An Action Hero Review: Bollywood Strikes Back in This Sparkling Meta-Comedy

Starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Jaideep Ahlawat, this dark comedy is a commentary on the relationship between showbiz and its audiences
An Action Hero Review: Bollywood Strikes Back in This Sparkling Meta-Comedy

Director: Anirudh Iyer
Writers: Anirudh Iyer, Neeraj Yadav
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jaideep Ahlawat, Harsh Chhaya 

In Maneesh Sharma’s Fan (2016), a Bollywood superstar is terrorised by a jilted superfan. The fan’s revenge is to pulverise the actor’s legacy. Shah Rukh Khan’s double role implied that it takes nothing less than a narrative gimmick, a doppelganger, to turn a nation against its beloved icon. Anirudh Iyer’s An Action Hero is a cracking update of Fan – not least because it recognises that, in the current climate, no such gimmick is necessary. In 2022, all it takes is a vindictive politician. The media does the rest. Note the shrewd premise. Ayushmann Khurrana is Maanav, a Bollywood superstar who flees to London after he accidentally ‘kills’ a Haryanvi politician’s brother. The young man was a fan who crossed the line. Maanav spends the rest of the film on the run – from plain sight, from the law, but mainly from the victim’s cold-blooded brother. He is forced to become a real-life action hero to survive this onslaught. He, too, is chased in exotic countries. Like Fan, he even finds himself in grave danger while performing at an overseas wedding. 

But An Action Hero is far more astute. For someone like me – who not only grew up on a staple diet of Bollywood movies but also consumes them for a living – the sight of a flawed but technically moral superstar having to leave the country to dodge scrutiny is strangely moving. The antagonisation of this film industry over the last few years hasn’t been easy to watch. So in terms of its commentary on the frayed relationship between show business and increasingly entitled audiences, An Action Hero is almost cathartic. Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat), the murderous politico, also represents an average viewer blinded by ego and class-rage cliches; he knows the truth, but it’s the national discourse that urges him to make an example of (or troll) the rich star. Maanav’s name translates to “human,” and his struggle is basically Bollywood’s own uphill battle to repair its reputation. The plot’s inclusion of an underworld don is neat, because it suggests that the one-stop solution – much like in modern-day movies – might just be Nineties’ nostalgia. Maybe traveling back in time is the best way to reveal a broken future. 

The inventive metaphors, however, are only half the genius of An Action Hero. The better half is its quick-witted tone – which hits the sweet spot between cultural satire and black comedy. It might have been tempting to preach a little, particularly because commercial action movies tend to be dramatic by design. But the film is a hoot, marrying the deadpan situational humour of Raj & DK’s The Family Man with the self-reverential glee of the Nicolas Cage-starring The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. For instance, a running gag involves the urgent characters getting confused about the most inane details – names, addresses, even the time difference between two countries. As funny as it is to watch in the moment, this also speaks to the sheer density of globe-trotting thrillers and their flimsy exposition devices. 

The news-anchor montages are skit-like, but the drollness is derived from the way they’re woven, almost musically, into the soundscape of the film. The sharpest nod to the Bollywood-averse mood features a cop’s interrogation of a DOP (director of photography), which quickly descends into an all-out attack: “What exactly is your role in society? How do you contribute to our day?”. The writing does a fine job of conveying cheeky meaning without shoving it down our throats. The final twist, too, is a wicked takedown of the romance between action cinema and performative patriotism. 

Then there’s the scene-chewing Jaideep Ahlawat, who looks like a perpetual punchline in motion. He plays Bhoora Solanki straight as an arrow – angry, irritated, derisive – like a man bemused by a story that he can’t seem to control. His poker-face is on par with Manoj Bajpayee’s, with the rare ability to alter the language of a moment. When he receives news about his brother’s death while eating, he stares at a roti in a manner that might have been hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. The most amusing scenes feature him reacting to Maanav’s antics like a live-action version of the Disappointed Pakistani Fan meme: hands on hip and facepalming in equal measure. He’s always looking for an excuse to ridicule Maanav, and their love-hate chemistry is one of the smoothest allegories of the year. 

Ayushmann Khurrana is on the money, mostly because he allows Maanav to remain a narcissistic jerk who simply wants his fame back. There is no grand awakening, no social heroism, which is clever, given the industry he typifies is considered guilty by virtue of not being innocent enough. More importantly, it never seems like the subtext is lost on Khurrana; he gets the subversions and the snark without showing us how. He may not be the most unpredictable actor, but he’s certainly the most self-aware. Trust Bollywood’s resident social-message hero to play a superstar in a movie that stages Bollywood itself as the social message. This is perhaps his timeliest and most pressing deed yet. After all, is there a bigger underdog than mainstream Hindi cinema today? 

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