Reprogramming the Robot: Hindi Hits and Holiness

Shankar’s Endhiran, or Robot, is one of the biggest films you’ve never heard of.  Released in 2010, the film cost Rs.180 crores (approx US$40 million) and is currently the highest grossing Hindi film of all time.

The story is a mishmash of sci-fi personality tales.  It’s kind of an Inspector Gadget  meets Frankenstein/Darth Vader with shades of Robocop, Transformers, and The Terminator.  The basic story is thus:  A scientist (Dr. Vaseegaran, played by the aging but verile Ranjnikath.  Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him.  Unless you watch a lot of Hindi cinema.  He’s no Shahruhk Kahn or anything, but he is well know) creates robot (Chitti, also played by Ranjnikath) that is completely based on himself, but is programmed not to have feelings.  Dr. V hopes to market him to the military so machines can blow up machines instead of people.  His robot complete, he restores his relationship with his constant girlfriend, Sana (Aishawariya Rai.  That name you may have heard of. Devdas, Bride and Prejudice, The Pink Panther 2).  When the military rejects his project because Chiti has no feelings, (Spock) Dr. V takes pains to teach him about emotion, but Chiti only really comes to life when he’s struck by lightning (Frankenstein) and kissed by Sana.  Now Dr. V’s competitor for Sana, Chiti wages a war of love.  Dr. V get’s so angry he dismantles the robot and sends him to the dump only to have his rival scientist (Dr. Bohra, played by Danny Denzongpa) discover the machine attempting to put itself together and exact revenge.  When Dr. B implants a “destruction programming” chip in Chiti’s brain, the robot goes on the rampage, cloning himself (Star Wars) and wreaking havoc on the surrounding populous.

Now borrowing from other stories is what storytellers do best (Shakespeare, etc.), and Robot is distinct enough, not just because it’s not American, but also because enough familiar plots are combined to be enjoyable for a broad range of people.  Plus, as it is Hindi cinema, it’s full of dance numbers.  Many of them entailing machine men and hip hop.  Think: Lady Gaga + Star Wars + Busby Berkely, with music by A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).  One of the numbers includes Bad Chiti on a gravity defying surfboard, dressed in black and weilding what is unmistakably a lightsaber.  There are many more Star Wars references.  (In fact, it would be a fun challenge for Star Wars fans to watch and count them.  If you are interested, let me know…).

What’s most fascinating to me is the Indian treatment of how Chiti becomes a real boy.  First, he is all about love.  When Dr. V takes him to see the military officers after giving him emotional content, Chiti puts a rose in a hand grenade.  He has been kissed by Sana and has made an emotional connection, and love is what he’s all about.

His love for Sana, however, creates jealousy.  His creator, like a Greek god, sees the robot as a rival.  He commits robocide and violently destroys him begetting only more violence.

So there are social implications.  Chiti was made to save lives, to make society better.  But when his is destroyed and reprogrammed (again, Darth Vader.  How many is that so far?) he becomes a lethal force.  Then his cloned army (there’s another one…) becomes a social force.  In one of the most intriguing (and high budget graphic animation) sequences, Chiti and the lesser Chitis join together to become a LEGO-like sphere, cobra, alligator, tower, drill, and numerous other larger “bodies” that are constructed of individual robot bodies.The implication therefore is that societies, groups made of individuals, can be lead or influenced by an individual and can lead to social good or social evil.  Dr. V inadvertently starts a circle of violence that only ends when the robot is “reprogrammed”  and the “destruction programming” chip is removed.

Indian society is very collective.  Yet it has a history of strong individuals making a positive social force (Gandhi, Buddha, Mother Theresa, etc.). Lately some friends and I have been talking a lot about how social change happens.  It must happen both on an individual and institutional level.  Do you try to  change the individuals, so they can help change the institutions, or do you try to change the institutions, so they can help individuals?

I’m a Wesleyan, and the Methodist tradition put forth by John Wesley says that by setting up an intimate institution (a group) and working on changing the individual (through spiritual discipline) one changes society.  And for Wesley and 19th century England, it worked.  But Robot is by no means a Christian film.  It’s very much and Indian film, filled with religious generalities.  It leans heavily toward Hindu though. Chiti reads the Rig Vedas, a classic Hindu text, as part of his emotional training and at one point magnetizes some thugs machine guns to himself, then transforms himself into an image of Vishnu.

Broad appeal (it is a blockbuster) means it needs to be watered down religion, though.  And it’s not uncommon for a taxi in India to have a Christian rosary hanging from a rear view mirror while an image of Ganesh resides on the dash.  So, these universal religious or social truths (is there such a thing?) come through (or maybe they just play well in blockbusters):  evil in the world must be addressed by changing the evildoer.  Dr. V is the one who dresses up like Evil Chiti in order to get close to him and, eventually, reprogram him.  Dr. V must change himself.  His robot was not evil from inception (original sin? Sin nature?), but was programmed to do evil.  In order to get rid of this violence, Chiti must be rendered helpless so the Doctor (is the creator the only one who can”save”?) can remove them implanted chip.

There’s much to be read into that plotline, whether one is Baptist, Buddhist, or Ba’hai. The idea that the robot (read: humanity) is created by an imperfect being (Dr. V) does not correlate with Christian though.  Nor does the idea that a kiss (affection) awakens emotion (or does it?  Should Christians really rule out affection as “not love”? Not the same as love, maybe, but affection affects us.  Touch is a powerful thing).  The idea that humans (or robots) need a “renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) is a Christian thought, although it’s not exclusively Christian.  In fact, many Hindu teachings stress either indulgence or aceticism as a path to renewing the mind. In this way, being pseudo-religious science fiction, Robot once again references Star Wars.  (That makes seven references to Star Wars, just so far in this post.)

So, can a Christian watching a Hindu film see correlaries, applications for their own life?  Is that dangerous or not?  For those of us who see holiness as an agent of social change, I think Robot asks good questions, even if I may not agree with all the answers.  Which proves once again that even the most commercial of cinema, which references other commercial cinema, and is made in the most prolific and unabashedly entertainment-not-art driven movie industries, can be thoughtfully engaged, and is worthy of critical thought.  May the holiness Robot be with you.

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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