"A New Visual Experience," proclaims the poster for "Kochadaiiyaan: The Legend" ("The King with a Long, Curly Mane") in the lobby as you enter the auditorium.
Once you’re seated, the lights go down and the screen lights up, not with the producers’ logos or credits -- as you might expect -- but with a behind-the-scenes video that describes the motion capture process used to make the film.
This is the first feature-length film production in India to use the technique pioneered by James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis, so the background lesson is perhaps warranted. There’s no skimping on grandiosity, as the featurette concludes with Indian screen legend Amitabh Bachchan (also the narrator in the Hindi version) stating that the history of Indian cinema will be divided into two parts: "Before 'Kochadaiiyaan' and after 'Kochadaiiyaan.'" No pressure, then.
Set in a vaguely-defined past, "Kochadaiiyaan" (the second "i" was added for numerological reasons) is the saga of two warring kingdoms. The film opens with a young boy making a rush for…something. He gets into a rudimentary boat and leaves his elder brother behind. As the opening credits play, his boat crashes and he washes up on the shores of Kalingapuri. There, he trains as a warrior and, after gaining the Maharaja’s trust, becomes the commander of the army. Eventually, we learn that his name is Ranan. Boosting the army’s size through prisoners of war, he impresses the king and seeks his permission to invade their bitter rival, Kottaipatinam. When the two armies face off, Rana reveals his actual plans. As it turns out, this story goes way back and involves love, family ties, treachery and general hatred. Don’t they all?
As you’ve probably figured out by now, the innovation in "Kochadaiiyaan" only really involves its technology. A tired rehash of age-old fables about heroism and vengeance, the screenplay goes through the motions with a determined earnestness, as if each twist isn’t visible a mile away and each revelation not already covered a dozen times before. The romantic subplots are horribly forced. Above all, at nearly two hours, "Kochadaiiyaan" runs far too long. A huge part of the blame lies with the requisite musical numbers. There are seven of them in the film (eight, counting the end credits) and nearly all murder the momentum as soon as they arrive. A single flashback in the second half contains two songs. The Hindi versions of the soundtrack and score, composed by Academy Award-winner A.R. Rahman, have little to offer aside from volume. The sound mix in "Kochadaiiyaan" makes the "Transformers" franchise look like an exercise in minimalism.
The pre-release curiosity generated by the film has hinged on its technological advances, especially the quality of its animation. "Kochadaiiyaan" is definitely unlike anything Indian cinema has ever seen before, but that says more about Indian cinema than the film. From elementary things like physics to the advanced stages of photorealism, much of "Kochadaiiyan" serves as a reminder that its $20-million budget -- while huge by Indian standards -- isn’t sufficient for the task at hand.
Imagine the Uncanny Valley as seen in "The Polar Express" (a source of uneasiness associated with human features that aren't quite human) farmed out not just across the characters’ eyes but each body part and then multiplied to every character in the frame -- and you have some idea of the cringe factor here. The state of the animation is exemplified by one scene where Rana poses as a wax statue to fool his lover. It’s a ridiculous moment by any standard -- how could a woman not recognize a living person in front of her? -- but the animation is so painfully primitive it’s almost believable.
This begs the question: Why motion capture? Certainly, the film’s epic scope would have been unobtainable with live action. We get to see aerial views of the kingdoms, battles encompassing giant fields and surreal visuals (including Rana’s introduction, as he sits atop a horse leaping over a giant chasm) that would have been impossible without the effects work. Lead actor Rajnikanth, one of India’s biggest superstars, is 64 today and could not do a film like "Kochadaiiyaan" without motion capture. Soundarya R. Ashwin, the film’s director and the actor’s daughter, has said in interviews that the team tightened Rajnikanth’s skin to make him look 25 years younger, using the same technology implemented in "Tron: Legacy."
However, the very same technology -- its shoddy execution aside -- that makes Rajnikanth’s performance possible also undercuts its appeal. His trademark exaggerated mannerisms and iconic laugh remain in place, but without the charm and affability that Indian audiences have loved for decades.
"Kochadaiiyaan" was always a risky investment, and the box-office reception reflects that. The film’s original, Tamil version has initiated the usual fervor in Rajnikanth’s home state, but the Hindi dub currently playing across the country has evoked a tepid response at best. Last weekend’s opening gross of $7 million would have been impressive for many new releases, but for "Kochadaiiyaan" it’s cause for alarm. Whether the project manages to break even will depend on the sustained devotion of Rajnikanth’s fans, who will have to make increased efforts once upcoming releases like "Maleficent" and "How To Train Your Dragon 2" gobble up many 3D screens.
In the annals of Indian cinema’s history, "Kochadaiiyaan" will not be a narrative-splitting fulcrum. At this point, it will be lucky if it becomes a footnote.