I is an Indian retelling of the beauty and the beast in a contemporary setting. It begins as a simple film that is trying to comment on the unethical and big bad world of corporate advertising and the compromises one is expected to make in order to succeed in today's India. It becomes a much more thought provoking film as it meanders from sexual harassment at the work place, the danger of child sexual abuse at the hands of trusted predators in the family, the dirty games played by various stakeholders in the corporate world, the unethical ways of some medical practitioners and the dangers lurking in the bodybuilding world.
For the first time, Shankar moves away from his favourite theme - corruption in public life and vigilantism as the cinematic solution to the plague of public corruption into something far more insidious. The corruption of the mind of contemporary India that is caught between ambition, aspiration and an amoral work ethic that clashes with traditional ethical approach to life and work. Vigilantism in the shape of the deformed hero meting out justice is there but it is extremely personal.
I shifts seamlessly from the personal to the public through the dilemmas faced by any youngster aspiring for success to the ugly corruption of the human mind when it conducts business. In its best moments, it is a scathing satire on the drive to succeed at all costs that seems to pervade urban India. Sankar questions the ethical positions and choices made by all sections do society. The transgender is a stereotype but captures the danger of token acceptance of the marginalized into the mainstream in the fashion and advertising world.
Shankar may have actually managed what Tamil cinema or even Indian cinema has rarely portrayed - a romance that goes beyond the physical that eschews lust and desire in favour of a true melding of souls. A man, who sees the ugliness, reacts spontaneously to lash out at such ugliness with a punishing vengeance doling out physical ugliness that matches the ugly mind inside their polished bodies. And the woman, who can see beyond the outer appearance and trappings of wealth and success to the inner beauty and love that is abiding. Interestingly, he also steers his female lead away from the regressive, traditional misogyny of Tamil cinema. She is shallow, bubbly, pretty on the outside, goes for her man with a bit of flirtatious aggression, demure once he is captivated, exploits him, and throws him by the wayside if he does not lives up to her expectations, gives into social pressure to give him up and she moves on callously. He pines, goes insane and even tries to kill himself as cannot imagine a world without her or her love. In the film, she not only feels remorse at manipulating the innocent man, she falls in love with his sincere and earthy charm, stays by his side even when he pushes her away and nurses him back with a create and love to life from the edges. Yes, Tamil cinema's latest progressive heroine is here.
Vikram as Lingesan comes full circle from an unpolished, rough diamond, a sincere honest average Indian to the cynical young professional who has to wise up to the ways of the big bad world, to a victim of professional and class prejudices and of course greedy materialist profit driven corporate India, forced into a beastly form confronting the ugliness in the minds of the seemingly suave people around him, especially the trusted doctor. There is enough to cheer his fans with his overwhelming screen presence and the entire film resting on his performance. As an actor, he shines throughout, his dedication and body language absolute. His rendering of the body builder is near perfect to the real bodybuilding champs as to become an ethnographic study of that group with his oiled body, grin and the eight mandatory poses. His essaying of the ugly hunchback deserves special mention. It takes guts for an actor to appear in most of the film as physical deformed and defaced but he manages to get the audience on his side quickly and they chant Adhukkum Mele to his enemies along with him.
The clever ways of revenge turning the tables on the five perpetrators in their own coin and destroying their obsessions with beauty, body, arrogance and ugliness with true ugliness in horrific manners that is usual to Shankar's films at times border on the sadistic. Especially when Santhanam as the friend visits each of them and taunts them with insensitivity and laugh inducing dialogues. While the audience is thrilled to bits at the comedy, the more crucial symbolism in these scenes is his holding up the mirror as if saying, "I've held up the mirror to your ugliness, now you need to see your images closely." This seems out of place with the rest of the film by being in your face, something Shankar avoid otherwise my making the audience think about the implications themselves.
As in all Shankar's films, good casting, spectacular locations (this time in China) colourful song sequences, amazing make up and stunts, outstanding camera work, are all there. A bit too long at three hours nine minutes, the edit could have been a lot tighter. Some songs and the extended train fight sequence come to mind immediately. The music and background score by AR Rahman is average with the exception of Merasalaayitein. Every stunt is accompanied by a medley or haunting chanting that s a bit distracting. But as a cinematic experience and good storytelling, it works. Interestingly, Shankar makes several inter textual references to his own earlier films, songs and dialogues, other Tamil films and the occasional nod to some moments from Hindi and Hollywood films too.
Though in the film, I is for the virus and the typical expression of awe in Tamil that one feels when something extraordinary happens, if one watches the film closely, I is for identity crisis, I is for idealism, I is for imaginative storytelling, I is for the intelligent audience, I is for integrity, I is for inspiration. More importantly, I is for introspection. It is the search for an identity that shines through amidst all the drama, the spectacle and the prosthetic make up. Shankar succeeds on once again in delivering an entertainer of visual spectacle dimensions expected of him.
- Uma Vangal, Filmmaker, Fulbright Fellow and Film Scholar