Credit: Vyjayanthi Movies
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Genre Views

Kalki 2898 AD — Nag Ashwin

July 2, 2024

Kalki 2898 AD, the most expensive Indian movie to ever hit the box office, is a pure delight for the eyes and full of surprises. The mythological and cataclysmic sci-fi fantasy, which takes its name from the prophesied apocalyptic final avatar of Vishnu, can be accused of many things — flattening religious difference, genre schlock, sidelining its women — but one thing director Nag Ashwin’s film can’t be accused of is being boring. From start to finish, and even at its very worst, Kalki thrills. The world that is developed feels properly expansive and perfectly dystopic, the film’s mega-stars deliver, and the visuals meet the mythology rather than conforming the its style to a real-world look and feel. There simply isn’t a more entertaining film in theaters right now. 

The accusations swirling of Ashwin’s film being an Indian rip-off of Dune lack imaginative capacity and demonstrate the narrow tastes cultivated by Hollywood. Kalki has more in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) or the Mahabharata than it does with any rendition of Dune, while some of the apocalyptic designs of Kalki are wondrously unique and feel devoid of any influence. A single city in the world remains, ruled by a dictator who lives in a black, inverted pyramid that sits atop the city called “The Complex.” Most women are infertile, which likely has something to do with the awful conditions of life at the end of the Kali Yuga, and Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan) harvests the women for a secretive project involving an injection that kills them after 120 days; they are hunting for women on the black market, hopeful they can find a fertile woman able to carry the serum for longer. That woman happens to be Sumathi (Deepika Padukone), and the child she’s carrying is believed by the rebels hiding in the mystical sublime city of Shambhala to be Kalki, the 10th incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself. The rebels, who use “for tomorrow” as a catchy call phrase, have the immortal Ashwatthama, an avatar of Shiva, on their side, and their hope for a better, more inclusive future never wavers. Nonetheless, it’s not insignificant that the ever-elder (and very gray) Ashwatthama leads the fight for the next generation. The better tomorrow that Ashwin and his filmmaking team believe in requires buy-in from the superannuated.

The Telugu language film brings together a powerful cast across Indian cinema language industries and loads itself up with a record budget right around $75 million (USD), almost all of which appears to have been divided between its star-studded cast and digital imagery; sometimes the two mix, as with the de-aging on Amitabh Bachchan (as Ashwatthama). And much like 2022’s underrated Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva, another film fully entrenched in Hindu cosmology, digital effects jolt through the dark and here feel like magic again. The action marries digital and physical kineticism in a way only Tollywood seems to do these days, and the penultimate fight is the film’s finest and certain to be one of the best of the year, in large part due to the way digital effects supplement the choreography from traditional CGI to frame manipulation and supernatural physics.

The pan-Indian ensemble cast approaches Infinity War levels of absurdity. Telugu superstar Prabhas plays a character who registers as an equal mix of Tony Stark, Han Solo, and Karna (a Hindu demigod). Elsewhere, Tamil language talent Kamal Haasan plays the big bad, while other internationally recognizable actors from across Indian language cinema industries pop up in even minor roles, including as Rajendra Prasad (Telugu), Disha Patani (mostly Hindi), and Saswata Chatterjee (Bengali). Bollywood’s Padukone, one of the world’s most adept at acting with the eyes, plays a role that, though important to the plot, wouldn’t be that much more artistically demanding to film than a cameo. Her underemployment might be one of the film’s more consequential missteps, though many viewers may miss that because of the considerable presence she effortlessly and winsomely commands. (It feels like cheating, even if Indian cinema has slowly been ineluctably inching toward casting Padukone as the Mother of God.)

But fun as the film may be, Ashwin also juggles one too many balls and makes a rather improvised genre stew out of his ambition. The end credits promise a “cinematic universe,” though any smart viewer would have noticed Marvel’s footprint all over Kalki much earlier. The worst influence felt from that comparison is the demand to have a side of a particular kind of quippy comedy with every serving of action. Between his talking car and insistence on napping instead of fighting, Prabhas’s entrance as a bounty hunter is particularly unbearable. A more innocent superhero influence comes in specific design choices, such as an electric whip not unlike that used by Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2 or the Wakanda-esque shields of the rebels. The talking car with its endless modifications, meanwhile, would fit right in with the Transformers franchise, and that’s not a compliment. None of the car stuff really works, actually; in the beginning, it just comes off as merely juvenile, but with each scene it ends up distracting more and more from the stakes. All of which is to say that Kalki 2898 AD is unsurprisingly at its best when it’s offering something original. Though Ashwin inevitably and periodically falls into blockbuster derivations, there are also completely original designs and ideas guiding the film from start to finish. The cyberpunk/dystopian Indian architecture, the Complex, the machinery, and even the multicultural ambitions of the rebels work hard to freshen up stale multiplexes. 

And then there is the religiously and culturally inclusive utopia the rebels fight for, which is a contradiction of both nobility and laziness. As Siddhant Adlakha observes for Joysauce, visually identifiable Muslim characters are left out of a utopia that at least includes Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists, to name a few of the sartorial indicated personale. That could be an oversight, but it’s an oversight that comes at the price of blood in the increasingly Hindu-nationalist India of the BJP. It’s also the one religious group that every single Indian Muslim viewer is likely searching for, and that makes the omission here that much more distasteful. Screenwriters Sai Madhav Burra and Ashwin can be accused of laziness for another reason though. In a speech given by the dreamer rebel Rumi (Rajendra Prasad), right before he’s executed in the film’s opening chapter, he confidently reiterates his belief that God will usher in the New Age, wiping away with the monoculture dictatorship of the Complex. In his speech, he makes allusions to apocalyptic theologies or end-time prophecies in a variety of major religious traditions. He even ends with a syncretistic affirmation that all these beliefs are basically the same. Yet, the film then goes on to execute a vision that feels inseparable from Hindu cosmology, and it’s better for doing so. The political underpinnings of India work in interesting ways, and one doesn’t need to look too deeply: the dystopia of the Complex has a full ban on religion, while the rebels literally have God on their side. Within that revolutionary vision for “tomorrow,” one finds a more complicated pluralism — one where religious difference isn’t erased and where people from all paths of life can form a mythical utopia of light hidden beneath the shadow of a dystopian cultural monolith. The filmmakers seem to have, perhaps accidentally, stumbled into a compelling vision for a multicultural society; it’s just tough to shake the profound disappointment that no room for the Muslim neighbor. Hopefully, that more utopian utopia can be realized in Kalki 2898 AD: Part 2.

DIRECTOR: Nag Ashwin;  CAST: Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hassan, Deepika Padukone;  DISTRIBUTOR: Prathyangira Cinemas;  IN THEATERS: June 26;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 45 min.