Note: Spoilers ahead
Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Cast: Harshvardhan Kapoor, Priyanshu Painyuli, Ashish Verma, Nishikant Kamat
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is essentially a modest vigilante tragicomedy stuck within the grandstanding confines of a superhero origins drama. This description might have suited the protagonist – some of the most celebrated superheroes have indie hearts beating in commercial bodies. But it doesn't suit a film that, in its pursuit to straddle two distinct genres, ends up doing "insaaf" (justice) to neither. Director Vikramaditya Motwane seems to have picked up a DC comic midway through filming what might have otherwise been a novel amateur-crimefighter saga. The result is a movie that begins with leftover Rang De Basanti characters and ends with an empty Zack-Synder-ish hangover; the "Superhero," ironically, feels like the most dishonest part of its title.
The idea has everything going for it. The setting is a country in which corruption is such a deep-rooted illness that the people fighting it are looked at as the sick ones. To paraphrase the film's signature line – people aren't born corrupt, they become corrupt. And Mumbai is the one city that doesn't need an excuse to merit an un-caped crusader. It is a space where survival and defeat occupy the same side of the middle-class coin. The film is dotted with high-rise shots of a city perpetually under construction, as if to demonstrate the futility of the hero's ambitions. It is always incomplete – just like the building in which Rajkummar Rao was trapped in Motwane's previous film, and just like the hero's secret hideout, a deserted Juhu hotel ("a blot of capitalism"), in this one.
The plot revolves around a water scam run by a villainous MLA (Nishikant Kamat), while it's rainfall that informs much of the good-versus-evil battle. It takes place in an era where suppressed vigilantism might be an appropriate metaphor for stifled journalism – cinematic activism, in Motwane's hands, is a heightened extension of citizen journalism. The film runs at 155 minutes because it wants to rile us up to justify the existence of a do-gooder and his laptop. We sense the frustration of a tedious passport application process, the politically designed apathy of a police force observing a "desh drohi" getting lynched, and the rabid dog-chasing-ball attitude of a media desperate for a narrative. What could go wrong, then?
Perhaps the answer lies in the film's reading of the term "hero". Let me explain. Harshvardhan Kapoor is Sikandar, the best friend and flat-mate of a boy named Bhavesh Joshi (Priyanshu Painyuli). Bhavesh is the most interesting character – by a broken-country mile – of this story. He is the guy who seems to have grown up on a diet of RDB and Jan-Lokpal bills – the law-abiding, idealistic Gandhian who almost sounds deranged in his love for a country that is, at best, a toxic partner in an abusive marriage for us. It is important that he is long-haired, because we know that authorities and elders tend to view this as a sign of aimless rebellion. He is the righteous leftist friend whose delusions are entirely capable of driving us nuts – the college dropout who, with no professional qualifications and job prospects, might have turned to patriotism as refuge for his shortcomings. Nobody but him could have come up with something as juvenile as an "Insaaf-Man" alter ego – and a sorry DIY website to start a movement.
His madness triggered by an irrational urge to heal someone – anyone – makes for a fascinating character study. He is Bhavesh Joshi. The problem begins when the makers decide to make him more of a philosophy and less of an individual. According to them, it is all about "becoming" a hero – and Joshi is too unstable, too passionate, to be that change. Painyuli has the kind of 'alive' face that somehow makes directors want to use him as a doomed device. He dies in two of his previous films (Rock On 2, High Jack), which is why his fate is sealed the moment he is cast in this one. We know, the second we see a delicate Kapoor and a coarse Painyuli in the same frame, that he will simply serve as a legacy for the reluctant hero to carry forward.
Kapoor here is so emphatically colourless that even the villains refuse to kill him, because he's like the batsman with a terrible T20 strike-rate that the opponents might want to keep at the crease. He professes love, pain, determination, anger, near-death with little more than a wisp of his fluttering moustache
When Painyuli stakes out shady go-downs and secretly films misdemeanors, it's clear that he isn't doing so to become a hero or a symbol. He is doing so because he just wants to repair his city, in any way possible. It is, after all, a sickness to be so upright. Heroism – or infamy – might just be the byproduct of the social-media age we live in. But when Kapoor does the same in the second half, he does it with the preconceived aura of a man who knows the camera is framing him as a silhouette against a cinematic skyline. Suddenly, other tired motifs are introduced – an omnipresent Karate teacher, a turbo-boosted bike, a long chase sequence straddling streets and local trains, and the inelegant use of technology and "viral videos" as a weapon. There is no sudden love for his city driving him, as much as the writers want to suggest this by making him a youngster who quits his American dreams to bring down the baddies.
He is only the product of his guilt – more focused on avenging his friend by boring people to death with his bland personality than fighting for a city whose ode the makers set out to create. When he stands on a terrace to survey the topography – incidentally the only time we see sunlight (hope?) in the film – he isn't Bhavesh Joshi, but the unprepared neighbour who has been pressurized into emulating 'Joshi ji ka beta'. By then, the film has so desperately tried to make a hero out of the unremarkable man that his only superpower seems to be his ability to emote exactly like the dour mask he wears.
I can understand Motwane's decision to cast Harshvardhan Kapoor. He might have noticed the way Ram Madhvani turned Sonam Kapoor's weakness into a strength by casting her as an overwhelmed airhostess – a profession that hinges on bad acting – in Neerja. After all, a person least likely to look a hero often makes for the most effective of them. But Kapoor here is so emphatically colourless that even the villains refuse to kill him, because he's like the batsman with a terrible T20 strike-rate that the opponents might want to keep at the crease. He professes love, pain, determination, anger, near-death with little more than a wisp of his fluttering moustache. At times, there's almost a perverse harmony between the incompetence of the vigilante and the actor playing him – it doesn't make for a sight a transformed DJ and gang would endorse.
Such films basically demand performances that modernize the nervy essence of old-school freedom-fighting, but Kapoor's lack of acting – while it may work in context of playing a drone-like software engineer aching for release – forces Motwane to aim for stylistic graphic-novel excesses to hide his lack of "action". When he isn't replaced by a stunt-double on a bike, there is nothing about him that suggests he is out of depth in an environment trained to doubt what he represents. Instead of displaying his character's inherent lack of control, he displays his own utter confusion at having to play an amateur. At one point, I was almost impressed by the way he restrains his tears at the sight of a friend's dead body. It took me a few moments to realize that I was actually looking at a water tanker parked in a yard.
To call Bhavesh Joshi Superhero a lost opportunity is a gross understatement. To compare it to the other genre misfires from this country would be a disservice to its aspirational tone. But caricaturing the concept of corruption to present a "real-life" superhero is somewhat self-defeating, unless, say, it is a satire to begin with. This is a film that takes itself very seriously – so seriously that it even believes in its potential as a franchise. The foundation, however, is as weak as the city it romanticizes.
Motwane, too, much like his mentor Anurag Kashyap, proves that he is prone to indulgence – not the good kind – at the worst of times. It's difficult, no doubt, to be such a solid craftsman that the landscape demands from you the willingness to experiment with different genres. It's a pressure not unfamiliar to those like Kashyap – who have so many skills at their disposal that anything is possible. But that is a happy problem to have, like the batsman with plenty of time and options to execute a shot. It shouldn't be a dull, derivative and depressing problem, like the superhero that relies on cameras and clicks to outline his legend.