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The world is not enough

The man can sing, he can dance, he can speak several languages, he can punch several men to death at the same time, he can train jihadis, he can give American intelligence a run for its money, and he can save the world from nuclear annihilation. Kamal Haasan is a self-declared atheist in real life, but on the screen, he is no less than the Almighty. Vishwaroop, the Hindi version of Vishwaroopam, is a showcase for Haasan’s wide-ranging skills with both microwaves and machine guns. He plays a Research and Analysis Wing agent who is pretending to be an effeminate kathak dancer in New York City. His code name is Vishwanath, but his real name is Wisam—it unscrambles as swami, or master.

Wisam is a “good Muslim" who stakes his life on smashing the bad eggs in his community, of whom there are more in this movie than in Guantanamo Bay. Wisam’s mission is to prevent Al Qaeda operative Omar, a one-eyed jihadi with a voice hoarser than Marlon Brando’s Italian mafioso, from dropping a dirty bomb on NYC. The two men go back some way—a few years ago, Wisam had gone undercover as a jihadi and trained Omar and his cohorts in Afghanistan. Wisam even manages to see Osama Bin Laden, but is unable to get his hands on the terrorist. For that story, turn to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, opening in India by mid-February.

Vishwaroop’s story is preposterous at the best of times, but it is directed with 100% conviction. Haasan attempts to match the scale and impact of similar terrorism-themed Hollywood films, and he orchestrates several taut and gripping action sequences—the Afghanistan set pieces are especially effective and a good showcase for cinematographer Sanu John Varughese’s skills.

The controversy that has dogged the Tamil version since its release on 25 January can also be traced back to the Afghanistan sequences. A bunch of Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu, aided by the TN government, have succeeded in blowing the film out of the cinemas. One isn’t sure how many of them watched the movie before clamouring for a ban, but they might have been reacting to the repeated, and redundant, shots of the terrorists praying and yelling “Allah hu Akbar" at the drop of a hat. Haasan blows a bazooka-sized hole through political correctness in his depictions of the Islamist terrorists as despicable creatures, but he can be accused at best of poor judgement rather than evil intent. The ending suggests a sequel, and a second movie will be cheered on by “We-told-you-so" screaming government spooks and national security wonks. The movie most definitely doesn’t need to be banned, but it can be panned. At two hours and 28 minutes, it’s too long, unnecessarily replays scenes for effect, and slackens every time its characters stop smashing things or wielding weapons.

Haasan focuses so intently on the action that he lets himself be overshadowed by the other actors. Rahul Bose is deliciously hammy as the one-eyed Omar, clearly modelled on the Afghan jihadi Mullah Omar. Jaideep Ahlawat is in fine fettle as Omar’s henchman, while a weary looking Shekhar Kapur pops up as Wisam’s boss. Puja Kumar, who plays Wisam’s wife Nirupama, is also in good form as the initially clueless wife who later comes into her own. She happens to hold a doctorate in nuclear oncology. Who said that Wisam is the only multi-tasker on the set?

Haasan’s motivation to make the movie seems to have been to prove that he too can direct an action scene or two and tell the Federal Bureau of Investigation how to do its job. His curriculum vitae is healthy enough. Thanks to the needless controversy over the Tamil version of his movie, he can add agent provocateur to his list of achievements.

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