‘Kalki’ review: A grand but dull affair where the only payoff is the face-off between Prabhas & AB

Kalki 2898 AD is a concept film with some sprinkling of dystopian sci-fi. It’s also very expensive and very long. Kalki is so long, in fact, that it felt like I started watching the film in Satyug, and by the time it finished, it was Kalyug.

This feeling of spending an eternity watching Kalki is both good and bad.

It’s good because the first half of Kalki is a complete disaster, and the second half is not bad. So by the time the film finishes, you only have a faint memory of the dull nonsense that transpired in the tedious first half, and exit the hall exhausted but also thinking that it’s not a bad film.

It’s bad because sitting through one-and-a-half hours of 44-year-old Prabhas trying to act cute, watching sexy but pointless Disha Patani arrive and exit for no apparent reason, is baffling. Worse are the long, dull scenes where the film’s concept, its setting, who is who and why the film is called Kalki 2898 AD are explained. It’s boring, sleep-inducing and a waste of at least half of the Rs 600 crore that were spent in making the movie.

The story is simple, but because it wants to be taken seriously and doesn’t want to be dismissed as a Baahubali-wannabe, its story, characters, sets and costumes have been complicated. So, instead of getting Hindu mythology in a mythological setting, we get Hindu mythology in a Hollywood dystopian setting.

The film’s plot takes off from the last chapter of Mahabharata that is reimagined a bit and then given an epilogue in which Ashwatthama, the son of Dronacharya, gets some purpose and a way out of Krishna’s curse.

The film’s look, characters and costumes are inspired, even plagiarised, from Star Wars, Dune, Mad Max Fury Road, The Lord of The Rings and Alien. But despite the similarities, the soaring imagination and meticulous work that went into creating Kalki‘s many worlds and sets is quite impressive. The effect is a dramatic, stunning world that sucks you in, but doesn’t engage or entertain.

The problem is that this human drama takes so long to gather pace and tension, that by the time the film gets exciting, it’s time for the end credits to roll. 

Kalki opens in a CGI Kurukshetra. A computer-generated Ashwatthama (Amitabh Bachchan) has just shot the Brahmastra towards the womb of a pregnant Uttara to end the Pandavas’ lineage.

Krishna gets angry and condemns Ashwatthama to roam the forests for eternity. Ashwatthama gets sad and asks for a way out. Okay, says Krishna. When Kalyug gets truly terrible and people start wailing and praying for god to save them, I will take rebirth. You can redeem yourself by protecting me then. Cool, says computer-generated Ashwatthama who neither speaks nor looks like Bachchan.

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A still from ‘Kalki’

About 6,000 years later, the world is a heap of dry sand and all indoor spaces look like old garages where every piece of metal is rusting. Everyone is bandaged for some reason and either lives in or is headed to Kashi, the oldest and now the only surviving city.

This city is split into two parts — there’s a posh place called Complex, and then there’s the world outside Complex. Complex is like those expensive gated-communities in Gurgaon where entry is possible only with one million units that can be accumulated by doing the bidding of the managers and commanders of Complex. 

The world outside Complex has the dystopian, science-fiction aesthetic that we have seen in many dystopian, science-fiction films. There are vehicles that glide in the air but look like they are made with leftover nuts, bolts and cycle chains. People wear many layers of shredded clothes, have poor dental hygiene and like face tattoos. At every twist and turn, bad guys in leather jackets with shoulder spikes appear out of nowhere to delay things.  

Bhairava (Prabhas), a selfish bounty hunter, is desperate to enter Complex, and to do this he will catch whoever he needs to accumulate units. Complex is owned and run by Supreme Yaskin (Kamal Hassan), a guru-god like creature who sits in lotus pose and hovers over a shimmering, indoor water body. Supreme’s personal space is like a very fancy spa that reminded me of Leela hotel’s opulent, garish interiors. 

Supreme is frail. There are cracks and gaps in his head that emit light and pipes ooze out of his body. He desires a particular serum that needs to be extracted from pregnant ladies. Sadly, in this extraction process, most ladies die. So a significant area of Complex is kept exclusively as the living quarters of ladies who are segregated by their utility — white robes and First Class meals for fertile ladies, and black robes with rajma-chawal combo meals for non-fertile ladies.

There is also a secret society of rebels who live in a secret place called Shambhala. They are against all this Complex and Supreme business and are waiting for Ma to give birth to god. Who Ma is, they know not. 

Ashwatthama, all bandaged, sad and without his sparkling third eye, dwells in some old underground temple, waiting for a sign of god’s rebirth.

SUM-80 (Deepika Padukone) is in a black robe but is also preggers.  But preggers escapes, Ashwatthama decides to play protector, Shambhala gets all excited, and Bhairava figures that SUM-80 is his ticket to the Complex.

Since everything and everyone is a puzzle in Kalki, the film spends most of its first half introducing its main characters and explaining their situation, motivation. We also meet many irrelevant characters in airborne vehicles, and watch dull video-game type of fights with strange arms and ammunition. A lot of time is also wasted on Bhairava who looks like an aunty with a top knot as he acts coy and cracks jokes with his tiny robot that are not funny at all. 

Though the film’s second half also has large patches where people are flying about, including Commander Manas (Saswata Chatterjee) who hops on his flying saucer to save the day for Supreme, and everyone keeps chucking tiny, shiny balls that go boom, Deepika looks luminous and the film is animated by the dramatic fight sequences between the film’s two main characters.

The action scenes involving Ashwatthama and Bhairava are fantastic and fun. Prabhas, dressed like an action hero, is light and funny, while Bachchan, a cross between Gandolf and Bhishma Pitamah, is stoic and scary.

This face-off, between Bachchan and Prabhas, is where Kalki’s elaborate imagination in inventing its many worlds comes alive. That is when the film lights up. The rest of Kalki is tiresome.

Supreme, sadly, doesn’t enter the fight just yet as he has been hovering over water and waiting for serum. But we may see him fly out of Complex in Kalki 2

Watch Kalki 2898 AD for the crackling chemistry between Prabhas and Bachchan if you have the patience to sit through its first half.  

Movie: Kalki 2898 AD

Cast: Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hassan, Deepika Padukone, Disha Patani, Shobhana, Saswata Chatterjee, Brahmanandam

Direction: Nag Ashwin

Rating: **1/2