Prabhas in Kalki 2898 AD
Prabhas in Kalki 2898 AD

Kalki 2898 AD review: Nag Ashwin-Prabhas’ dystopian drama has its moments

The inspirations for Nag Ashwin’s film range from Dune (2021) to The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), but the director artfully blends these ideas within the framework of Hindu mythology.
Kalki 2898 AD (Telugu)(3 / 5)

A dystopian world where technology is advanced but humans have to struggle for water and fresh air. A rebel army that’s standing up to power against all odds. A ruthless, weakened ruler who is looking to regenerate himself. A system that forces fertile women to undergo pregnancy for him. A prophecy that foretells the arrival of a saviour. The inspirations for Nag Ashwin’s Kalki 2898 AD range from Dune (2021) to The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), but the Mahanati director artfully blends these ideas within the framework of Hindu mythology. It’s a cocktail that is familiar and yet offers something new. 

Kalki is the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu, the protector, in the Hindu pantheon of gods. He is prophesied to end the Kaliyug, the shortest and darkest of the four yugas. Kalki 2898 AD – Part 1 is the origin story of this mythical being. The film begins with the Kurukshetra battle in the Mahabharata and moves to a futuristic society 6,000 years later, carrying with it the threads of the ancient epic. The last city standing in this post-apocalyptic world is Kasi.

Nag Ashwin is assured in his world building, and we quickly learn how things operate in this universe. The Complex, from where the Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan) rules, is the aspirational paradise of plenty. But the people of Kasi – an amalgamation of survivors from everywhere – aren’t allowed to step into the Complex. Not unless they pay an astronomical number of ‘units’ to get there. One way to earn this is to capture rebels from Shambala (in mythology, this is the birthplace of Kalki), and bounty hunters like Bhairava (Prabhas) are keen to find their way to the top.

The deft writing sets up the premise well. But, the production design is overwhelmingly familiar and gives a distinct Hollywood vibe. The armour, the architecture, the weapons, the vehicles – they all trigger a sense of deja vu. As immersive as the CGI might be, it doesn’t surprise or wow you. I also wondered why everyone speaks Telugu but the most significant words like ‘Complex’, ‘Supreme’ etc., are in English. It’s the kind of Hollywood hangover that could have been avoided in a film that wants to brand itself as a homegrown pioneer of this genre.

Bhairava plays up Prabhas’ on screen and off screen image – he’s a laid-back guy who likes to have a good time. The actor’s screen presence is intact and yet his performance just about skims the surface. He’s fine when he’s required to be casual but beyond that, he falls short. The fire and flint we saw in Baahubali is missing and Prabhas struggles to make us think of Bhairava as anything more than a slab of muscle.

In contrast is Amitabh Bachchan as Ashwatthama who has conviction written all over his performance as the ancient warrior from the epic, even if the de-aging in the opening stretch of the film is distractingly bad. The veteran actor is 81, and it doesn’t take much for him to prove why he’s still in the reckoning. Saswata Chatterjee as Commander Manas of the Complex also stands out with his portrayal of an oily minion of the Supreme. 

Among the women, Deepika Padukone is stuck in a vanilla damsel-in-distress role that she will hopefully be liberated from in Part 2. Anna Ben is the real surprise here, nailing her handful of scenes with cheek and charm. In spectacle cinema of this kind, you don’t expect to feel much for the characters, but her Kyra leaves a mark. Shobana as the mysterious and powerful Mariam also has a pivotal role. 

The action choreography is rather tame for a film of this scale. There are no challenges to navigate (like, for instance, the sandworms of Dune), and everything seems to boil down to a rain of laser beams. So, there are barely any surprises in how everything unfolds and the payoffs aren’t as rewarding as you’d expect them to be. Blame it on viewer fatigue if you will.

Santhosh Narayanan’s background score allows the frames to breathe, and this is welcome in an era where the bgm is near-deafening and constant in tentpole films like this. But on the flip side, the score doesn’t do enough to amp up the excitement when it needs to.  Thankfully, this isn’t one of those wall-to-wall action films, and the comic interludes between Bhairava and Bujji (Keerthi Suresh’s voice), his AI gadget, and sidekick (Brahmanandam) work better.

The humour also helps us warm up to the wooden Bhairava – there’s one scene when he looks down upon a woman he’s holding in his arms, and says, “Hey Lux papa, what are you doing here?” It is, of course, ridiculous that anyone in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world should know what a ‘Lux papa’ is – but this desi flavour of filmmaking is enjoyable whenever it pops up. Another example is the cameos with insider jokes. Fun!

For all its flaws, Kalki 2898 AD has a cogent screenplay that makes us stay focused on what’s happening despite the lengthy runtime of 3 hours. Part 1 does the job of arousing our curiosity about Part 2, dangling the very effective bait of Kamal Haasan displaying his vishwaroopam. Good enough for an ambitious franchise.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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