Shankar's magnum opus "Enthiran" (2010) couldn't have been any bigger. With Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai playing lead roles and AR Rahman scoring the music, expectations from the film were sky high.
So I set myself up for a disappointment when I entered the theatre to watch it. After all, there have been so many films in the past that have made a lot of noise but have failed to live up to the frenzy.
"Enthiran" took me by surprise. Shankar has always been an over-reacher. His ambitions haven't translated into magic on screen every time ("I" was a disaster although a commercial success) but his penchant for innovation, his obsession with graphics, and his will to keep pushing the envelope have taken Tamil cinema to greater heights.
"Enthiran", his labour of love, is what happens when a Shankar film comes together. Rajinikanth was not Shankar's first choice for the film. While he's known for his swag, Rajini is considered to be more of a performer than an actor - something the Superstar himself says often. But it's hard to imagine anyone else doing the role after you've seen him in the film.
The punch dialogues and over-the-top performances are what the industry and audiences have foisted on him. Rajini is a director's actor and when he's in the right hands, he can be amazing without the paraphernalia.
"Enthiran" begins quietly, without the usual bombastic Thalaivar introduction song. Shankar makes it clear from the first scene that the film is bigger than the star. We meet the obsessive scientist, Dr Vaseegaran (Rajini) who is working on his masterpiece with two irresponsible assistants (Santhanam and Karunas) by his side. The robot he creates in his own image is named Chitti.
The nerdy scientist in Indian films is usually surrounded by bubbling liquids and test-tubes, doesn't matter what his field is! Remember Suriya in "24" working on a time machine with "potions" brewing on the side? Dr Vaseegaran, however, looks the part.
Aishwarya Rai as Sana, plays a medical student and Dr Vasee's long-suffering girlfriend. The two stars share a surprisingly good chemistry, even though Rajini has said off-screen that he was embarrassed to romance Amitabh Bachchan's daughter-in-law.
Aishwarya's acting skills are limited. But there's one thing she does extremely well and that's dance. Whether it's "Irumbile", "Kilimanjaro" or "Arima Arima", the former Miss World is breathtaking in the dance sequences, pulling off bizarre headgear and costumes with aplomb.
"Enthiran"'s biggest strength, however, is its script. Writer Sujatha Rangarajan, Madhan Karky and Shankar were involved in fleshing out the story and the dialogues. The efforts packed in reflect on the screen. There are just enough technical terms and jargon thrown in to make the story appear authentic without turning the film into a pedantic horror.
The comedy woven into the script is a big plus too. When a frustrated traffic cop (Cochin Haneefa) asks the newly minted Chitti robot "Nakkala?", Chitti replies in a deadpan tone, "Illa, nickel", going on to explain that his bolts are made of nickel!
The scene when Chitti goes to a salon along with Vasee and stuns the customers there with his skills is hilarious too. As is the fight scene when Chitti transforms into an iron "Mariamma"!
In all of these scenes, Rajinikanth keeps his face immobile, barely moving a muscle as he speaks his lines. His body language is spot on - for instance, watch how he moves his neck when Vasee introduces him to his parents. The marionette-like movement is as robotic as it gets.
From deadpan to deadly, Chitti's transformation into a rogue robot is delicious. If Rajini hadn't become such a phenomenal hero, he'd have become a marvelous villain. We see the Parattai in him come alive as Chitti goes berserk, wanting to usurp his master and maker.
Recent Rajini films like "Lingaa" and "Kabali" have suffered because of weak villains. To really get the fire in a Rajini film going, he needs someone who can hold up the other end of the screen. And who better to do it than Rajini himself?
The scene when a terrified Sana watches as Chitti menacingly asks, "Who is the black sheep?" and bleats playfully to find out where Dr Vaseegaran has hidden himself, brings out the best of Rajini. The actor is clearly having a blast, giving release to his tremendous potential to be the bad boy after so many years of being Mr Goody-goody two shoes (stylish shoes, must say!).
While so much in the film works, there are a few areas where the creative team could have done better. As part of Chitti's "education" programme, there's a scene when he learns what "honour" is after a woman he rescues from a fire kills herself because she was naked when Chitti brought her out of the bathroom.
Though this moment is important to the film, the concept could have been brought out in a far more progressive way than resorting to the melodrama and morality of the 80s.
Twice in the film, men try to rape Sana (and this is excluding Chitti wanting to sleep with her despite her refusing his advances), and both instances are quite unnecessary to the story, one for a stunt sequence and another for comedy.
With a staggering budget of over Rs 1 billion, the graphics look spectacular and considering the latter half depends upon it for the film to work, it's money well spent. Though "Enthiran" has its fair share of influences, it's undeniably a sci-fi movie wholly wrapped in Tamil sensibility.
The Dravidian language is an ancient one that has managed to grow and expand its vocabulary over the years and changing times. "Enthiran" pays a befitting tribute to this, too. Pay attention to the lyrics and phrases like "kaamuttra kanini naan" will sneak up to you and take your breath away.
The first look for "2.0", the sequel to "Enthiran" will be revealed in Mumbai on November 20. Just how much bigger will the sequel get? Shankar the over-reacher, holds the answer to that, and 2017 will tell us just how much further he has dared to go.