Chitti goes into total berserker mode.  He gets a white stripe in his hair and takes over Bodha’s army of war machines.  Chitti goes on a burglary spree to stock his home base.  He wields several rifles at the same time, forms up into a giant sphere, and swarms our heroes like a bunch of Agent Smiths.  It’s the director, Shankar, asking himself: “How far over the top can we go?”  Despite the movie informing us that hundreds of people are dying, it’s impossible to take any of It seriously.  How can you when the thing that’s killing them is a hundred hand-holding robots that have formed themselves into a giant spinning ball with guns sticking out of it?

Which is why it catches you off guard when Sana is threatened with rape.  She’s almost raped no less than three times.  The first is quite possibly the most disturbing.  Sana is by herself in a train car full of men angry at her.  She’s held down while her main attacker approaches her slowly and menacingly.  Suddenly… every other man in that car takes out their cellphone.  Because they know she’s going to be raped, and they want their own personal video of the occasion.  Fortunately Chitti comes in to save the day before they get to even unwrap her sarong.

Now, I believe the director had the best of intentions.  Indian rape laws were in desperate need of reform at the time, and a brutal gang rape two years later would finally lead to major law change.  If Shankar was trying to bring attention to a national issue, I get it.  I just didn’t expect it in a goofy action movie that features a spinning robot death machine, a talking mosquito, and a dance number filmed in freaking Machu Picchu with Incans in flashy disco outfits who tap to the beat by rapidly clacking their teeth.  (A fun sequence, incidentally, that happens right after the second rape attempt.)

This movie is also long.  The 3 hour and 5 minute run time crams in four dance productions, multiple comedy bits, and several action scenes.  It gets exhausting.  I feel the movie could’ve logically ended the moment Vasee disassembles Chitti, but I guess that means not getting the ridiculous robot action that the movie was sold on.  Even that, though, tends to drag.  Seeing a hundred Chittis form themselves into a giant robot snake is a little fun, admittedly, but I was ready for the movie to wrap up at that point.  The movie wanted to be Transformers, and it learned some of the worst lessons from it.

And yet, despite that, I found the movie to possess quite a bit of heart.  Chitti reminded me a lot of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, his quest to be more human, and the price he pays for getting what he wants.  The more he learns of morality and the more emotions he receives, the scarier he gets.  Early on, Vasee makes a big deal that Chitti’s a robot, and thus he can’t lie. His programming won’t allow it.  There’s a subtle and frightening change in the mood when he lies for the first time.

He does very bad things when he gained consciousness and tapped into his unrestrained id.  Yet still, that’s   preferable to before, when Chitti was merely a slave.  There’s a difference between choosing to be good and only being good because you have no choice.  What was it that led to his downfall?  “Because I started to think,” Chitti responds.

Robot may also be the only time you will ever hear Aishwarya Rai, a self-described “rapper girl”, sing in lyrics penned by Oscar winner A.R. Rahman: “Watch me robo-shake it, I know you want to break it!”

Robot is currently available on Netflix.

Next: With a sequel coming out this year, can Robot end up being the biggest franchise in India?  It will have to beat out the current title holder… a little historical epic called Baahubali.  We’ll check out the first movie, which I understand some folks around here have seen already.