Director: Ayan Mukerji
Writer: Ayan Mukerji
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna Akkineni, Mouni Roy
Brahmastra Part One: Shiva seems to begin with a bang with a superstar cameo. One of Bollywood’s most beloved heroes takes on the forces of darkness and lights up the night sky. He looks good, the visual effects (VFX) look better, and the fight choreography crackles with energy. It’s entertaining enough to make you forget that the film actually started with a bland, comic book-inspired exposition about how India is home to the Brahmansh, a secret society of magical persons tasked with ensuring the dangerously-powerful Brahmastra remains hidden. The cameo is so much fun that you might lose sight of the detail that the hero of Brahmastra is not this cheeky scientist with a sparkle in his eyes, but the other guy who was shown earlier. The other guy being Ranbir Kapoor who plays Shiva, a DJ who starts buffering when he spots a young woman named Isha (Alia Bhatt) in a crowded Durga Puja pandal.
In the first part of his trilogy, director and writer Ayan Mukerji takes viewers on a magical mystery tour that begins in a Mumbai that looks like it’s been built by a wannabe Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It doesn’t help that Shiva’s first song feels pointedly similar to “Tattad Tattad” from Ram-Leela (2013). The difference is that Bhansali used the song to not just introduce Ranveer Singh but also his character as the lovable bad boy of Ranjhaar. In Brahmastra, “Dance ka Bhoot” only leaves us with questions — where in Mumbai is this supposed to be and how did the crowd of strangers at a Durga Puja pandal know the group choreography? If only Mukerji had thought of establishing Shiva’s character by making him the man who organises flash mob dances. From Mumbai, where we meet Shiva and Shiva meets Isha, we go to a Varanasi which also looks like a discarded Bhansali set. Although they’re on a mission to find someone who Shiva believes is in grave danger, the couple — yes, they’re already a couple. It was very literally love at first sight — make the time to visit Kashi Vishwanath temple. (It’s hilarious that Hindutva trolls have wanted to boycott Brahmastra given how reverential the film is towards Hindu gods and symbols.) By this time, we know there’s a scary lady (with beautiful neck tattoos) who is the bad guy and that Shiva’s skin is essentially Teflon, in that it doesn’t burn. Armed with this knowledge and some impressive VFX sequences, Brahmastra takes Shiva, Isha and us to a Himachal Pradesh that looks a lot like Europe, which is fair enough because if there’s one thing you should not expect from a fantasy film, it’s realism. In a little Bulgaria nestled in Himachal Pradesh, we meet Guru (Amitabh Bachchan), who is the head of the Brahmansh.
Throughout this ride, the focus of the film is Shiva. Every scene and every character exists to either give us information about our hero or to aid Shiva’s journey to self-realisation. Brahmastra doesn’t care for anyone else. Once other characters have done their bit to hype up the hero or aid his quest, they’re summarily removed from the story. Despite this, others keep sneaking into Shiva’s spotlight. Bhatt — straitjacketed in a character that’s painfully limited in its scope and intelligence — steals the scene from Shiva enough times to make you wish Isha had more to do than be Shiva’s hype (wo)man. (That said, Brahmastra shows us there is one thing this wonderful actor can’t do — have on-screen chemistry with Kapoor.) Mouni Roy, as the ruby-eyed Junoon, manages it in a few scenes. Even Stanzin Delek, who plays a minor role as a baby Brahmansh named Tensing, has more hero moments than Kapoor. There’s a scene in Brahmastra when Bachchan walks in with the slow-mo swagger of a hero and it’s a reminder that the 79-year-old actor can still chew up a scene, without saying a single word. In contrast, not one of Kapoor’s big moments — and he has many — feel memorable. Shiva may be at the heart of Brahmastra, but Kapoor is a weak link. Perhaps Brahmastra’s greatest failure is that by the end of the first part, we’re more curious about the characters we’ll see in part two than all those we’ve been introduced to in this first instalment.
Brahmastra also has other problems, like awkward pacing, too much exposition, a heavy reliance on voiceovers and a story that feels convoluted (but to discuss that would be to give away spoilers, so we’ll save that for another day). Hussain Dalal’s dialogues include clunkers like “Isha button hai mera (Isha’s my button)” and “pyaar ka aag (the fire of love)”. Not even Bachchan’s glorious baritone can redeem Dalal’s overwrought lines. There’s a painfully simple-minded quality to Brahmastra which may seem funny at first, but quickly devolves into being cringe-inducing. When Isha takes a leap of faith and decides to be with Shiva, she literally jumps off a ledge. She says “Click” when she wants a mental snapshot of a moment. To show Shiva is full of questions, not only does he say he’s got questions, but he also flips open a lighter and unleashes a set of question mark-shaped flames. It’s not enough for Mukerji to show us a bright light, Isha must also point at it and say, “Look! Light!”
Without giving anything away, Brahmastra’s shadowy villain and his volcanic hideout are reminiscent of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. The broken pieces of the Brahmastra feel like they’ve come out of an Indiana Jones film. Shiva has traces of Spiderman, with his unwillingness to don the mantle of a superhero, and Isha is his MJ. He’s also got a bit of Harry Potter — Shiva is the boy who lived and is haunted by his mother’s death — lurking around in there. Guru and his ashram are the desi version of Professor Xavier and his School for Gifted Youngsters from the X-Men franchise. In short, Mukerji’s story, which he reportedly spent five years writing, is a magpie’s nest of borrowed references and allusions. There’s little that’s novel in Brahmastra, but it hopes to feel original because Indian cinema has seen few attempts at modern fairy tales.
Brahmastra is supposed to be the Bollywood equivalent of a Marvel franchise and thanks to the budget lavished on VFX, it’s a decent first attempt. There are many sequences that look gorgeous and the technical quality of the digital imagery is better than anything we’ve seen in Hindi cinema so far. As a visual spectacle, Brahmastra deserves to be seen on a big screen and its pyrotechnics are great fun to watch — as long as you’re not expecting the film to also deliver things like a coherent plot or clever characters.