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
Action cinema is having a moment. After years of Marvel and DC fatigue, movies like Top Gun: Maverick (2022), RRR (2022), Pathaan (2023) and John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023) have renovated the language of the old-school spectacle. They play out as nostalgic reminders of low-concept action heroes; as smart cinematic manifestations of “back in our day” uncles who thrive on showing the kids how it’s done. A remake of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s 2019 Tamil hit Kaithi, Ajay Devgn’s Bholaa is a subscriber of this old-is-new syndrome. Its story is a throwback to Nicolas Cage-starrer Con Air (1997): A family-bound ex-prisoner’s freedom is hijacked by one night of hell. The treatment is a riff on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – the film is designed as one giant action sequence featuring a stage-wise onslaught on the laws of physics and video-game violence. Yet, at no point does the tactless Bholaa feel either old, new or anything in between. It looks like an algorithm-produced movie, a soulless attempt to impress the audience rather than express a sense of masala and scale. Which is to say that action cinema might be having a moment, but Bholaa merits its own moment of introspection.
The plot is a footnote. But here goes. After IPS Diana (Tabu) intercepts a massive drug deal (cue line rhyming ‘heroin’ with ‘heroine’), eccentric gangster Ashu (Deepak Dobriyal) hatches a plan to win back the Rs. 1,000-crore stash. Equipped with his best Nirmal-Pandey-in-One-2-Ka-4 impression and tip-offs from a shady home minister (Gajraj Rao), Ashu sets out to recover the contraband from a British-era police station that’s manned by one constable (Sanjay Mishra) and a couple of detained college students. Simultaneously, he poisons a party full of high-ranking cops elsewhere – Diana is on antibiotics so she’s spared – so that the station stays unprotected. Bholaa (Devgn), a brooding ex-con hoping to meet his daughter after a 10-year sentence, finds himself having to defend the truckload of unconscious cops (and Diana, though her role is such that she may have well been unconscious) against waves of deadly attacks while driving across the state. Encouraged by Ashu’s bounty on Diana, one of the freelance gangs includes a leopard that promptly turns into a pussycat once it sees the might of Bholaa. All the while, Bholaa’s little girl waits to be picked up at her orphanage. She’s never seen her dad, and given his rage issues, she probably grows up to wish that the villains intercepting him that night were more competent.
As a film-maker, Devgn is a chip off the old block. The son of veteran action director Veeru Devgan, he has a knack for stunt choreography and innovative set pieces, evident in the mountaineering parts of Shivaay (2016) and the airplane thrills of Runway 34 (2022). Bholaa should have been the easiest to execute in terms of, well, altitude: It’s one highway chase and gory combat scene after another, topped off by a machine-gun blitzkrieg towards the end. But the timing is all off. Most of the film is at shot at night, so the 3D – a format that mutes colours and darkens images – is questionable at best. The camera angles try too hard to shadow the energy of the narrative, following bodies as they fall to the ground and evoking the disorienting themes of a post-Sarkar Ram Gopal Varma. The drone shots, in particular, make the camera swerve around like a disgruntled bee.
Most of all, the background score is relentless. The IMAX screening I was at had some mixing issues, making the dialogue inaudible for much of the film. But it’s not the volume so much as a complete lack of music sense; it’s not the noise so much as the awry aesthetic. Mad Max: Fury Road had an omnipresent score too, but it rose and fell with the rhythms on screen. Here it often appears like an unrelated track is used, robbing the few decent scenes – especially one that features a barrage of bikes leaping onto the moving truck – of any sort of humanity and punch. At one point, the students in the police station drown out communication between the criminals by blaring a song on their bluetooth speakers. It could have been a cheeky nod to Indian cinema’s background-music issue, except that it’s nearly impossible to tell the film’s actual score from the scene’s music. The irony is deafening. All the talking ultimately ensures that the movie sounds like a 143-minute rap anthem.
A lot of Bholaa’s missteps can be traced back to its identity as a remake. Sometimes directors get so busy replicating the formula of a story that they end up trying to counterfeit the success of a film. The result is a robotic mishmash of tropes that strive to offset the absence of voice with technical bravado. Very little of Bholaa feels created, a deal-breaker in a genre that places originality at par with entertainment. (Ashu’s brother is a cannibal named Nithari, but his bulging eyes make it difficult to care for his dietary preferences). The Kaithi scene of the ex-prisoner feasting on biryani before starting his journey works as a physical prelude to his appetite for blood and violence. That he eats at a defunct police party conveys his decade-long relationship with the law in a single moment. Bholaa finishes a bucket of tandoori chicken, but the meaning is missing from the scene; you can tell that it’s simply translated without being understood. It doesn’t help that Devgn and his writers inflate the quasi-real-time premise with pointless songs and flashbacks. Bholaa’s backstory unfolds as if a young Shah Rukh Khan were crooning ‘Sachi Yeh Kahani Hai’ (from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa) over the images – and it all ends abruptly, as if the narrator has run out of patience (and budget).
Thankfully, the religious overtones are the least of the film’s problems. Bholaa is introduced reading the Bhagavad Gita in jail, and he impales a bunch of fleshy henchmen on his weapon of choice, a trishul, towards the end. This carnage happens outside a temple in Uttar Pradesh, where the only Muslim character is killed the second he reveals his name as an undercover policeman. I’m sure there are more visual cues, what with the Mahabharata-style face-off at the police station. All this would matter if Bholaa were a well-crafted film, the way the vindication of toxic masculinity by Runway 34 mattered. For instance, there are incomplete hints of why Bholaa went to prison, but his John-Wick-like transformation is swatted away like homework in a summer vacation. In other words, Bholaa disqualifies itself on a fundamental level. One cannot read deeper when the handwriting is all warped. After all, it takes some doing to undo the bleakness of a nocturnal thriller. It takes some more doing to invisibilize Tabu in a crime thriller.