I grew up in an era of Hindi cinema where action, like dialogue and music, was simply one of several ingredients in a mainstream film. Action heroes like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Sunny Deol and Sunil Shetty were one-man demolition machines – a rung lower than the romance of the three young Khans. Yet, action-less movies left us kids gobsmacked: I remember discussing how Hum Aapke Hain Kaun dared to exist without a single fight sequence, and how DDLJ waited till its finale to raise hell. The rise of technology at the turn of the century changed the way filmmakers – as well as audiences – perceived the idea of action. Creators started to think beyond the guns-and-horses template in terms of scale and set pieces, turning action into a legitimate genre of modern storytelling.
Just like swimming exercises the maximum body muscles, a well-choreographed action sequence exercises the maximum number of filmmaking muscles. It requires every single element – direction, sound, camera, lights, performers, extras, score, cutting, assisting – to sync seamlessly with one another. It's also the one area of moviemaking that is always directly measured against global standards. Bollywood may not be as original as the West or our South, but the best ones manage to merge culture with the cacophony of chaos.
On that note, here are eleven of my favourite action scenes in the last twenty years of Hindi cinema:
A Salman Khan entry is an entirely distinct dimension of action cinema. Even before he appears on screen, you can sense it coming – like an invisible tidal wave swallowing everything and everyone in its wake before crashing into the doors of packed cinema halls. And arguably no director has "fashioned" this entry better than Kabir Khan in Ek Tha Tiger – in a super-spy sequence that combines action with hero-setting aura. Anatomically speaking, an agile rooftop chase across Northern Iraq pales in comparison to Hollywood's daring Bond and Hunt daredevilry. But local context is the clincher. This scene qualifies as "social action" – opening with the famous RAW agent's face framed against a foreground of slow-motion cigarette butts (a built-in 'No Smoking' disclaimer) and closing with the man flinging a wad of money into a crowd of locals (a built-in charity ad). In between, a suspiciously slim stunt double flings himself across sun-baked terraces before the actor, draped in a shawl, makes a mockery of the fourth wall and flashes the titular grin at us. His weapon of choice: a checked gamchha.
Seconds after shaking a leg to the criminally catchy Chammak Challo, a tuxedo-clad Shah Rukh Khan leaps into a local at Bandra station and grinds it to a halt outside VT. A suave superstar braving Mumbai's iconic commuter system is exciting enough. But in Ra.One, this scene morphs into one that features a robot skipping across speeding compartments to stop the possessed driver (Kareena Kapoor) from crashing the train through the last station. It's audaciously conceived (SRK sprints across a station's asbestos roof at one point), and Vishal-Shekhar's retro-style Raftaarein turns this scene into the coolest action set piece of the actor's career. It has a bit of Speed (the train reaches the road), a dash of Spider-Man 2, but works largely because it's a homegrown riff – almost a physical satire – on the city's lung-busting peak-hour adventures. At some level, the robot's audacious stunts on the train are merely an extension of regular commuters precariously leaning out the doors of a Virar fast.
Sriram Raghavan's biggest misfire also contained the most beguiling scene of his filmography. For three fleeting minutes in what is otherwise a hurried narrative, time stops: A single-shot song pictured at a dimly-lit motel reveals a glimpse of the filmmaker's brighter future. It's only appropriate that the scene – as a prophetic ode to Andhadhun – opens and closes with a blind piano player. Aditi Singh Sharma's voice lends a club-angel touch to a song composed as the musical equivalent of a breathless one-take shootout. The camera floats about Saif Ali Khan's RAW agent Vinod who, along with Kareena Kapoor's ISI agent Ruby, slinks across the cobalt-blue corridors while being pursued by sly enemies. Raghavan lets the frame dance with shadows (the silhouette of Vinod gunning someone down is projected onto a wall) and doors and spaces, finding poetry in violence and coherence in chaos. For once, action filmmaking looks like a hymn instead of a heavy-metal anthem.
Who said action is a serious man's game? The first real sequence of Anurag Basu's beautifully idiosyncratic Barfi! features Ranbir Kapoor's deaf-and-mute protagonist in a comical, Chaplinesque chase through the bylanes of '70s Kolkata. Kapoor is on the run from Saurabh Shukla's bumbling Bengali cop, transitioning from foot to cycle to tram to air as if this were the most natural escape route in the world. He weaves and ducks and fools the rotund man with ingenious mirror illusions and twinkle toed leaps of faith – infusing into a traditionally "thrilling" chase the playful energy of a child escaping from his angry father. It's only fair that he ends the scene by hiding in a…police station. The way it's shot and designed – vibrant colours and dreamy accidents and cartoonish music – sets the tone for not just a troublemaking hero but also one of the most visually ambitious Hindi films of this century.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali aces what Santosh Sivan almost accomplished in Asoka's climactic battle – a waltz of war and love. With the Mughals primed to attack the walled city of Bundelkhand, the warrior daughter (Deepika Padukone's Mastani) of the Rajput King teams up with Bajirao Peshwa (Ranveer Singh) to ambush the enemy. Every detail is painstakingly planned – the daybreak sky reveals a pinkish layer that reflects the fire of war beneath, the strategic aerial shots provide the viewer with a sense of geography about the chaos, the landscape is just about dark enough to highlight the glow of burning arrows, and Mastani's eyes remain transfixed on a brave Bajirao even as she slashes through future corpses: He springs onto enemy shields to propel himself, in rousing slow-motion, to the top of the leader's elephant. It plays out like a love letter written in blood and bones – ending with Mastani's heart, and body, being felled. The Mughals retreat, likely intimidated by the cohesive lyricism of action filmmaking launched against them.
In terms of the YRF slick-action universe, War does in one attempt what Dhoom couldn't do in three. War alone has at least three memorable set pieces – across airplanes, Arctic ice and Portuguese highways – that might make any list. But the best one features straightforward hand-to-hand combat. It marks the entry of Tiger Shroff, busting the most believable – and unfussy – moves of his last-action-hero career. The timeworn formula of answering a question ("Who will stop Kabir?") with a no-holds-barred introduction goes thus: Tiger, as Captain Khalid, smashes through a window and single-handedly subdues a drug cartel in a Malta apartment. The single-shot martial-arts rampage is scored to no music, just the echoey sound of bodies making contact. The harmony of meaty masculinity occurs in a closed space; it's a miracle the cinematographer came away in one piece. The carnage concludes with Tiger coolly drowning a man while making a phone call to his boss: Mission accomplished. And War begins.
Vikramaditya Motwane's hot-and-cold vigilante drama boasts of a bike chase sequence for the ages. Late-night Mumbai has rarely looked as stylish as in the rearview mirror of its own dark knight. A masked crusader speeds across the city's amber-lit streets, tailed by the cops. What distinguishes this brilliantly photographed chase is its array of mic-drop moments. Before setting off, he has the gall to halt his bike at a red light: a gesture that mocks his corrupt chasers by being a model citizen. At another point, the bike flies out of a train when least expected. Every phase – first the road, an underground parking lot, a railway bridge, the platform, the inside of a compartment – has its own narrative tempo. All along, the action is never unfeasible. We never lose sight of the fact that the hero (Harshvardhan Kapoor) is no movie hero – he's a flawed pretender, his nitro-boost button malfunctions, his bike skids down a staircase and crashes. Even the camera creates its own patterns to sync with his wheels. Finally, a stroke of luck frees him.
An Ashutosh Gowarikar battle sequence is different from a Bhansali battle scene. It's more "handmade" – the focus is on mechanics and momentum rather than visual splendour. His latest, Panipat, chronicled the Third Battle of Panipat between the Marathas and Afghans, but back when Gowarikar was at the peak of his powers, Jodhaa Akbar opened with a stunning six-minute recreation of the Second Battle of Panipat. A newly coronated 13-year-old Akbar watches from a hill while his Mughal troops, led by his late father's commander, take on Hindu King Hemu's army. The buildup evokes the rhythm of modern sport – aerial shots establish the size of both armies, but the noisy charge is briefly interrupted by silent wide shots: the proverbial calm before the storm. The "clash" itself is a work of bareboned art – the camera sweeps through the fast-closing corridor between the two sides, as if it were narrowly escaping a liquid wave of human mass. This summons the full force of a head-on collision, while the dull landscape in blinding daylight leaves no illusion about the physical messiness of war.
Uri: The Surgical Strike is a film of disputable ideology, but for better or worse its technical flair is indisputable. Director Aditya Dhar displays military precision in night-time warfare – most evident in the first chapter, in the Para SF unit's retaliatory attack on a North-eastern terrorist outfit. The first set piece of any military-action movie has the added pressure of being an introductory course of the protagonist's skill and courage. Major Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) leads the operation in a forest, in an exquisitely crafted sequence that never once lets the natural darkness overwhelm the course of events. The strategic use of fire allows the midnight blueness to morph into a silhouette-defining yellow. A background score only creeps in once Shergill is gunless, engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat with a militant. The scuffle is framed against a burning camp, spotlighting the hero with naturally dramatic elements. The closing shot – of a victorious soldier walking into the smokey beyond – is strikingly symbolic of the film's intent.
Some youngsters accidentally record a murder committed by the son of an Ambani-styled tycoon. An orange hard-drive contains the footage. The ensuing chase has two parts: The first features the tycoon's thugs pursuing the kids' red Skoda across Mumbai, culminating in a desperate dash through a crowded mall. This is silly action at its best – with blunt-impact camera angles and swift cuts informing the anti-system angst of the plot. The second part features Sunny Deol's reporter-vigilante hero on his own wild vehicular chase. The car-crushing action here gives Rohit Shetty movies a complex – at one point, it explodes through a wall onto the railway track, only to be half-wrecked by an incoming local train. Deol soldiers on, hopping onto the moving train and overpowering the white thug with his dhai-kilo hands. It may sound goofy, but the expertly produced adrenalin rush is a welcome break from the story's simplistic social stand. It reminds the film of its own purpose: Action speaks louder than words.
Trust Vishal Bhardwaj to infuse a frenzied gunfight between drug mobsters, political thugs and cops with the haunting visual grammar of a communal riot. An orgy of smoke, fire, overcast skies, rainfall and bloodshed is triggered by the rage of a hustler twin (Shahid Kapoor, as Charlie) trying to protect the meek twin (Shahid Kapoor, as Guddu). The scene opens with a tense stand-off, with all eyes on Charlie as he threatens to burn a guitar case full of cocaine if Guddu and his ladylove (Priyanka Chopra) are harmed. The moment he flings the guitar case into a bonfire, the guitar riff of a revolution-chorus song (Rasta Hai Jo) kicks into gear, while bullets become the backing track in the stuffy Maharashtrian chawl. The rest of it is shot like an uncontrolled symphony of death and destruction, until Charlie is wounded. The noise fades; not even Mumbai's monsoon can douse the distress of survival.
Lakshya: The daunting rock-climbing scene features an Indian army unit scaling a cliff to blindside their Pakistani counterparts.
Baby: Agent Taapsee Pannu kicks terrorist butt in a Nepali hotel room, in a savagely timed body-combat scene that concludes before her male colleague (Akshay Kumar) can save the day.