White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Telugu Movie Review: Kalki 2898 AD impresses visually, but struggles to develop storytelling momentum

Prabhas stars in "Kalki 2898 AD," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

Hollywood industry observers have widely noted the significant absence of a traditional sci-fi/fantasy spectacle to kick off this year’s strike-depleted summer movie season; Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes and Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga are the closest you’ll get, and a far cry from Marvel-style escapism. It seems only fitting that the increasingly competitive-minded Indian film industry would have an answer for this drought in Kalki 2898 AD. The film, one of the biggest in Tollywood history, is not only a lore-packed fantasy of epic proportions, but one on track to set numerous box office records both in India and abroad this coming weekend. Now, don’t expect non-Indian audiences in the West to flock to this in droves – its mythology is perhaps a bit too culturally-specific for real crossover potential – but the diaspora alone may propel Kalki 2898 AD into the Top 5 at this weekend’s North American box office.

The above may read like an excessive amount of money talk and industry analysis for a piece intending to be a movie review, but I think it’s important to establish upfront the kind of tentpole that Kalki 2898 AD is aspiring to be. During the first 45 minutes of the film especially, it’s very clear that writer/director Nag Ashwin is aiming for a Marvel-type universe, no matter how steeped in Indian texts like the Mahabharata the story is. The style and construction of the movie feel very Hollywood, which makes its commercial ambitions inextricable from its artistic aims. I will be curious if one of the main criticisms among Indian viewers is that it all feels a bit too Hollywood, even if they’re enthralled by the extreme lengths the film goes for fan service (including more star cameos in a single film than I’ve seen since the third Austin Powers). All of this is to say, the way Ashwin goes about world-building suggests he’d like the picture to be viewed on the same plane as any of the biggest international blockbusters out there.

On a purely visual level, Ashwin achieves the degree of epic grandeur he aspires to. From a VFX standpoint, Kalki 2898 AD is probably the most impressive technical achievement that has ever come out of Tollywood. Certainly, there have been Tollywood films that are more artistically impressive aesthetic achievements – Rajamouli’s RRR and Baahubali films immediately spring to mind – but this one may take the cake in terms of pure technological advancements. No, a ₹600 crore budget (roughly the equivalent of $72M USD) doesn’t buy VFX on par with the most expensive Hollywood releases (made for four or five times that), but it does yield a damn good-looking fantasy movie. A couple of the biggest set-pieces in Kalki 2898 AD, namely a vehicular chase in which bounty hunters pursue their target and a climactic action finale where all of the key characters converge, feel like they have a visual density and sophistication that no other VFX-driven Indian film to date has achieved. In other words: watch out Hollywood, India is catching up to you quicker than you think.

From a storytelling perspective, Kalki 2898 AD is far more troublesome. For a movie that’s mostly about exposition, there really is not a lot of meat on the bone here, especially if you aren’t intimately familiar with the historical texts that inform its mythology (the parallels flesh out the details for the audience). The first half of the film mainly deals with character introductions, but the characters feel so sparingly developed and the film withholds so much information about how they all ultimately tie together that it can’t help but come across as painfully slow. I have to admit, when the Interval card finally hit the screen, I dreaded the prospect of there being another hour and a half to go. It really doesn’t feel like Ashwin needs to spend as much time as he does introducing us to all of the main players, especially because the actors are so good at conveying to us who these people are (more on that in a bit). In other words, just because Prabhas can make the audience laugh doesn’t mean you need to make his introductory scene painfully long, milking every laugh he can get.

Things do pick up in the second half of the movie, which I was much more engaged in, especially as the action began to ratchet up very quickly after the return from intermission. Not only are the action sequences in the second half technically impressive, the character revelations start to pay the first half off, which helps to justify what a slog the movie is up to that point. Unfortunately, however, just when things start to get really good, it becomes glaringly obvious that Kalki 2898 AD won’t offer any real resolution. That’s right: it’s just the setup for yet another Cinematic Universe. Don’t expect to leave with a satisfying conclusion, unless you count the obligatory cliffhanger. I had no idea this had definite sequels in the works going in, so I felt pretty ripped off by the open ending, but I should have known this immediately based on Ashwin’s heavily MCU-influenced approach.

While Kalki 2898 AD is first and foremost an FX-driven action/fantasy spectacle, it should be noted that the cast of the film are almost uniformly very good (save for some bad Telugu dubbing), bringing their characters to life with real texture and humanity. While the early marketing and buzz have focused on Prabhas, the movie is really an ensemble effort. With a very Peter Quill-esque sense of humor, Prabhas plays Bhairava, a bounty hunter who dreams of a life inside “The Complex,” the resource-rich utopian inverted pyramid hovering over the dystopian crumbles of a future society. The Complex is lorded over by Supreme Yaskin, played by Kamal Haasan in a scary-good bad guy role that shows real promise going into future installments, as well as his Commander Menas, played by an also-captivating Saswata Chatterjee. Bhairava’s golden opportunity arises when Complex leadership puts out a bounty on SUM-80 a.k.a. Sumathi, played by Deepika Padukone, the true beating heart of the story. Sumathi escapes an ominous lab experiment on pregnant women, and may well be carrying the new savior. Working to protect her at all costs is Ashwatthama – yes, that one – played by Amitabh Bachchan, getting to fully rebound from his recent sci-fi humiliation in Ganapath. This is a role, if not necessarily a film overall, that is more in keeping with Bachchan’s legacy.

There are some very strong character notes and individual scenes in Kalki 2898 AD, but I just can’t shake the feeling that this is ultimately a lot of bloated setup designed chiefly to sell more tickets in the future. The movie doesn’t do enough to justify its own existence; it’s already got its mind on future sequels and spin-offs. That’s the kind of shameless Hollywood tendency that Tollywood would be better off not mimicking. Certainly, the film does a lot to keep its intended audience happy. In addition to knowing how to make the most of its stars, it plays meaningfully with Indian mythology that surely will resonate a lot more with the local audience than it did this ignorant Anglo viewer. And judging from my fellow moviegoers’ audible reactions, the aforementioned cameos alone will make the movie worth the price of admission for some diehards. But a near-three hour film with this much going on shouldn’t leave anyone feeling as empty as I did when I exited the theater. With the amount of money the movie is on track to make this weekend, the promised sequel is near-certain. The only question is: Will viewers be curious enough about getting the resolution and answers they desire to risk being cheated out of them once again?

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

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