Imagine a Raavan with three heads suffering from multiple personality disorder. The left head says one thing, the right says quite the other, and the one in the middle can, well, only shake his head. Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva elicits a similar feeling: an American superhero sensibility meeting rooted Hindu mythology – or Bandra meeting Benaras.
It opens to a voiceover by Amitabh Bachchan, educating us on ancient sages and weapons, accompanied by animated visuals. This schism runs deep which, by itself, is not a problem. Many movies blend two different languages to produce a third one. Such alchemical filmmaking can be terrific and memorable. But in Brahmāstra, it’s not the old meeting new as much as the old meeting old which tries to look new.
It’s centred on a young man, Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), a DJ who lives in a chawl. He is ordinary yet special – the ‘chosen one’. How does the filmmaker, then, leap from one world to the other? Shiva… dreams or is seized by visions. Such convenient plotting may have worked for a film like Karan Arjun but consider this: When it had released, Rishabh Pant wasn’t even born. It’s this sense of fatigue – a lack of fresh imagination – that hurts Brahmāstra the most.
The outmoded style persists. When Isha (Alia Bhatt) invites herself to Shiva’s home – on their first meeting – he refuses, despite liking her. Why? Because she’s “high class”. She of course comes over and sees a kid’s birthday party. We find out that Shiva’s not just an orphan but has opened an orphanage in his house. The whole thing has a desperate misty-eyed feel to it.
When Shiva says, “Apna na koi aage na koi peeche”, it throws you back to the ’70s, reminding you of the many Bachchan films. A few sob stories later – centred on Shiva’s childhood – Isha sheds a tear. This naïve simpleton energy starts to weigh the film down, and not even 30 minutes have passed.
Brahmāstra first implies – then, giving up, literally tells – that love is the most potent weapon in the universe.
Forget the rehashed idea for a moment and ask what does this love look like? It is, to no one’s surprise, love at first sight. In their second meeting, Shiva tells Isha everything about his visions, and she – readily – agrees to accompany him to Varanasi. These aren’t people responding to natural events in real time; they’re characters who, after reading the script’s climax, are trying to reverse engineer their feelings. Since they don’t feel anything, so do we. I haven’t seen a more bland couple on screen than Kapoor and Bhatt. Nothing is earned between them; everything is assumed. In every ‘romantic’ scene, you can almost hear Mukerji screaming, “Destiny! Destiny!”
Many dishonest movies share one distinct commonality: the director is thinking – feeling – one thing but showing another. At one point, we’re in Varanasi – marked by diyas, a riverbank, a fort – which soon cuts to a Bond-like chase sequence on a highway that doesn’t even look like… India.
Ditto another setting called Ashram, where Guru (Bachchan) and his followers live. (Besides India, the film was shot in Bulgaria, Edinburgh, New York, and London.) There’s a simple rule in writing – it’s a question rather – why don’t you just say the thing? Why not simply set your film abroad and tell that story? Why waste everyone’s time pretending to go deep with “rishi muni” and “astras”? If you want to make a (Marvel) multiverse, then say it: Why call it an “Astraverse”?
But these West-genuflecting people are so dishonest – so fundamentally lacking a soul – that they can’t even own their desires. It happened last week: in Cuttputlli, a movie set in Kasauli whose sizeable portion was shot abroad. It happened more than two decades ago: in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, directed by Brahmāstra’s producer, where Chandni Chowk was recreated on set to make it look ‘appropriately pleasant’. Mukerji’s movie is the kind of oddball that brings a gun to a fist fight – in fact, it literally brings guns to a movie overflowing with magic spells, fire balls, and arrows.
The Hindu mythology angle looks so contrived – so forced – as if it were never part of the original conception, as if it were sculpted out of box-office desperation, like Bhatt singing a Telugu song at a recent promotional event. Just take a look at its cynical casting: Nagarjuna Akkineni (for the “South Indian” audience), Mouni Roy (TV audience), Bachchan (all audiences). Still not satisfied? Shahrukh Khan (for all audiences +1) in a superfluous subplot.
The makers aren’t trying to tell a story as much as feeding cash in an ATM machine, thinking it’d vomit more cash. This is the current state of Bollywood – and has remained so for a very long time. It’s devolved into an industry where you’re not just an audience but an audience and a stripper.
This movie still had hope if a) it had a compelling story, b) compelling characters, and c) a compelling world. These are not astra shattering expectations: This is Filmmaking 101. The answer to all of them is one: It does not.
Shiva, Isha, Guru, and Junoon (Roy) are flat conceptions responding to a generic ‘higher calling’. Simple questions: Who is Shiva? Why did he not share his visions with anyone else before Isha – and why so soon with her? Do his superpowers only extend to the Astraverse or is it an all-package deal, giving him such earthly diverse skills as driving, shooting, defending?
None of these questions have an answer except, of course, Destiny! The story, too, lacks vitality, momentum, and intrigue. It’s a terribly paced film. If nearly nothing happens in the first 30 minutes, then its second half begins on a slow explanatory note – filling in a yawning backstory – stalling tension. Its world lacks an arresting visual language – or any language at all. There’s no dearth of CG pyrotechnics though: We see a glowing anklet, a ginormous Devil, the much-fabled Brahmastra (which resembles an overfed chocolate cookie in need of a Keto diet), and flames – a lot of flames.
Ashram is, as the Gen Z folks would call it, ‘totes random’. We meet a larger group, then a smaller group (called “Pandavas”), who practice all kinds of flame throwing, arrow throwing, plant growing, and so on. Dimple Kapadia appears for seven seconds; for the first five, she says something vaguely resembling a dialogue, for the last two she’s flying in a helicopter. Junoon suddenly commands her own army.
None of the characters, powers, or settings have a personality, a voice. Yet they’re coming at you all the time, as if you’ve entered a lunch buffet on a full stomach.
Moreover, Brahmāstra lacks a genuine sense of joy and curiosity – of something at risk. When Mukerji attempts it at the start framing Shiva and Isha’s first meeting – chatting, running, fooling around, topped by a song – it looks artificial. When he attempts it at the end – opening the world of Ashram and its people through their superpowers – it looks forced.
It doesn’t even have one solid action set-piece – something that originates from this movie.
And the performances are, at best, passable. Roy is easily the best among them. Someone should shake the Bollywood folks and tell them that, “Baahubali is done.”
There’s no point catching a train that’s already left the platform – like there’s no point studying hard for an exam that you’ve already failed.
This article was first published on The Wire.