After reading all about the buzz with 7 Aum Arivu, this was the film I was most looking forward to watch this Diwali. Especially since we had the promise of English subtitles for the first time for a Tamil film in a mainstream cinema release here in Melbourne. However there was so much hype in the build-up to its release that it was almost inevitable that it would fail to meet my high expectations. Despite an interesting concept and a generally good cast, the film pacing is slow with too many gaping plot holes to be anything more than just an OK watch. But there are some good points along the way and finally seeing a Tamil film in the cinema (with subtitles) is a definite plus. This is the first time I’ve seen Surya on the big screen and he certainly makes a good impression. The action scenes are well shot and I’m always happy to see a heroine who is capable of more than hand wringing, sobbing and looking helpless. I just wish they had spent more time on the actual plot and less on the set-up which takes up most of the film.
The film starts with an almost documentary style depiction of the life of Bodhidharma – the 5th century Tamilian monk who reputedly was the founder of the Shaolin temple in China. The documentary feel comes mainly from the interview style used and the lecturing voice-over as 150 years is neatly compressed into 20 minutes. The entire story is treated as factual although a quick internet search shows there appear to be a number of different versions around and no clear agreement on Bodhidharma’s lineage. But that really doesn’t matter here as the point is to illustrate Dharma’s expertise in war craft, medicine and hypnotic techniques, which these opening scenes do very well. Surya is perfect as the Pallava prince who journeys to China to become the ‘blue-eyed barbarian’. Yes, I did notice the blue contact lenses. Much is also made of the fact that people in China know exactly who Bodhidharma was while the Indians interviewed had never heard of him. This lack of knowledge of Tamilian heritage and history by people in India is pointed out a few times throughout the film and does become a tad wearing after a while.
Once the story of Bodhidharma has been established, we are transported back to the present day where an assassin has, rather improbably, been sent from the Chinese government to deal with a troublesome scientist and to initiate something called Project Red. The assassin Dong Lee (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is the top student of Kung Fu from the Shaolin temple and apparently an expert in all forms but seems to prefer the use of hypnosis where possible.
The scientist in question is Subha Srinivasan (Shruti Hassan), a researcher in the field of genetics whose work involves manipulating genes to resurrect DNA encoded attributes such as the fighting techniques and medical prowess displayed by Damo. Subha has tracked down the descendent of Damo who is most likely to be suitable for a little gene manipulation and he just happens to be the circus performer and general layabout Aravind (Surya). While Aravind thinks he has managed to trick Subha into meeting him to further their relationship, in fact she has been stalking him for over a year and has a scary collection of his discards including a tooth brush to show for it. It makes a change for the hero to be the victim of some determined stalking and I liked this deviation from the norm. Strangely Aravind is not as upset by the stalking as he is by the realisation that Subha doesn’t love him but just wants to get at his genes. Although from my SI filmi education so far I thought that stalking was supposed to prove true love but maybe I’ve just got it all wrong?
Not only has Subha been collecting Aravind’s DNA, but has compounded her dishonesty by stealing a book from the local museum to further her research. It’s no surprise then to discover that her project doesn’t get past the local ethics committee although their reasons for rejecting her are more based on her youth and lack of kow-towing to their authority rather than her actual unethical approach to research. I found a lot of the science very funny since I do actually work as a medical researcher, often alongside geneticists, so have more than a passing knowledge about the subject. So while a lot of the science is very dodgy and eventually becomes implausible, it does have some basis in fact and it’s a relief not to have too much dumbing down of the subject matter. However the most unrealistic part of the film for me is Shuba’s apparently unlimited source of funds for her research – now that really was unbelievable!
Having learnt that Subha was only interested in him as a human lab rat, Aravind is devastated and mopes around theatrically (well he is a circus performer) until he finds out about the threat from Project Red. Dong Lee is also trying to assassinate Subha and decides Aravind needs to be removed too in order to guarantee the success of his mission. In between saving Subha and trying to save the world, Aravind barely has time for Subha to genetically transform him into Bodhidharma.
The first section of the film detailing Bodhidharma’s exploits in China is definitely the best part of the film. There is very little dialogue and Surya makes the most of his very expressive eyes to convey the various trials Bodhidharma has to undergo. While copious amounts of research appear to have gone into the making of the film, in this section it has paid off and it makes for a strong opening. Sadly though this isn’t maintained. The story has a lot of potential as it mixes science fiction with a disaster movie theme and a dash of Indian masala romance but it doesn’t quite gel. The plot rambles over the first half and it takes far too long to find out exactly what Project Red is and why Subha is a threat to the Chinese. The romance doesn’t work very well as a plot point and there is very little chemistry between the two leads. However I think this is intentional as Subha tries to keep her distance from someone she essentially sees as a walking experiment but there was a lot of time spent developing this non-relationship which slowed the story. There also doesn’t seem to have been any need to make Aravind a circus performer other than to make Surya learn a few new tricks since the whole circus background is totally abandoned in the second half.
Shruti Hassan is fine as the researcher and committed geneticist. She has plenty of passion and is able to convey the obsession necessary for Subha’s research although this does make her lack of enthusiasm in her romance with Aravind more obvious. She is particularly good in the confrontation scenes – those with the research committee and also with Dong Lee. Her character is strong, decisive and capable all of which she handles with ease.
Johnny Tri Ngyugen has excellent presence as the villain and exudes chilly menace. However there is a little too much reliance on his super hypnosis and not enough good old fashioned kick-ass kung fu for my liking , and this slows down the action sequences. In one scene, where he hypnotises a large number of innocent bystanders and sends them after Aravind and Subha like destructo-robots, he keeps attacking for much longer than any respectable villain should allow before realising that the technique isn’t working and a change of tactics is in order. Perhaps it’s my over exposure to Southern Indian cinema but Peter Hein is an excellent action choreographer and I wanted to see more actual fighting between Dong Lee and Aravind. The few fights they had were worth waiting for though and I did enjoy the final sequence despite the overtones of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The soundtrack by Harris Jayaraj is great and I do love the songs, but while they are generally well pictured they don’t fit easily into the narrative and only serve to further disrupt the story. The exception to this is the first song ‘ Oh Ringa Ring’ which is fun and a good introduction to the character of Aravind. The songs are however the only time Aravind and Subha have any chemistry together so perhaps that’s one reason for leaving them in.
The screenplay by director A. R. Murugadoss is the main problem with 7 Aum Arivu as the film takes so long to get going once it moves to the modern era, and then is full of plot holes and unlikely scenarios. The last few minutes are dedicated to moralising about history and having pride and belief in your ancestry referring back to the lack of knowledge in India about the life of Bodhidharma. It seems very ‘Hollywood’, which seems to feel the need to deliver a sermon along with a happy ending, and didn’t seem to fit into a film which ends up being more masala than perhaps is intended. It’s still worth watching for the opening scenes and good performances from the leads, but just don’t expect too much from the actual story.