Director: Ajay Devgn
Writers: Lokesh Kanagaraj (original story), Aamil Keeyan Khan, Ankush Singh, Sandeep Kewlani, Shridhar Dubey
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Tabu, Deepak Dobriyal, Sanjay Mishra, Gajraj Rao
Towards the end of Bholaa, a key character gets up, goes into a room and shoots himself in the head. The suicide doesn’t make sense from a storytelling point of view, but it feels like an entirely reasonable response to what Ajay Devgn and his crew have done to Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi (2019). The Tamil action thriller was a taut, smartly-made film that allowed for great action scenes to be framed by a simple but effective plot. Its Hindi avatar amps up the testosterone, adds unnecessary frills — like a cameo from Amala Paul, and a character who seems to be the love child of He-Man’s Skeletor and Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean series — and loses all semblance of logic. By the end of the film, blowing one’s brain out to get the hell out of Bholaa is the only decision that makes any sense.
The basic premise of Bholaa is the same as that of Kaithi: An ex-convict is roped in by a beleaguered police officer to drive a truck past a series of thug-shaped obstacles. The most obvious change in the Hindi film is that the police officer is a woman, played by Tabu. Devgn and Tabu have a long legacy of acting together and off-screen, they are dear friends. You’d think this would mean Devgn as director would make sure Tabu gets at least a few chances to act, if not to shine, in Bholaa.
Initially, there’s a glimmer of promise. Tabu’s character is named Diana, which offers a chance for wordplay — she’s called “daayan” (witch) by her haters — while also perhaps referencing the hunter goddess of Roman mythology. The Roman Diana is a complex portrait of femininity. She’s a virgin goddess, a patron of hunters, protector of childbirth and a goddess of the countryside (symbolic of nature that can be controlled by man). Unfortunately Bholaa’s Diana brings neither complexity nor feminine nuance to the film’s bone-headed, muscular masculinity. She is handicapped by injury and sits on the sidelines of the action because it seems the only way Devgn and his writing team can imagine women is as mothers. Tabu’s contribution to the film is essentially to look more and more dishevelled. Everything you need to know about Diana is summed up by the fact that even an actor of Tabu’s calibre can’t make her memorable.
Bholaa himself appears to be a desi He-Man. Instead of the Sword of Grayskull, he has a trident. When he steps off the truck, the ground shakes and dry leaves shudder. He breaks bones with the same ease with which he demolishes a mountain of tandoori chicken legs — no one let Kanagaraj see how Devgn makes a mess of this stellar scene from Kaithi — and rams his way past the obstacles in his path. The first major action scene has Bholaa going up against a gang of bikers who wear masks like lucha libre wrestlers, and despite this, the action is fantastically executed. The fights in Bholaa are technically as good as you’d expect from a Devgn film. However, the film’s deafening background score quickly becomes a drawback as does the cinematography that has taken all its notes from video games. The camera frequently moves with the manic energy of a drunkard trying to find keys in a bottomless bag. Not only does all this add nothing to the storytelling, it makes the film an exhausting audio-visual experience. The 3D format doesn’t help because it mutes the colours and darkens frames that are already low-lit by virtue of much of Bholaa taking place at night.
In order to add some north Indian flavour to the plot of Kaithi, Bholaa is set in Uttar Pradesh, a land where the roads appear to have the bounciness of a trampoline and Muslim characters only survive when they pretend to be Hindu. Deepak Dobriyal plays Ashu, a cocaine-sniffing smuggler who clearly dreams of being an item number in a Bollywood film. There’s also a corrupt politician and — wait for it — a cannibal known as Nithari (Vineet Kumar) who is so crazed by his hunger for human flesh that he grabs hold of the first person who comes within his reach and promises to make a meal of his victim. Minor detail: there are prison bars separating the two of them. Nithari’s introduction was clearly intended to be a dramatic mini-climax, but at the end of the camera’s grand sweep that hums with the promise of a major reveal and superstar cameo, all we get is Kumar and his bulging, bloodshot eyes. To say it’s a letdown is an understatement. (The superstar cameo when it does finally come is arguably not much better.) Ultimately, Kumar has little to do and there’s something almost comical about his Nithari because he’s supposed to be fearsome, but all we see Nithari do is stand around pointlessly, feeling hangry after being robbed of a snack.
As the film progresses, the action scenes in Bholaa start veering towards being farcical. At one point, Bholaa is faced with a line-up of shirtless dudes in shorts who look like they’ve come to the scene after putting up the Insta reel that they hope will make them fitness influencers. Another lot of thugs show up with a snarling leopard. And of course, the moment the leopard sees Bholaa, it is reduced to a mewling mess and runs away. Had Devgn embraced the lunacy of B-grade Bollywood and packed Bholaa with more over-the-top moments like this, the film might have been at least entertaining.
As it stands, Bholaa is a tiresome pileup of action scenes and details that feel derivative. The film leaves the bad guys with broken bones and audiences, with questions — not the least of which is, Bholaa’s own identity. Why, for instance, does the fictional Home Minister start sweating at the sight of an old photo of Bholaa? Considering how unpregnant Bholaa’s wife looked at the time when she was “taken away” by his arch nemesis, how does Bholaa have a child? Could Bholaa’s production budget really not spring for a better computer-generated waterfall than the one against which Diana and Bholaa have their heart-to-heart chat? Why are we still asking questions about logic when Devgn has poured all that hard work into the action scenes? For this last one, we have an answer.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the Hindi film industry because its audience seems to be shrinking. Meanwhile, others, like the and the rapidly-growing Telugu film industries, seem to be able to convince audiences to watch movies at the theatres. In its quest to find the blockbusters, Hindi mainstream cinema seems to be ready to lavish enormous amounts of money and effort upon everything but the writing. This is ironic because well-told stories seem to be at the heart of many of the non-Hindi hits. For industry insiders and practitioners of cinema, the differences between Bholaa and Kaithi are worth examining because the Tamil film is a good example of a plot that doesn’t get overpowered by the spectacle. Instead, it provides a context and pace, which help the action scenes act as vehicles for characterisation and storytelling. In Bholaa, the plot is an excuse for elaborately-staged action scenes that hope to feel cathartic to the viewer. However, without the anchor of a coherent story, the spectacle makes little impact. All you have at the end of Bholaa is an audience that’s bored and, thanks to the film’s terrible sound design, hard of hearing.