Fantasy and pseudoscience in Rajinikanth’s ‘2.0’

Rajinikanth’s film 2.0, which released last year, was recently uploaded on Amazon Prime and I finally watched it in its entirety. It is a dumpster-fire of masculinity, sexism and misogyny, which is not surprising after Petta was what it was. 2.0 also goes one step further and confuses fantasy for license to peddle pseudoscience, ultimately creating a movie that really tests the extent to which its viewers can suspend their disbelief.

One of the movie’s principal claims is that people possess “auras” composed of particles called “micro-photons” and that the “auras” have some kind of energy potential. Rajinikanth’s character then elaborates that a Russian scientist named Frank Baranowski has produced proof of their existence, that these “auras” can be rendered visible through a (simple) technique called Kirlian photography. The problem here is that a) everyone trusts the white guy more, and b) Frank Baranowski actually exists, and he’s been saying that people have “auras” and that godmen have bigger ones!

Fantasy is a form of fiction marked by creative imagination, frequently set in worlds and among peoples whose specific features have been invented to accentuate some narrative element that the author wishes to employ for effect. There are several types of stories within this parent genre that illustrate the different degrees to which fantastic elements make an appearance. But irrespective of their relative extremeness, fantasy stories are not classified as pseudoscience even though they may claim scientific value within the fiction’s narrative because they don’t attempt to explain the fantastic using the real. They explain the fantastic – should they have to – using only the fantastic.

Consider the example of Flatland, first published in 1884. In this book, the author Edwin Abbott Abbott describes a two-dimensional realm populated by men, who are lines, and women, who are points. It was intended as an allegory of life in the Victorian era and did not make specific claims as to the existence of such a realm in our physical universe. It remained allegorical from start to finish.

On the other hand, the Harry Potter series describes a secret world of wizardry hidden from our own by cleverly disguised magical barriers. Its books harbour as significant an element of the real as they do of the imagined, but when the fantastic is employed, the author makes no effort to ensure it is not mistaken for nonfiction because it is evident. This illustrates how even when the real and the imagined coexist, the author makes no attempts to breach the line that divides them, keeping the series in the same genre as Flatland. So while Harry, Ron and Hermione cross the magical gate into platform 9 3/4, the audience is given no reason to assume such a world really exists.

Different works of fantasy do this in different ways. A Song of Ice and Fire preserves the laws of physics so that dragons flap their wings like birds do to fly but is completely disinterested in how they might have evolved. Hulk and Spider-Man resort to ludicrous methods to make heroes of their protagonists but aside from some gibberish involving the words “radiation” and/or “gamma rays”, it isn’t clear why these men are what they are. Iron Man III asked us to believe one man built a particle accelerator in his basement and pushed right up against the wall between belief and disbelief.

But 2.0 tears this wall down, most pronouncedly in its attempts to explain what it believes is true. It seeks to justify itself and its choices using (questionable) information together with epistemological biases from the real world that make it seem as if its claims are legitimate. This is in bad faith: in the foreseeable future, there are always going to be people in the audience who may not be fully aware of where the real ends and the fantastic begins. But while fantasy fiction – as discussed – has always harboured the necessary implicit safeguards to maintain its qualification as such, S. Shankar – 2.0‘s writer and director – has ignored them and cheated.

The times demand pellucidity, so: Auras don’t exist. Micro-photons don’t exist. Neither auras nor micro-photons can be scientifically verified, insofar as science is defined as a way to systematically discover new information about the world and free it from cognitive biases to the extent possible. Frank Baranowski is mistaken. The products of Kirlian photography can be explained using a well-understood phenomenon called coronal discharge.

Indeed, ignoring its abject inability to surprise viewers given its cast of actors, 2.0 would have been a perfectly fine entertainer in the convention of Tamil cinema’s hero-fixated entertainers if it had dispensed with the self-justification. Shankar had to have known this, as much as he had to have known that the silver screen, for all its potential, is not an interface for dialogue. It is a one-way broadcast medium that does not brook disagreement in any forms other than commerce.

And by working his “aura” BS into a feature film in a way that betrays fantasy fiction’s purpose, Shankar has perpetrated what is at best a sleight of hand on 2.0‘s viewers, and a fraud at worst. I’m inclined to believe it’s fraud.

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.