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‘Kalki 2898 AD’ Review

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The world is a wasteland, dead bodies illuminated by covering the earth to the luridly lit horizon, drums thundering and voices rising in a choral tide; Kalki 2898 AD is massive from the word go. Enter Krishna, mounted on a chariot drawn by four suitably apocalyptic black horses, to curse the battle’s seemingly sole survivor, Ashwarthama, for the sin of shooting an unborn child. Like many of the characters blundering through Nag Ashwin’s stupendous Telugu-language epic, the valiant Ashwarthama lacks a moral framework.

Thanks to Krishna, he will have plenty of time to acquire one; he is to be punished not with death, but with thousands of years of dreary life awaiting his destiny, which is to save the god Vishnu in his next incarnation. A god can take many forms, the chorus of voices tells us. Kalki is the name given to Vishnu’s 10th and final avatar. According to the great epic poem Mahabharata, Kalki will appear when everything is so dreadful that it has to be cleaned up once and for all. 

There is always someone claiming that the worst of times is now, of course; accordingly, in real life, there have been quite a few Kalki pretenders. And despite the date in the title, Kalki 2898 AD could be read as a series of allusions to current issues: its skein of plot lines includes a man-made climate crisis, femicide, the erasure of democratic freedoms and an obscene gulf between rich and poor. All that. Or, you can take it as a humungous space opera combining Indian mythology with bits and bobs from Star Wars, Mad Max, Blade Runner and The Handmaid’s Tale, whipping them together in a great cinematic froth. Take your pick. Either way, it is overwhelming. And this is just episode one.

Skip forward past the titles. Shazam, it’s 6,000 years since Ashwarthama stamped through that field of the dead. There is now just one city, Kashi, full of poverty-stricken grafters who scrabble at the gates of The Complex, the ultimate in gated estates – it is an inverted pyramid, so vast that the park on the flat roof includes an ocean – begging for the leaders’ indulgence.  These people would kill each other for an apple. 

Meanwhile, newcomers from the wastelands beyond are captured by guards looking for girls who are or may grow up to become fertile. They are imprisoned, fed and duly “seeded.” Not that anyone wants babies; it is their amniotic fluid, which is siphoned off in early pregnancy, that is so desirable. Fed through another grotesque maze of tubes, this “serum” is keeping the withered ruler Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Haasan, always splendid) alive. 

Somewhere beyond the endless desert there is, however, a rebel settlement called Shambala, where the belief holds that a blessed mother will arrive one day to give birth to a savior who will set everything to rights. (What this film shows, above all, is how much myth is shared across cultures.) 

She duly arrives in the comely person of Samarthi (Deepika Padukone), under the protection of the now ancient Ashwarthama. In a plum bit of casting, he is played by 81-year-old Bollywood cinema legend Amitabh Bachchan, wearing the pain of millennia and looking very much like Gandalf. He even carries a magic staff that, like most of the props, is inclined to burst into flames. 

Of course, the monsters of The Complex are also on Samarthi’s tail, as is a battle-worn bounty hunter called Bhairava who hopes to sell her to The Complex. Bhairava is out for himself and the devil take the hindmost, but as played by the hugely popular pan-Indian star Prabhas, he is never less than likable, funny, impressively invincible and undeniably hot. Think Harrison Ford in Star Wars, with that cheeky grin; like Han Solo, Bhairava even has a sidekick robot. He may be a very naughty boy, but he has the heft of a hero in the making: watch this very large, very hectic space.

The designers of that space have, of course, had a field day. Like Kashi – or, indeed, like the world of Mad Max – Shambala is a mix of high-tech forcefields, knocked-together steampunk vehicles and medieval weaponry. There is a tremendous amount of spectacular fighting, often including flying; fist fights bring down entire buildings while leaving the combatants without a scratch. This is the art of the impossible, brought to us by CGI that, unlike many of its western equivalents, is given every chance to go large. Why try to disguise what you can celebrate? 

So this is how the world ends, not with a whimper but a great many massive bangs, battles and increasingly complicated alliances, betrayals and stirring songs. It is terrific, cathartic fun – and, given that Vishnu’s next avatar has apparently yet to be born, what is described in the marketing blurbs as the Kalki Cinematic Universe can be expected to rage, burn and rip-roar for a good few editions yet, leaving audiences happily flattened with exhaustion. What can I say? All power to that burning staff.

Title: Kalki 2898 AD
Studio: Vyjayanthi Movies
Release date: June 27, 2024
Director-screenwriter: Nag Ashwin
Cast: Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Kamal Haasan
Running time: 3 hrs



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