Bhediya is silly, stylish – and surprisingly poignant

Varun Dhawan plays a werewolf in this giant thirst trap
Bhediya is silly, stylish – and surprisingly poignant

Director: Amar Kaushik

Writer: Niren Bhatt

Cast: Varun Dhawan, Kriti Sanon, Abhishek Banerjee, Paalin Kaabak, Deepak Dobriyal

Bhediya displays layers of flesh, both literally and figuratively. Varun Dhawan is in his underpants for nearly half the film. (This is not an accusation). The story finds good reason to be a giant thirst trap. His character, Bhaskar, is a cityslicker who gets bitten by a wolf in the jungles of Arunachal Pradesh. The film's best scene features Bhaskar morphing into a wolf, in agonizing detail. In a single take, the camera lingers on different parts of his naked torso as the creature violently pops out of his skin – a nice riff on the unbroken male gaze that has objectified the female body in all those ichadhari nagin stories over the years. At another point, a bulge in his boxers reveals a thick and throbbing snake, an innuendo that looks less tasteful than it sounds. It's no coincidence that Bhaskar's body exudes muscular beauty only after the beast within him awakens. Until then, he’s just a guy with a penchant for furry jackets.

At first glance, Amar Kaushik’s Bhediya (“Wolf”) is a nifty horror comedy with a message. Bhaskar is a greedy contractor from Delhi. He detests dogs and nature. His mantra is development at all costs. He arrives in the Northeastern town of Ziro for a major land acquisition project. The road he plans to build is supposed to connect the isolated state to the rest of India. But the catch is that it must cut through the region’s dense forest cover and displace hundreds of tribal villages in the process. His partners in crime are cousin Janardhan (Abhishek Banerjee) and in-house contractor Jomin (Paalin Kabak). They have no sense of empathy or ecological balance. The tribals, for them, are victims of evolution. A local liaison, Panda (Deepak Dobriyal), warns them of ‘Vishanu,’ a mythical creature that lurks in the jungles. But the men pay no heed. A lesson is imminent for the capitalists.

This is the second Hindi film of the year rooted in Northeastern integration. But unlike Anubhav Sinha’s heavy-footed Anek – driven by a secret agent who switches sides – Bhediya pokes fun at the mainstream-saviour trope: It’s driven by a not-so-secret agent forced to shift shape. Bhaskar’s ‘transformation’ arc is no metaphor: His wolf senses make him more alert to the world around him. When a terrified Jomin accuses Bhaskar of trying to eat him too, Bhaskar assures him that animals, unlike humans, do not discriminate. (If not for his appetite for pork and no beef, one might have even believed him). Every night, he unwittingly feasts on a new project associate – a hairy nod to the superhero-vigilante trope, where his murders have a moral edge to them. His lunar adventures also put him in touch with Dr. Anika (Kriti Sanon), the oddly aloof veterinarian who treats him. Something about Dhawan’s endearing desire to do better – and reach beyond his limitations as a commercial star – ties into Bhaskar’s conflict of turning into a beast that challenges his vanity. At one point, a spoofy scene that features Bhaskar’s friends psyching the wolf out of him adopts the tone of a director browbeating a career-defining performance out of an actor. If you listen closely, you might hear the voices of Sriram Raghavan (Badlapur) and Shoojit Sircar (October).

The humour in Kaushik’s horror-comedy universe (Stree) is a double-edged sword. Most of it appears to emerge from the triumph of cultural identity over social malaise. A group of men suffer for being ignorant, and that becomes amusing to watch. The funniest way to punish a vegan is to turn him into a bloodthirsty wolf. But a lot of the laughs are also derived from the reinforcement of superstition – rural folklore, blind faith, black magic – under the guise of urban enlightenment. The witch and Vishanu are real; the joke is on us, the outsiders, for believing otherwise. This exoticization is not too different from the way Western film-makers approach South Asian locations: as a land of sepia-tinted colour tones, elephants, genies and snakecharmers. It’s the sort of gateway humour that Indians themselves use as a crutch to deflect uncomfortable truths. Like the recurring image of the wild animal hunting in flowery boxers, or the wolf howling in unison with a Himesh Reshammiya song. Of course I laughed. And of course I’m doing my damndest to resist a ‘howl-arious’ pun. It’s never easy.

But the reason Bhediya works is because it acknowledges emotion as the cornerstone of entertainment. It has the self-awareness to reveal its kooky form for what it really is: a front to embrace – and not avoid – those uncomfortable truths. The message isn’t the medium; it becomes the dominant strain in a film that isn’t afraid to transform along with its protagonist. The deflections are part of a larger design. Abhishek Banerjee’s Janardhan steals the show, but most of his punchlines are steeped in casual racism towards Jomin. The writing deliberately uses his character as a mirror. When we laugh at his pitch-perfect comic timing, we are essentially reflecting our own culpability in a system where discrimination is the default narrative. When we grin at quick-witted exchanges between him and a panicked Bhaskar, we are exposing our inability to detect sociocultural facts unless they’re gift-wrapped in pretty fiction. Ditto for when we accept Kriti Sanon’s peripheral role as the heroine that no red-blooded Hindi film can do without.

If anything, Bhediya is a surprisingly poignant environmental drama posing as a horror comedy. It elevates the werewolf from cliched full-moon predator to natural protector – an Avatar-like move that, by virtue of the animal’s extended screen time, allows the film to flaunt some of the most convincing visual effects seen in modern Hindi film. It’s not just the whiskers on the wild canine or its fluid attacks; it’s also the way the animal eventually makes it look like the humans who have invaded the story, not vice versa. In doing so, the film commits to the primary narrative of a land bristling with heritage and feeling; humour is merely the imposter – the colonizer – that’s trying to hijack it. It reclaims the background from the jaws of narrative obscurity. Bhaskar and his gang are meant to symbolize a culture of storytelling that commodifies social commentary. They come, play the fool, entertain, preach and leave; there’s always a sense that the film ends on their terms, and the system returns to its default settings. But the final act of Bhediya – messy and moving at once – course-corrects this genre trapping at the risk of tonal dissonance. That’s when it becomes clear that perhaps the film was softening us up for the kill all along. It ends on the terms of the message rather than the madness, almost like the world yanks back its dramatic voice from the humans that steal it. Not counting the cash-grabbing post-credit moments, you might be hard-pressed to see a braver climax this year.

It might also help to view Bhediya in context of its uncanny timing. The film doesn’t exactly make light of its central theme: Nature pushing back against man. Bhaskar gets bitten by a Vishanu (translation: “virus”), and he spends the rest of the film trying to control and shake off this other-worldly infection. He only attacks the corrupt cogs in the wheel – a utopian reframing of the pandemic as a tragedy with heart and purpose. In the real world, his primal instincts would lead him to infect every human in his sight, until the planet is left with nobody to infect it. That humanity is the real Vishanu comes as no secret; Bhediya, unlike other Indian films, uses cultural specificity to address a more universal illness. The big picture is the actual picture; broad daylight is the only colour tone. After all, the fury beneath the frolic matters. Otherwise, Bhediya is just a film with a penchant for fleshy narrative jackets. Otherwise it’s just a sheepish creature comedy in wolf’s clothing.

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