This review covers the version of Enthiran dubbed into Hindi and retitled Robot (not that the original language matters to me, since I have to read the English subtitles, anyway).
The release of Enthiran, the most expensive Indian movie ever made, comes at an interesting point in India’s relationship with the Western world. Just a week ago, organizers of the Commonwealth Games — which are being held in New Delhi this year — responded to complaints from international athletes about the filthy, unsafe conditions of their accommodations by saying that perhaps the athletes’ standards were too high. And now, Enthiran proves to be more culturally charged than one would expect from an action comedy about a robot.
At its core, Enthiran is a shallow and conventional sci-fi story. A professor, Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) creates a humanoid robot that he hopes to sell to the army. When the robot, Chitti (also played by Rajinikanth), proves too dangerous, Vasee programs the robot with human emotions.
Chitti falls for Vasee’s girlfriend, Sana (Aishwarya Rai), damaging his relationship with his creator. Chitti seeks guidance from Vasee’s mentor, Bora (Danny Denzongpa), who reprograms Chitti for evil.
Overall, the movie is just average. Rai overacts her role, though her performances in the dance numbers are up to her usual high standards. The soundtrack is surprisingly corny and unpolished, given that Oscar-winner A. R. Rahman composed the music. Most of the special effects look cheap, especially the cartoonish depiction of a fetus when Chitti performs a “high-def” ultrasound. Also, there are talking mosquitoes and robot lions.
The majority of the film’s large budget went into the final action sequence, and it shows. It’s an impressive battle, clearly inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster Transformers in terms of scale and destruction. Sure, it’s kind of silly, but it’s an incredibly fun sequence that’s worth experiencing on the big screen.
But Enthiran contains some cultural views on race and gender that are out of step with most of the Western world. American audiences will appreciate the campy value of the story and final action sequence, but will likely be turned off by values that seem racist and sexist.
Enthiran fetishizes violence against women. Sana is threatened with rape on three occasions, and one instance is particularly graphic (especially in a movie which only allows its lead couple to kiss on the cheek). Sana is trapped in a train car with a group of armed men seeking revenge against her and Chitti, pinned to the floor of the car by her arms and legs. As the lead goon leans over her, a dozen men behind him aim their cell phone cameras to capture Sana’s violation. A shot of Sana cowering in fear before Chitti inevitably rescues her would have sufficed without making the potential rape seem titillating.
Even more shocking is a sequence in which Chitti saves a teenage girl from a burning building. The girl, who’s taking a bath, protests being rescued naked, but Chitti deems saving her life more important than her potential embarrassment. When Chitti deposits the girl safely in front of her mother, there is an audible gasp from the throng of onlookers and reporters. The girl’s mother looks at her daughter with disgust, and Vasee, covering the girl with his jacket, berates Chitti for bringing the girl out in such an immodest state. The girl then runs in front of a truck, killing herself.
The scene is disgusting because the human characters react as though, under the circumstances, the girl’s suicide is expected — that she should have been left to die, rather than rescued naked. It reminded me of the deplorable actions of Saudi Arabian religious police in 2002, when they refused to let girls flee a burning school because they weren’t dressed appropriately, resulting in fifteen deaths. Valuing a girl’s perceived dignity as more important that her life is an unacceptable attitude in 2010.
Enthiran is also problematic in the way it equates dark skin with a propensity for evil. When Bora reprograms Chitti, he gives the robot a new external appearance, including dark-colored skin. The skin darkening is an unnecessary symbol of transformation, since Chitti’s also given a distinctive pompadour wig. Also, all three of the characters who threaten to rape Sana during the movie have notably darker complexions than the film’s heroes.
Given how goofy and fun Enthiran is as times, it has the potential to become a cult hit in the United States. But I’m not sure that American audiences will be able to overlook the outmoded ideas toward race and gender. I wish the film’s creator, Shankar, would’ve considered how these issues would be perceived internationally, especially since neither the nude girl’s rescue or evil Chitti’s dark skin are critical plot elements.