Director: Om Raut
Writer: Om Raut
Cast: Prabhas, Kriti Sanon, Saif Ali Khan, Sunny Singh, Devdatta Nage, Vatsal Sheth
Most Hindi historical dramas are shaped by an amusing sense of duality. When the villain comes on screen, the movie comes alive. Think Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018) or Udaybhan Singh Rathore in Tanhaji (2020). While it’s true that their kohl-eyed depictions are irresponsible, it’s also true that this lack of responsibility frees the film-making a bit. Like kids who abandon compliance and get creative when their parents are away, the films start to enjoy themselves in these parts. The craft gets all loose-limbed and ambitious, because provocation is often the cornerstone of artistic expression. The makers know they can get away with anything here, and ironically, this mischief is what makes the film more watchable.
For example, Adipurish – Om Raut’s mythological drama based on the Ramayana – only dares to flex its imagination in Lanka. There are no rules. The (overcast) sky's the limit. The weather is graphic-novel-ish and moody; the dark clouds appear to be straight out of a Zack Snyder anti-flick. The ancient palace is more of a futuristic granite castle with a gateway that looks like a helipad. Its demon King, Lankesh (better known as Ravana), has sharp and spiky hair. He is an unusually funky giant, dressed like a Mughal warrior with a Game of Thrones hangover. His armour and weapons are from Iron Man’s godown; his ten heads argue with each other. His sister, Shurpanakha, behaves like a Bollywood seductress, while his tattooed son, Indrajita, doesn’t even pretend to sound like someone from 7,000 years ago. His Hindi is so contemporary that, at one point, he bellows (at Hanuman) “Yeh teri bua ka bageecha hai? (Is this your aunt’s garden patch?)”. The corner where Janaki (better known as Sita) is held captive seems to be in an eternal cherry-blossom season. Lankesh’s idea of a full-body massage on his throne is to be caressed by a gang of venomous snakes; he also lovingly feeds his zombie-bird chunks of raw meat, almost going “aww” when it eats. Even the creatures of his army are striking Gollum-like beasts. In short, Saif Ali Khan’s Ravana is where the party’s at. The actor does his trademark pulpy-evil bit, letting the film spread its wings and flaunt some of those expensive visual effects in his backyard.
The flipside of having a shapeless villain, however, is that the rest of the film feels like a nervous, by-the-books slog. Adipurush is about Ayodhya’s exiled prince Raghava (better known as Lord Ram) and his brother Shesh (Lakshmana) teaming up with Bajranga (Hanuman) and his ‘Vanara Sena (Monkey Army)’ to rescue Janaki from Lanka. It’s a story as old as time, but the storytelling of these portions is dull and uptight, almost like it’s governed by the fear of offending someone or the other. The film-making refuses to deviate from the chastity of the setting. You can sense it in the sterile videogame-styled VFX. The aerial chase featuring mythical vulture Jatayu lacks rhythm, as does the endless climactic battle between both armies in Lanka. Raghava’s journey in the forest has a grating nature-as-a-screensaver background, and it’s always magic hour through the day.
You can sense it in the gratingly basic dialogue. Shesh’s only role across the film is to have his suggestions and tantrums rubbished by his pious brother. Janaki (a one-note Kriti Sanon) spends most of her time waiting in the Japanese cherry-blossom corner of Lanka, staring from afar as the two men go to war for her — only for the film to forget that she’s the one for whom they’re fighting. You can sense it in Ajay-Atul’s loud soundtrack (including the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ anthem); a lot of it feels like a last-ditch attempt to inject some soul into the bland and over-manufactured images. You can sense it in the paranoid writing. When in doubt, it brings an animal into a scene: Deer, squirrels, fish, bears, bats, butterflies, pythons and rabbits have blink-or-miss cameos. (The peacocks are cute, though. A crocodile wouldn’t have harmed the film). At one point, the camera reveals the cleavage of a woman who doubts Raghava’s character, only for her to cover up when she is convinced that he is indeed a wonderful man. Lankesh’s sister is shown drinking and purring with vamp-like intent, because she’s the one who convinces him to kidnap Janaki. The purpose of Lankesh repeatedly tricking Raghava and his people is to demonstrate how trusting and kind they are, but after a while it doesn’t do their heroism any favours. If anything, the courage in Adipurish is its most boring element.
You can also sense it in the stiff performances. Prabhas (as Raghava) seems to perpetually be running in slow-motion, even when he’s not. His dubbing is off, and his face stays inert even in the heat of physical battle. Devdatta Nage (as Bajrang) is just as ineffective, and it often looks like he’s holding his breath to bulk up his cheeks. Sunny Singh (as Shesh) can’t seem to get rid of that Punjabi twang. Towards the end, Adipurush reaches a point where it gets hard not to root for the more fertile and colourful Lankan contingent. Their fluidity and texture belong to a different film, one that isn’t afraid to exist outside the constraints of literature and discourse. But their design suggests that the central conflict of the Ramayana in Adipurish is not good-versus-evil so much as old-versus-new. Lankesh and his environment look like they’re from the future because, at some level, the film is about the triumph of tradition against modernity. It acts as a message to newer generations that all the evolution in the world should not dilute the holy antiquity of storytelling. Unfortunately, this is also a film that needs cutting-edge technology to deliver said message. And in that sense, Adipurush defeats newness in every way possible.