Amitabh Bachchan Deepika Padukone and Prabhas in Kalki 2898 AD
(AA Creations)

Despite Issues, ‘Kalki 2898 AD’ Is an Ambitious Step in the Right Direction for Indian Sci-Fi

The sci-fi and superhero genre in India has long been awaiting its messiah. Over the years, there have been many contenders, like the recent Brahmāstra (2022), yet we still haven’t found The One. But Nag Ashwin’s Kalki 2898 AD is surely an ambitious step towards apotheosis.

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Kalki 2898 AD is a Telugu dystopian science-fiction film coming out of India, written and directed by Nag Ashwin. The film stars huge names from across Indian cinema—Prabhas (Baahubali), Amitabh Bachchan (The Great Gatsby), Kamal Haasan (Dasavathaaram), Deepika Padukone (Jawan), Disha Patani, Brahmanandam, Saswata Chatterjee (Kahaani), and more. The cinematography is by Djordje Stojiljkovic, editing by Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao, and music by Santhosh Narayanan. The VFX in the Kalki is by British Asian studios Prime Focus DNEG, which has worked on films like Dune and Blade Runner, and The Embassy Visual Effects.

The international influences in Kalki 2898 AD are too obvious

From its first look, released in a Hall H panel at San Diego Comic Con 2023 (a first for an Indian film), comparisons between Kalki 2898 AD and Hollywood sci-fi films like Dune and Mad Max were inevitable.

They aren’t off the mark, either. The influences and visual inspirations from Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Transformers, and more are all obvious when you watch the film. The biggest one is Mad Max: Fury Road, since Kalki too is set in a post-apocalypse city, Kasi, where one man and his army control resources that are high up beyond the general people’s reach (in an inverted pyramid hovering in the air, called the Complex). He is called Supreme Commander Yaskin, a shriveled old fellow connected to tubes, who keeps fertile women as his lab rats for a specific purpose.

Sum-80 (Deepika Padukone) is one of them. She gets pregnant and her baby is special, a messiah whose coming has been foretold in long-forgotten scriptures. Like Star Wars, this world has a rebel alliance that keeps the resistance up from a secret location, Shambala. Their people rescue Sum-80, but not before there’s a bounty on her head, and one very persistent, very capable bounty hunter called Bhairava is tracking her.

Luckily for Sum-80, her only hope is an Obi Wan-style protector, an old immortal warrior, Ashwatthama, who towers over all that chase her. So now, it’s a war for Sum-80’s unborn baby god amongst Ashwatthama, the people of Shambala, Bhairava, and those evil Complex peeps.

Yet, Kalki 2898 has its engagingly original moments

Prabhas as Bhairava in Kalki 2898 AD
(AA Films)

If you go to its YouTube channel, there are multiple episodes in which director Ashwin elaborates on the origins of the Kalki 2898′s story. It is inspired heavily by Hindu scriptures and the mythological epic Mahabharata, whose heroes survive to fight the wars of a post-apocalyptic world in Kali Yug, ravaged by death, despair, and the worst of humanity.

This, of course, is a great foundation for storytelling for Indian audiences, but what Kalki 2898 does well is bring back some of Indian mythology’s most fabled warriors from the age of gods and heroes and fuse them with a dystopian sci-fi tale. 

This is Indian Marvel and DC, pop culture, and legends, if you will, with rich character histories and possibilities of redemption and reincarnation arcs already built in to them. And it works greatly to elevate the film’s peak moments, where all its issues slide away, its best efforts and effects click into place, and its superstars perform heroic feats that become completely believable.

Kalki 2898 is brimming with star power, yet one shines the brightest

Amitabh Bachchan as Ashwatthama in Kalki 2898 AD
(AA Films)

As an Indian, I can tell you, that is one stacked cast, with some great cameos, including a familiar face from RRR (and lots of inside jokes pertaining to Prabhas’ time shooting for Baahubali). But Kalki also has a very typical Indian problem: It momentarily forgets that the character is more important than the superstar. You don’t need to repeatedly underline Prabhas’ superstardom by giving them over-the-top introduction scenes that slow the pace, overstay their welcome, and feel forced in their humor.

That problem disappears the moment Amitabh Bachchan’s Ashwatthama steps up. What a perfect casting this is! The character towers over everything, and dwarfs even the actor’s already towering stardom, as it should. His stature, his baritone voice, the perfect diction, and the exhaustion of being an immortal etched on his face … everything belongs. He gets the loudest hoots and claps from the audience.

The rest of the cast’s performance pales in comparison to what Bachchan brings to the table. We’ve seen Deepika Padukone play this part before, and she’s sufficient, but needed more to do. And the those specially designed tech and vehicles pitted against Ashwatthama and his stick, set in the backdrop of grand set pieces, sweeps you away. Oh, and Bhairava’s droid Bujji is cute with its banter.

Kalki 2898 entertains despite a slow start and quite a few bumps in the road

A shot from Kalki 2898 AD
(AA Films)

The film is not without its issues. It is strongest when it is playing with mythology, but weak when it is trying to imitate or act like a regular superstar vehicle with song and dance, and the hero acting silly. The special effects are inconsistent, and character development thin. However, the ambition, scale, and intent, especially when it comes world building, is there.

The first half almost lets you down, until Ashwatthama returns to the story. And the second half is where the magic happens. The climactic sequence is thrilling, because once again, it is rooted in Indian mythology instead of imitating something we’ve already seen before.

Is Kalki 2898 AD worth your time?

Definitely. It’s an ambitious step for Indian sci-fi genre, and even though it stumbles and fumbles, it’s a step in the right direction. Since it is taking inspiration from franchises like Dune, it should also be determined to do better than to just have vision and intent. Director Nag Ashwin will need to show tangible improvement in what he is clearly capable of building: a game-changing Indian sci-fi epic.

Kalki 2898 AD releases internationally on June 27, 2024, in Telugu and Hindi, as well as English, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam.

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Jinal Bhatt
Jinal Bhatt (She/Her) is a staff writer for The Mary Sue. An editor, writer, film and culture critic with 7+ years of experience, she writes primarily about entertainment, pop culture trends, and women in film, but she’s got range. Jinal is the former Associate Editor for Hauterrfly, and Senior Features Writer for Mashable India. When not working, she’s fangirling over her favourite films and shows, gushing over fictional men, cruising through her neverending watchlist, trying to finish that book on her bedside, and fighting relentless urges to rewatch Supernatural.