The highly anticipated romantic thriller I from visionary Tamil director Shankar is a work of staggering ambition, somewhat weighed down by the filmmaker’s own indulgence. Clocking in at a butt-numbing three hours and six minutes, the film works off a busy story that’s centered on Lingesan (Vikram), a local bodybuilder from Chennai’s KK Nagar, who goes from winning the Mr Tamil Nadu title to winning the attention of his longtime crush, a supermodel named Diya (Amy Jackson).
Before reaching the long-winded yet predictable love story that inevitably ensues, the first hour of I is unabashed fun. At one point during a brawl between our hero and an army of oiled musclemen, Lingesan proudly lifts two vanquished rivals on both ends of an iron rod like a barbell. In an imaginatively filmed song sequence, nifty special effects are employed to convey our protagonist’s all-consuming obsession with the heroine. What’s not to like? The pace is brisk, the set pieces thrilling, and no apologies are made for the many double meaning jokes provided by our hero’s best friend (Santhanam).
But all this is just window dressing for what resides at the core of this film – a revenge plot. His relationship with Diya and his new career as a successful model sees Lingesan make a string of enemies who subsequently gang up and ruthlessly disfigure him to teach him a lesson. Now hunchbacked and covered in plum-sized warts, Lingesan will pick them off one by one, dispensing his own brand of fitting justice to his offenders.
Shankar revisits his favorite theme of customized justice, and indulges his continuing fascination with the idea of ‘one-hero-multiple-avatars’…at one point even giving us a Beauty and the Beast-style dream sequence to drive home the message about beauty being only skin deep. But the last hour of the film is tediously repetitive. The characterization of a transgender stylist is distinctly homophobic, and a key twist can be guessed from a mile away. The film keeps on going even when there’s no surprise or revelation left, until you’re truly and completely exhausted.
That’s a shame because there’s so much to admire in I, particularly Vikram’s riveting central performance. He brings nuance through accent and body language, and succeeds in making you care for Lingesan even when he’s buried under layers of prosthetics. Veteran cinematographer PC Sreeram puts up quite the show too, filming terrific action scenes like that gravity-defying bike chase on the rooftops of a housing colony in China, and those wondrous eye-popping musical numbers set to AR Rahman’s winning tunes.
There’s a lesson in I for makers of masala movies everywhere: Big-budget commercial films don’t have to be lazy, mindless enterprises; you can bring big ideas and apply craft. I may be far from perfect, but for the most part it’s pretty entertaining stuff. I’m going with three out of five.