A “Beauty and the Beast”-themed romantic thriller, vet Indian helmer S. Shankar’s Tamil-language “I” basks in the rarefied world of top modeling. Numbers are staged as elaborate CGI-enhanced commercials shot against sumptuous locales, somewhat naturalizing the film’s potlatch-style flaunting of its towering budget. Shankar’s visual ingenuity keeps things zippy for much of the hefty 188-minute running time, and star Chiyaan Vikram delivers a knockout three-pronged performance, but this cinematic bravura is offset by underdeveloped scripting, flatly one-dimensional villains and overdone lone-hero-vs.-swarms-of-murderous-attackers setpieces. Nevertheless, with considerable suspension of disbelief, “I” should fulfill audiences’ most expensive fantasies. (It’s already grossed more than $9 million theatrically.)
Hero Lingesan (Vikram) undergoes two radical metamorphoses during the course of the film, beginning as a poor, none-too-bright, pose-striking bodybuilder. Dumb luck, a desperate beauty, a talented makeover artist and the power of love turn him into a supermodel-heartthrob. Shankar accomplishes this transformation by trotting out the tired Bollywood trope by which the sophisticated rich-girl heroine uses the clueless country bumpkin hero for her own ends, only to discover through jealousy and/or by abandonment that she feels true affection for him. Thankfully, as supermodel Diya, Amy Jackson lends her cliched heroine with more inherent sweetness and genuine emotion than mere hair-tossing attitude. The two lovers repeatedly plight their troth in dialogue, song and overproduced commercials amid fantastically exotic, flower-strewn Chinese landscapes.
But Lingesan’s triumphs are punctuated at regular intervals by massive assaults on his person by enemies he has unwittingly collected along the way. Thus he must do battle with an enraged bodybuilding rival and endless streams of oiled and toned musclemen, as beefcake and dumbbells litter the gym floor. In China, hordes of acid-throwing, bamboo-thrusting, bicycle-riding local practitioners of the martial arts greet our hapless hero at every turn.
Finally, when all individually launched attempts fail, the villains join forces, the defeated bodybuilder (Syed Siddiq) conspiring with a supplanted top male model (Upen Patel), a lovelorn transgender person (Ojas Rajani), a thwarted rich businessman (Ramkumar Ganesan) and a scheming doctor (Suresh Gopi) to inject Lingesan with a virus, which transforms him into a hideously deformed hunchback (Weta Workshop did a bang-up job on the prosthetics and makeup). Lingesan’s carefully plotted revenge plans against his enemies, which leave each of them more disfigured than himself, are scattered throughout the film.
Shankar further complicates Lingesan’s multiple metamorphoses by shuffling the film’s chronology, so that his acts of vengeance often precede his victimization. Indeed, he first appears as the apparently villainous hunchback, conking Diya over the head before she’s about to wed another, and chaining her to the walls of a dilapidated villa. Since most audiences going in will already be aware of Vikram’s triple role, the time shifts function mainly as a way to highlight the actor’s performance by juxtaposing separate appearances in each guise.
Vikram easily steals the show, his hunchback managing to remain heroic and sympathetic even when sporting bulbous protrusions on his face and affecting animal-scuttling movements in his body, his acting ably counterpointed by Jackson’s luminous fragility. But Lingesan’s foes come off as unremarkable, or as dubious stereotypes (Rajani’s character in particular), their blandness or simplistic exaggeration hardly justifying their extended screen time.
Any social critiques of advertising or hints of moralistic parable about the ultimate unimportance of physical beauty are swept aside by Shankar’s obvious love of all the ingenious and/or gorgeous special effects that money can buy. Commercial to its core, the opulent numbers-cum-advertisements serve as product placements as well as fanciful mirrors of the main plot.