Kamal Hasan’s Dasavatharam begins and ends with cataclysms. It starts with and culminates in epic scenes and overwhelming moments, although the rest of the film runs like an hourglass. It narrows to commercial compulsions midway but expands again and ends staggeringly.
Without making it very evident, Kamal Hasan drives Dasavatharam completely. Where Michael Westmore’s character-changing make-up allows for expression, Kamal shines. Perhaps the best of the ‘avatars’ are the orthodox old brahmin widow of Chidambaram (with shades of Avvai Shanmugi), and the heavily accented Telugu-speaking intelligence officer who has the mannerisms of a bumbling ‘babu’ for the most part, but ultimately carries the day brilliantly.
A film like Dasavatharam generates a lot of excitement and anticipation. It has the potential of elevating the lead star, Kamal Hasan, to cult status. The nearest that he comes to doing this is through the character of the environmentalist in the film. Here, Westmore’s efforts really pay off. Poovaragan bears no resemblance to the star who plays the role: he is a dark-skinned, native, plain-speaking and incorruptible fighter for the earth’s future.
Dasavatharam, centred round a US-based scientist, played by a sober Kamal, trying to save millions from malevolent bioweapons makers is a roller-coaster of characters. It explores the fading enclaves of brahminical orthodoxy, mostly with a dose of good humour that Asin pulls off, but makes a powerful statement in the end with the underlying message of unity of humans as a species. This statement is made in the form the legacy of the valiant Poovaragan and the ageing, senile, Brahminical old lady of Chidambaram.
Avtaar Singh, a pop singer, (see photo above) is another colourful, well, ‘avatar’, aided by a graceful and mature Jayaprada. Avtaar’s sad fortunes, reversed by a late, unexpected twist, provide an interesting contrast to the other characters.
Through much of the film, a thread of an almost comical fundamental religious orthodoxy is explicit, represented by characters like the simple-minded Asin; there is also the message about the folly of stereotyping muslims as less than patriotic. There are some jokes at the expense of President Bush, on his understanding of issues, including his knowledge of basic chemistry; the Caucasian and Japanese ‘avatars’ are true to life. Mallika Sherawat’s pole dancing in a part-fishnet suit and her lethal charm do not linger for long, leaving the field to Kamal and Asin to pursue a fledgling romance that manifests slowly, in the most unlikely setting.
There is a lot to be said for the sound and camera work, with Himesh Reshammiya’s tunes adding to the experience. Kamal Hasan has put in some hard work in the film. It begins on a note of intense and violent religious intolerance within the fold of Hinduism, and ends with a strong environmentalist and rationalist argument about what really keeps the world going. God fails to make the grade, going by Kamal’s concluding lines. Such large-canvas films always bring up the question: will it be even bigger and better for Kamal Hasan next time?