Robot (aka Enthiran) is a three-hour Kollywood sci-fi sitcom action musical about AI robots gaining sentience and falling in love with humans.
Read that sentence one more time. I’m not making any piece of it up. It’s just as much of a glorious clusterfuck as it sounds.
I’ll let some other critic with more context for the culture and cinematic tradition from which this movie comes decide whether this is actually as jarringly bizarre as it seems to me. Because I certainly have never seen anything remotely like it.
Rajinikanth stars in a double role as mad scientist Dr. Vassegeran and his creation, Chitti. It’s an inspired, all-in turn for the actor. Imagine the way School of Rock is built entirely around Jack Black’s specific talents, crossed with Robin Williams’ ability to play 6 different energy levels in the same movie, crossed with Tom Cruise’s uninhibited commitment to the physicality of his performances. That’s the sort of performance Rajinikanth brings to the table; not necessarily great but absolutely essential for the film to function.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan co-stars as the romantic interest, Sana. She demonstrates serious chops in the film, both in the acting and the dancing, and seems to think she’s in an entirely different and more serious film. But it’s a tonal mash-up that mostly works.
There’s no question that this is a passion project for director Shankar. Throughout the movie’s prodigious runtime, he brings a ton of imagination to the various scenarios. The action segments are bursting with creativity as Shankar explores the limits of Chitti’s nature as a robot, especially once he learns to self-clone.
And then there are the musical numbers. I’m not all that familiar with how Indian film musical numbers typically work, but the production values and energy are off the chart, with crazy-clever set designs and dance numbers to match tunes that are fun but all run together for me.
The movie’s main problem is its length. Robot just drags on and on through episodic bits, with lots of comedy and romance that sucks the film’s momentum. It’s never bad, and often delightfully weird, but so exhausting.
There are some other weird and off-putting bits, too. The gender dynamics feel all wrong, with lots of threats of both physical and sexual violence against Sana, who has little agency as a character. A few segments go too far off the charts in their wackiness, like a bizarre baby-birthing scene. And the digital CGI and editing certainly shows its seams.
But Robot has so much fresh, unfiltered energy that it feels like a triumph, albeit one that requires some viewer endurance.