Duration: 160 Mins
Director: Ayan Mukerji
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Mouni Roy, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna Akkineni, and Shah Rukh Khan
Brahmāstra is a dazzling visual spectacle that beautifully combines Indian mythology with the contemporary context and futuristic CGI. Ayan Mukerji’s labor of love, which has taken him more than a decade and a rumored budget of around Rs 400 crore, oozes grandeur. It takes guts to mount a film at this level. One can’t help but be awed by the vision. One often hears how Hindu gods have superpowers and can make for amazing superheroes, but the very fact that he is the first to actually attempt it, demands all the applause. The special effects and the cinematography are almost at par with the Hollywood superhero movies and make for an Imax 3-D watch.
Whether it proves to be Bollywood’s Brahmastra against the boycott brigade is yet to be seen. But it is the Bollywood tropes, especially the song sequences with background dancers adding nothing to the story coupled with abysmally poor writing, lack of detailing, and a clunky climax that weigh down this otherwise brilliant attempt at a tentpole movie.
This is the first chapter of a 3-part film franchise dealing with India’s first original superhero universe, The Astraverse. The story begins with Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), an orphan, falling in love with Isha (Alia Bhatt) at first sight while playing a DJ at a Durga Puja pandal. But their world is turned upside down when Shiva starts having visions of murders and other sinister goings on. He soon realizes that these incidents are happening in real life simultaneously. In an attempt to stop future calamities, he gets sucked into a world of Astras and superpowers. We, along with our protagonist, are introduced to the world of astras powered by different gods, and also to the keepers and wielders of these deadly weapons. We have a supervillain who is on a Thanos-like quest to find all the infinity stones…erm…astras in an attempt to become the most powerful of the lot. Although we only get to meet his hench(wo)man and her henchmen. As the story progresses, Shiva’s true identity is revealed, which makes him an integral and crucial part of this universe.
It finds context in today’s world where another world war could wipe out the entire civilization and the only bulwark against the warmongers, brainwashing people to serve their own hunger for power, is love. Undoubtedly, it is the best CGI Bollywood has seen to date. The action sequences are stunningly choreographed and executed along with the visual effects. The cinematography by V. Manikandan, Pankaj Kumar, Sudeep Chatterjee, Vikash Nowlakha, and Patrick Duroux is spectacular and seamless. BGM by Simon Franglen is extraordinary and thoughtfully done. The same can’t be said for Pritam’s songs, which add nothing to the story apart from hindering its pace. There are chunks that Prakash Kurup should have left on the editing table.
What could have added a layer to the story is, instead of focusing on the dance number and the mishmash of festivities that are passed off as Durga Puja, if the writer had fleshed out the significance of Durga. The goddess was made to fight evil and was armed with different lethal weapons, each gifted by one of the most powerful gods of the pantheon. She herself can be regarded as the embodiment of Astraverse.
Ayan’s Shiva, like Spider-Man, is a reluctant superhero with a backstory that reminds one of Harry Potter. His prolonged orphanage scene can be regarded as a homage to Mr. India but adds nothing to the story. The ashram of Guru where he trains his troupe is very similar to the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters of the X-Men franchise. The concept of Brahmansh, a secret society with members who are keepers of ancient knowledge, is very similar to the Freemasons and the Order of the Templars that find mentioned in Dan Brown’s books. There is also a bit of Titanic in the scene, where the rich girl leaves her posh party and sings and dances with the poor populace. Shiva’s fear that his superpower might burn her ladylove is similar to that of Edward Cullen’s in The Twilight Saga. But these are not really the problem areas.
The movie preaches that the answer to all world problems is love. In the process, it now makes the audience question its existence, albeit unintentionally, but it is the prolonged love story that becomes one of the main problems of this superhero saga. It breaks the flow and intensity of the scenes and dilutes the gravity of the situations. Sample this: Shiva and Isha are on a mission to save a person from assassins but first they stop to indulge in an elaborate romantic song sequence. Their romance is set on such flimsy grounds that even someone like me, who is a sucker for cheesy love stories, found it difficult to invest any emotions in it.
To fuel this spectacle, one needed fiery chemistry between the lead pair, which, ironically is missing in this real-life couple. Hence, the love-at-first-sight (followed by the parkour) seems forced and it is this lack of on-screen chemistry that keeps pulling the audience out of the immersive experience that Brahmāstra tries to create. There is zero sexual tension between them, you don’t feel the lovers aching for each other. So much so, that it could have been better as a story of a fiercely protective brother and his cute but smart little sister.
Then there are too many glaring loopholes in the story. Even a fantasy film is not supposed to be bereft of basic logic. Whatever happened to the old band of protectors of the realm? It makes one wonder if the gurukul is just a sophisticated version of an old-age home–the grump squad meetings remind one of Sunday laughing clubs or early morning congregation of old uncles in the park. There is a Devdas moment where Alia is given the task to keep the fire burning…fire of a Zippo lighter, which is supposed to be windproof. I really don’t know why superheroes/supervillains would be using guns. What’s the point of a superpower then?
At least the makers could have given them some fancy firearms. But I guess they used up their entire defense budget on the CGI-fuelled fireworks instead. In fact, there was no budget for the wardrobe either; the lead pair is mostly made to wear ganjees and jeans while the actions unfold in a high-altitude hill station. Also, being a Bong and one whose family organizes one of the biggest Durga Pujas in Mumbai, Ayan should have known that Durga Puja is not immediately followed by Kali Puja. But then, that is asking for a bit much I guess.
But the worst part is the over-simplistic dialogues by Hussain Dalal, which oscillates between shades of lame and cringe, and gives it a ‘dubbed movie’ vibe. It made me wonder: ‘Kaun ho tum? Aur kya hai yeh? Also, why are people randomly talking in Bhojpuri? Love is supposed to be blind, but here it seems it is deaf. It seems the makers got too smitten by the movie to feel the assault on the ear, that is the dialogues. There can just be no excuse for such lazy work, especially in a movie of this magnitude.
Ranbir Kapoor is one of the best actors of his generation but this movie shows tell-tale signs of his weaknesses, especially in a few green-screen scenes. Alia is brilliant as usual but is not a patch on her performances in movies like Highway or Raazi.
Mouni Roy, channels her Naagin vibes with contact lenses as the ever-angry Junoon, the queen of darkness and the main antagonist. She is effective although her character doesn’t have the range to showcase her versatility as an actor.
Amitabh Bachchan brings in his usual game and aces the role of the Guru, the Prabhāstra-wielding leader of Brahmānsh. He plays the part with the ease of a veteran but it is in the action scenes, which might just be a body double, where he surprises.
I have never been a Shah Rukh Khan fan, but SRK is flawless in his cameo and it is possibly his best act post Swades. As scientist Mohan Bhargav, a member of the Brahmānsh and the protector and owner of Vanarastra and its powers, his origin story might as well be traced to the 2004 movie of a NASA engineer who returns to India and pledges to make a difference.
Nagarjuna as artist Anish Shetty, another crucial member of the Brahmānsh, who has the power of Nandiastra, is splendid. There is a scene where Alia screams ‘Shivaaa’…and the camera cuts to Ranbir and Nagarjuna. One almost instantly visualizes the original Shiva of RGV to run and save the heroine (which he does) putting into perspective what makes an iconic character that stands the test of time, and that movies are not just visual spectacles. Also, the trifecta of Nagarjuna, Amitabh Bachchan, and SRK prove why they are called the OGs and what difference stars like them bring to a movie. Ranbir, a brilliant actor, lacks that larger-than-life charisma, and it becomes obvious in his scenes with Nagarjuna.
With Brahmāstra, finally a long-awaited, entirely Indian superhero franchise, seeped in mythology is born. But Part One – Shiva is a love-powered and CGI-driven superhero movie that defies physics and lacks chemistry. One hopes that the next part of this trilogy drops soon and that it stars Ranveer and Deepika. It needs sizzling chemistry like theirs to really become that mind-blowing experience the first part had promised. Also, please invest in a better writer.
Till then, Astra La vista, baby!
Lead Image: Dharma Productions