Early on in An Action Hero (2022), a local politician’s brat of a younger brother is found dead on the side of a road in rural Haryana. The police embark upon their investigation, beginning with a film crew that was shooting in the area and whose sets the dead man had visited hours before he met his end. Cops — particularly Haryanvi cops — don’t have a reputation for excellence in the annals of Hindi entertainment, and the inspector in An Action Hero continues that trend. Instead of following the trail left by the perpetrator, the inspector badgers innocent people, including a beleaguered director of photography (who has nothing to do with the crime), with irrelevant questions. “What is your purpose in society?” demands the policeman at one point. It’s one of the many brilliant scenes in An Action Hero for the way the film blends wit, cultural critique, fact and fiction to create a moment that’s both hilarious and meaningful.
As it turns out, that scene is almost directly lifted from co-writer Neeraj Yadav’s life. When Yadav told his father, a retired police inspector from Haryana, that he intended to move to Mumbai and work in films, the older man asked with painful earnestness: “Film bana ne se hota kya hai? (What’s the point of making a film?)” Eight years after making that move, Yadav doesn’t blame his dad. At 36, he often finds himself asking similar questions of the world around him (“I see teenagers filming themselves while dancing in sync – what are they doing?”), but despite the slow burn that is finding one’s foothold in the Hindi film industry, screenwriting is something Yadav gets. It helps him make sense of reality. “As a writer, I always try to look for the bigger picture,” Yadav said during our phone conversation. “When we started writing the film, we saw this turmoil in the media, the industry and society. I was fed up with it. So, I said ‘Let’s have fun with the film’ but let’s also ask ‘What are we doing?’”
The screenplay and dialogues of An Action Hero are written by Yadav and director Anirudh Iyer came up with the story. At surface level, it’s a cat-and-mouse chase between the titular A-lister named Maanav (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat), a Haryanvi strongman who holds Maanav responsible for his brother’s accidental death and is hell-bent on revenge. Armed with his grim determination, a haircut that makes , and guns, Bhoora follows Maanav like a juggernaut. As a result Maanav is forced to become in life what he plays in his films — an action hero. He has to navigate twists, survive being outnumbered, dance at a wedding, the works. An Action Hero is also peppered with references to real people and incidents. When Maanav flees the country, he says he’s taking a page out of Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi’s books. At one point, Maanav’s manager tells him to stop worrying about the consequences because Maanav’s driver has agreed to take the blame. Nestled in this straightforward thriller is an examination of celebrity culture, tropes of masala films, and ideals of masculinity and heroism. There’s also some sharply-written media critique as well as a loving ode to the charms of good ole fashioned Bollywood.
Iyer described his film as, “Truth told in the most fun way possible.” Most commercial films seem to do everything they can to avoid real-life parallels, but Iyer and Yadav have done the opposite. From a fantastic cameo by Akshay Kumar to the many hat-tips to the turmoil and extremism of our post-truth world, An Action Hero invites the audience to actively engage with and think about our entertainment culture. “If you’re afraid of talking about some of the layers because of controversy, then you probably shouldn’t tell that story,” said Iyer. “We never wanted to attack anybody or any institution – it was just a part of the story and it had to be told this way.”
An Action Hero is Iyer’s debut feature and Yadav’s first feature film as a writer. Previously, Iyer worked on films like Zero (2018), Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) as an assistant director. His experiences led him to an epiphany that is simultaneously simple and radical: “The fact that these superstars are also human beings.” An Action Hero shows the labour — Maanav’s and others — that goes into making a performance. It’s keenly aware of the constant demands an audience makes upon a star, even when he’s fighting for his life. If Maanav seems arrogant as a star, his audience (and fans) are no less self-important as they demand his attention as their due. The actor becomes the sacrificial lamb for a nation’s blistering anger and you can’t help but think of the recent vilification of the Hindi film industry, from baseless accusations to calls to boycotts. “Aap ek mauka hai (you’re an opportunity),” Maanav is told at one point. And so he is.
This power struggle between audience and celebrity takes physical form in the conflict between Bhoora and Maanav. At one point, Bhoora pins Maanav to the floor and snarls, “We [the public] have made you who you are, you have to do what we tell you to.” Yadav pointed out that this single dialogue was deliberately both true and false “He’s not wrong. Stars themselves say that fans have made them. But his next line points towards our new-found entitlement: ‘Abb hum jo bolenge tum wohi karoge (Now do what we tell you to).’ Yeh nahi ho sakta (that’s not done),” said Yadav. Iyer described the film’s duality as an important device to ensure the story neither places blame nor picks sides. It’s evenly divided between Maanav and Bhoora. “They both have the right answers,” said Iyer. “They’re just not answers to each other’s questions.”
Perhaps An Action Hero’s greatest victory is in the questions it embeds in the audience’s mind, leaving us to think about how truth can be fluid rather than fixed. In the film, Maanav commits two murders – one is accidental death; the other is deliberate, a bullet fired in cold blood. The two have wildly different outcomes. “One murder makes you a criminal, the other makes you a national hero. Why do you want to jail him for one or felicitate him for the other?” said Iyer. “I don’t know. It’s a question that I wanted to ask because I wanted to know the answer.” Perhaps, some murders are more equal than others.
For Yadav, “the trickiest part” was ensuring that the film’s commentary didn’t devolve into a lecture. “Aaj ke time par koi gyan sunne ke liye baitha nahi hai (In today’s world, nobody’s willing to listen to a speech),” he said. “Yeh humare Hindustan ki sabhyata bhi rahi hai aur hamara culture bhi. Mazaak mazaak mein hum bahut badi baate bol jaate hai (This has always been Indian culture. We hide our truth in humour),” he said with a laugh. An Action Hero’s humour and dialogue are refreshingly organic, emerging from the very design of its lead characters. “Manav belongs to an environment which is practical and flexible. And Bhoora belongs to an environment which is rigid, stubborn and very egoistic. If you imagine what these two people would say to each other, it’s automatically funny,” said Yadav, adding that the deadpan humour is something he associates with his home state of Haryana. “Wahan attempt hi nahi hai humour ka [Over there, you don’t attempt to be funny], it’s all very matter-of-fact,” he said. Ahlawat, who is himself from Haryana, realises this trait brilliantly in Bhoora. Of the many scenes with perfect comic timing, there’s one in which Bhoora is asked “Aapki taarif?” and he replies with, “Main khud nahi karta.” Apologies, but we’re not even going to try to translate that pun into English.
An Action Hero has everything that you’d want out of a commercial film — excellent plotting and great comic writing; some brilliant acting, particularly from Ahlawat; striking cinematography and accomplished direction. And yet its box office performance has been dismal. Neither Khurrana’s star status nor word-of-mouth publicity have helped convince audiences to watch it in theatres. Perhaps the film will find its audience when it lands on Netflix later, but for now, Iyer and Yadav have managed to simultaneously succeed and fail with An Action Hero. The commercial failure is undeniable — and difficult to explain since the other thriller in theatres, Drishyam 2 (2022) is a massive hit — but equally true is the fact that An Action Hero is one of the best-written films to come out of Bollywood in years. “I can’t seem to get closure from this. A lot of people are telling me that this is one of the best films they’ve seen in recent times. And then to see what is happening in the theatres is very heartbreaking. I don’t know what to become better from,” said Iyer. Still, irrespective of the numbers, Iyer and Yadav’s story has got its niche fandom already. And as we know from the way Maanav’s fans (ranging from an innocent little girl to a notorious gangster) show up in An Action Hero, the public eventually finds ways to show its appreciation.