The ‘I’ in Chennai filmmaker Shankar’s latest overblown entertainer stands for a perfume, a virus, the notion of beauty lying in the eye of the beholder, and an eye-for-an-eye solution to injustice. No movie can carry the burden of so many diverse ideas, and certainly not one that has indifferent writing, a lead actor mugging all the way to prison, one of AR Rahman’s least memorable scores, and background music set at the level that reads “This has the potential of damaging eardrums.”

‘I’ is a vendetta drama that continues Shankar’s obsessions with material progress and medieval justice. Previous films by him like Gentleman, Indian, Anniyan and Sivaji (all of which have been dubbed in Hindi, as has been ‘I’) display his unerring ability to articulate the general public’s love for extra-legal solutions to avenge wrongdoing. Shankar is celebrated for his visual flourish, his clever use of computer-generated effects, and his ability to mount songs on an impressive scale, but the key to his popularity is his articulation of righteous vigilante solutions to crime.

‘I’ is closest to Anniyan in its vituperative treatment of its villains. The movie has been pitched as a love story, but it appears to be Shankar’s take on acid attacks on women. There are some who advocate that the only form of justice for people disfigured in such crimes is for their attackers to be disfigured in turn. Guess which side of the debate Shankar is on?

Beauty is truly skin deep

Fittingly for a movie obsessed with appearance, ‘I’ is set in a world of narcissism. Lingesan (Vikram) is a small-timer with oversized muscles and two pursuits: to win a bodybuilding contest and the heart of supermodel Diya (Amy Jackson). Lingesan manages both, earning the hatred of rival model John (Upen Patel). Lingesan also angers a gay stylist who covets him (Ojas Rajani) and a wealthy businessman with a striking resemblance to Vijay Mallya. Lingesan’s face and body are deformed to teach him a lesson, and in turn, he subjects his tormentors to grotesque makeovers straight out of a horror movie.

Clearly, there is no greater crime in Shankar’s universe than to be poor, ugly and unfit. The movie’s ultimate message, that beauty is only skin deep, is laughable considering the attention paid to Vikram’s chiselled physique and Jackson’s hourglass figure and cleavage.

Shankar’s interest in the physical attractiveness of his actors leads to two unintended moments of hilarity. One is a never-ending bodybuilding contest with more slicked hunks of meat in tiny underwear than in the World Wrestling Entertainment roster. The other is the fantasy song “Isaak Taari” (“Mersalaayitten” in Tamil), in which everyday objects such as a mobile phone, a motorcycle, and a piece of fish all morph into Diya.

Amy Jackson is a sport for wearing a suit modelled on a cellphone with the red and green buttons displayed in the right places. Previously of interest only for her looks, she is actually one of the few good things about ‘I’. Jackson is sincere and convincing as the model whose beauty is the cause of Lingesan’s ruin.

Vikram hams heavily as Lingesan and overdoes the commoner bit, but he is far better as the hunchback with tomato-sized warts on his body who scurries around unnoticed on his mission. Vikram’s loud performance is in step with the overall tone of ‘I.’ Shankar pulls out all stops to deliver a spectacle like little that has been seen before. He shoots in one of China’s most picturesque locations, orchestrates bang-for-the-buck action sequences, and scores heavily in the make-up department. But he simply can’t see that his characterisation of the gay stylist can be considered homophobic, his attitude towards disfigurement will deeply bother viewers with physical imperfections, and that lines comparing Chinese people to “chowmein” and “hakka noodles” are unwise considering that a major potion of the movie has been shot in China. An eye for an eye truly makes the world – and some filmmakers – go blind.