Warning. Spoilers ahead for “Vishwaroopam” and “Vishwaroopam II.”
“Vishwaroopam” is a Sanskrit word. It is an event. In Hindu religious texts, the term refers to the universal form (roopam) of God, in which the beholder can see the entire universe (vishwa.) Its revelation is splendiferous and catastrophic, depending on the depiction. The term has since evolved (especially in Tamil and Telugu) to mean ‘true identity.’
In Kamal Hassan’s 2013 directorial venture “Vishwaroopam,” the term is co-opted to refer to the revelation of the protagonist’s real identity, his transformation from overly effeminate, Kathak teaching, Tamil Brahmin Vishwanath, to Muslim RAW agent Wisam Ahmed Kashmiri.
Shooting for Vishwaroopam 2 and Hindi Vishwaroop 2. Last stint. Exciting. OTA CHENNAI makes the nation & me proud. The only Academy that trains Lady officers in India. I Salute the ladies and especially my most favourite lady ..India. Maa tuje Salaam. pic.twitter.com/Ym8wFagQdJ
Though billed as its sequel, “Vishwaroopam II” not only finishes the story, but fleshes it out. It functions as a curious amalgamation of prequel/sequel/companion piece.
That said, viewers who didn’t watch the first movie won’t be completely lost, but those who did will appreciate what they saw five years ago even more. I definitely did. Both of the “Vishwaroopam” films are not without flaws, but they are, on the whole, good movies.
Kamal Hassan is a better writer than he is director, crafting a story that is compelling even when riddled with plot holes. It is strange to contemplate that he who is known as ‘Uiaganayagan’ (hero of the world) for decades of drama and comedy has decided to be an Akshay Kumar-esque action hero in his golden years — but Kamal Hassan has. With “Vettaiyadu Vilayadu,” “Dasavatharam,” “Thoongavanam,” and now the “Vishwaroopam” films, Hassan’s attempts grow bolder and more ambitious as he ages. However, credit must be given where credit is due. Even at 63, the man does a lot of his stunts, and doesn’t look bad in a leather jacket.
If only that was enough.
“Vishwaroopam I” was a well-crafted thriller with a hell of a twist that ended abruptly, ending in a montage of scenes that were already shot and the promise of a sequel. “Vishwaroopam II” ended up being little more than a well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided exercise on multiple fronts. An old man’s attempt at holding on to his fading hero status, a writer’s semi-successful attempt at crafting a non-linear narrative, and an action movie’s attempt at being ‘Something Different.’
First things first. Lofty though his moniker may be, Kamal Hassan has earned his reputation of being a ‘Serious Actor.’ He has done a plethora of legendary, remarkable films, from “Nayagan,” to “Apporva Sahodarangal,” to “Moondram Pirai” (“Sadma” in Hindi,) to “Pushpak,” and scores more. Here too, although he is mostly convincing as dashing super-spy, I couldn’t help but wish that he had cast someone else. I’ll admit to wanting someone younger, not because I don’t think there are action stories to tell featuring older characters. I’ll happily watch the “Equalizer” series, “Red,” “Taken,” and even “Mission Impossible: Fallout,” because even if those roles aren’t necessarily written for older characters, they’re portrayed by men who bring a lot of maturity and gravitas to the proceedings. (Not Tom Cruise, obviously.)
It’s a little creepy to see Hassan romance much younger actresses, be it the relationship faked to get him court martialed and into RAW without suspicion, or the real relationship that develops between he and his wife (after she stops thinking that he’s gay.) It’s also downright painful to see some of the stunts being blatantly computer generated.
Which brings me to the underlying feature of “Vishwaroopam II,” which may not be a feature at all, but rather a bug. A privileged, Brahmin Hindu man wrote a movie that featured a lot of Bad Muslims — this isn’t anything different. However, the fact that the protagonist is also himself Muslim gives Hassan a fair few opportunities to pontificate on the ills of Islamaphobia. As a Hindu, I cannot speak to the Muslim experience, but I can imagine (as a person capable of empathy) that representation of Muslim characters in mainstream Indian cinema is somewhat lacking. Muslims are always villains, murdering indiscriminately, staring menacingly into the camera with kohl-rimmed eyes and stroking their beards.
Nevertheless, am I happy that the hero is a Muslim? Yes. Do I wish a Muslim writer and Muslim actor were given the chance to make that representation? Yes. Am I satisfied with Hassan’s attempt at that representation? It’s really not my place to say.
As much as I appreciate Hassan trying to be an ally who speaks out against the often horrific discrimination that Muslims endure all over the world because of the actions of a few — it seemed hollow. Hassan bashes the viewer over the head with one visual after another, making sure they know that Wisam is the Good Muslim, whereas the terrorists are Bad Muslims. Wisam sheds blood for his country, the terrorists for their misguided interpretation of their religion. Hassan to me doesn’t seem the right vehicle to deliver that message, authentic as he tries to make it. Moreover, any effort in empathy or ‘ally-ship’ is sullied somewhat because of the company that the Good Muslim keeps.
Short tangent: Both “Vishwaroopam I” and “Vishwaroopam II” suffer from what I personally like to call ‘UNS,’ or Udit Narayan Syndrome. It is a condition that music directors and directors alike are afflicted with, wherein they force people who don’t know Tamil to speak (and dub their own voices!) and/or sing in Tamil. Every character in “Vishwaroopam II” speaks Tamil, with varying degrees of success. Rahul Bose, besides skillfully playing a one-eyed, fear inducing villain, does a remarkable job delivering Tamil dialogue. Other side characters, one of them being Shekhar Kapur, are less adept. Characters who speak with a thick North Indian accent immediately disturb the viewer’s immersion in the story, a problem that started with I and continues with II.
I bring up the Tamil that the characters speak for a good reason. One of the film’s fundamental flaws is that the Good Muslim is further distinguished from the Bad Muslim by the company he keeps: Hindus (or Americans/Englishmen.) What’s more, a majority of these Hindus are Brahmin. It’s not apparent in Hindi, which features dialogues written by Atul Tiwari, but it is painfully obvious in Tamil. Hassan had most of his Hindu characters speak in chaste Brahmin Tamil, from military officers to corrupt bureaucrats. Perhaps defense of people that are often discriminated against is more powerful coming man of privilege (wealthy, Hindu, and Brahmin.)
But if I’ve learned anything from the complex race politics of the Western film industry, it’s this: It’s ALWAYS better to give the historically downtrodden and disenfranchised the chance to tell their story on their own. Being an ally in the truest sense of the word means fighting for societal change in partnership, using your privilege to increase that of others — not appropriating a narrative and trying to tell their stories for them.
And still. And STILL. Despite this litany of failings, “Vishwaroopam II” is still a pretty decent movie, all things considered. There are many standout performances, especially by Waheeda Rahman, Andrea Jeremiah and Rahul Bose. Kamal Hassan is a magnificent actor, a great writer, and a decent director.
September 19, 2023September 29, 2023 3min readBy Nida Hasan
There’s often an element of dysfunctionality that exists within South Asian families. Especially immigrant families, who are carrying with them the burden of intergenerational trauma, shame and guilt; holding onto the last straw of cultural traditions that they have forever known to be the convention, in order to avoid the obliteration of these said values to “Western” ideologies. But what the older generation tends to forget is that they, too, may have been the rebels of their time; misplaced, misfits for the standards of their predecessors. They, too, with their big, ‘American’ dreams (Canadian, in this case) quite possibly left their elders grappling with the loss of their legacy to the unknown. Fawzia Mirza’s “The Queen of My Dreams,” which premiered at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, probes into this disparity, drawing on the complexities of a strained mother-daughter relationship in what is an endearing and emotional tale of loss, love, and nostalgia.
Azra (Amrit Kaur) — a Muslim Canadian teenager — is met with the sudden news of her father’s untimely demise. Her father (Hamza Haq) was the only mediator and one of the two shared loves (the other being the ’60s iconic Bollywood song, “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani”) between Azra and her devout mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha), who rarely see eye-to-eye otherwise. A grieving Azra hops on a plane to Pakistan to attend her father’s funeral and from here on, through fragmented images, viewers are taken on a dramatic yet poignant journey across generations, cultures, and continents, all contrasting each other, but very much in tandem in the telling of the story.
For those who’ve seen Bucha’s talent unfold on Pakistani television can probably vouch for her versatility as an actor. She may have “not fit into the industry” that loves itself a damsel in distress, but seldom has she failed to prove her acting prowess. She is now living this title of a ‘Rising International Star’ to watch out for and deservingly so. She adds a welcome eccentricity and flamboyance to the role of an aspirational, immigrant wife trying to add to the household income by selling Tupperware to white folks. And, at the same time, lends this relatable humanism, fragility, and desperation to her character of an immigrant mother reconnecting with her faith at the sight of losing control over her life and her daughter’s. She allows viewers to recognize what her character cannot see in herself.
Bucha is matched, if not completely outshone, by Kaur, who seamlessly switches between the roles of an adventurous and ambitious young Mariam and a grieving Azra. The latter is frustrated with the cultural and religious norms set out to restrict women around her; she’s also a queer Muslim teen struggling to gain her mother’s acceptance after she abandoned their once-thriving bond at the time of her coming-of-age awakening. Kaur portrays the many layers of her character with sheer nuance, depth, and sincerity. Her dexterity as an actor is evident in how tightly she grips onto the idiosyncracies of each character as if it’s not the same, but two different individuals enacting them.
It is delightful to see Gul-e-Rana play something other than a loud, overbearing, or vengeful matriarch, while still very much being in the same category. The particular scene where Rana whispers to her daughter Mariam on her wedding stage, commending her for truly being the great actor she hopes to become by hiding her groom’s plans of migration all the while, almost makes you sympathize with her character. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do for the talented Haq who plays the father and the husband, but he sure exudes the perfect charm of a romantic Bollywood hero if he ever chooses to pursue that path.
Mirza weaves and explores a multitude of challenging social issues such as immigration, identity, and sexuality around the intricacies of an intense mother-daughter relationship, without leaving any loose threads. What you are left with is the possibility of Mariam and Azra showing each other some grace, having dived into their past that boils down to the fact that even though they stand at odds with each other — estranged and unforgiving — they have more in common than they’d admit. Queer or not, “The Queen of My Dreams” will offer some relatability to every immigrant mother and her multi-hyphenated daughter. It is like gazing at a self-portrait that persuades you to reflect on the past and its impact on your present and to rethink the trajectory of your future. It also reminds you that all battles — be they of epic proportions or marked by petty grievances — should and must come to an end because life is just too short.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.