Director: Ayan Mukherji
Writer: Ayan Mukherji, Hussain Dalal
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna, Mouni Roy
It’s hard to pinpoint precisely where Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva goes wrong. The possibilities are endless. It could be the kitchen-sink syndrome – where a movie clubs you with so much body that it hopes you’re too wonky to notice its vacant voice. Maybe you won’t notice the wooden performances. Or the deafening score. Or the distinctly poor dialogue. Or the flat and blurry 3D. Or every other frame resembling a burnt strip of polaroid film. If a fantasy movie repeatedly yells that love is the greatest weapon in (Hindu) mythology, maybe you won’t notice that it has no heart. That its romance plays out like a glitchy algorithm. That it has the flimsiest meet-cute in (Hindi) cinema. That the heroine calls her hero by name only 373 times in total. That when he confides in her about his “strange relationship with fire,” she gets upset as if Fire is the name of his secret mistress. That aforementioned meet-cute features a moment where rich girl literally weeps in awe because poor orphan boy is not sad: “How are you so positive despite such a difficult life?” Like I said, the possibilities are endless. And maybe you’re too shell-shocked to notice them all. Marvel’s been doing it for years. No reason why Brahmāstra can’t do it better.
But it’s not hard to pinpoint why this film goes wrong. It’s not unusual, especially for stories steeped in scale and religious scripture. Brahmāstra is so caught up in its conceptualisation and myth-building – which, on paper, is kind of fascinating – that it forgets to behave like a film. The writing is so excited by the world it designs that the script bible doubles up as the final draft. An entire stage of filmmaking – one that involves fleshing out the elaborate skeleton with some colour (not the reds and blues) and personality – seems to be missing. All the elements – the characters, the way they speak, the voiceovers, the themes, the soundscape, the exposition dumps, even the visual crescendos – feel like temporary fillers for a future version that never arrives. The result is an admittedly solid Amar Chitra Katha comic but a painfully inert movie: The panels look pasted onto the screen without any alterations in depth, energy and form. When literature is seen, as opposed to read, it needs to resemble language. But that doesn’t happen here, and faces become surrogates for plot movement; speech is reduced to thought bubbles. Nothing else can explain the perplexing lack of chemistry between the two leads. It’s almost as if Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt were instructed to read the lines knowing that emotions, like everything else, would be added in post-production. It takes some doing to make actors of their calibre mess up a narrative of passion. Particularly one that, at its core, is (again) about a Ranbir Kapoor hero finding his true calling through love. But Brahmāstra is no ordinary misfire.
Saffron overtones notwithstanding, the premise of this film is ambitious if mostly familiar. There’s a bit of Harry Potter, a bit of The Da Vinci Code (I was going to say “Indianized Dan Brown” but Dan is already Brown), and a sprinkle of every superhero origin story ever made. A Mumbai-based DJ named Shiva (Kapoor) discovers that he is somehow connected to a supernatural universe, the ‘Astraverse,’ where dark forces are hunting down the protectors of three pieces of the Brahmāstra, an imperious weapon capable of mass destruction. Shiva is plagued by flashes of a scientist – who possesses the Vanarāstra (powers of a divine Monkey) – being attacked by three villains named Junoon (Mouni Roy; the only one who got the memo), Raftaar and Zor. Shiva realizes that they will next go after an artist, who possesses the Nandiāstra (strength of a thousand bulls) and the second piece of the Brahmāstra (which, on a good day, looks like a giant Oreo cookie). Before he sets out to warn the artist, he finds the time to fall for a girl named Isha (Bhatt) at many Dussehra parties, who in turn decides to tag along with all the asexual agency of a SoBo student trying to ace her social involvement programme. Together, the two fend off the baddies and reach the Himalayas, the ashram of an ancient Guru (Amitabh Bachchan), to discover Shiva’s dormant identity as the Agniastra.
If you look really hard, you might see the germ of a full-blooded big-screen experience. Writer-director Ayan Mukerji has the framework in place, but fails at a fundamental screenplay and design level. The movie opens with what feels like an endless assault of songs introducing Shiva as a carefree drifter. Kapoor is a great dancer, but his hips can’t lie beyond a point. Shiva’s flirting with Isha is cringey at best, where he hesitates to invite her to his Diwali party because she’s rich ( is not a nice metaphor to invoke). He’s promptly revealed to be an orphan who lives with a group of kids. The ode aside, this detail does nothing for the movie itself; the kids cease to exist the second Shiva begins his journey. Isha has friends and family, but they’re as dispensable as the orphans. Once he starts to get violent flashes of the Astraverse, the craft of the film collapses – Shiva’s seizures and the incoherent cross-cutting make it appear like he’s turned on rather than haunted. Isha exists not as a lover so much as a human Alexa; her only job is to robotically ask him questions and follow him around and make sure he’s fine. Which is just as well, because it is soon noted that she is the “button” that turns on Shiva and his ability to control his fiery…weapon. The main baddie, Junoon, works for a higher force; the scenes alluding to this are visually jarring, bringing to mind the womb from Tumbbad in unflattering ways. There’s also a problem of names – the scientist in the opening scene is addressed as Scientist, the artist as Artist, the baddies as “killers,” almost as if the dialogue were designed for toddlers. Or, like I said earlier, reference tracks that never get updated.
The execution is just as awkward. So many scenes are staged impassively, with no reading of big and small moments – like the time Shiva senses a faraway Isha in danger, calls her frantically, and she answers after falling off a rooftop with the calm of someone pillow-talking in bed (“How did you know?” she asks). Her superpower seems to be that her reactions are never in sync with the magnitude of an incident. Then there’s the verbose buildup to the song Deva Deva, where the Guru is virtually incomprehensible in his exchange with Shiva about the link between love and fire. He says ten things instead of two, before the ‘training montage’ of Shiva features the only bit of levity in a film so conscious of its own stature. Clunky exposition is always par for the course in fantasy epics, but it feels like the characters here are treating each other as the fourth wall.
All of this might have passed if the action sequences of Brahmāstra were audacious enough. Tamil and Telugu filmmakers have made an art out of hiding glib setups and murky politics behind inventive set pieces and narrative velocity. But Brahmāstra lacks that pop. The virginal spirit of the script extends to the choreography of these scenes, most of which mistake volume for dramatic effect. Some of the symbolism is pretty neat, the visual effects in isolation aren’t bad, but the imagination features touches like question-mark-shaped fire emerging from a lighter when Shiva expresses curiosity about his past. The vanilla action is a larger symptom of how the story is conceived – as a cocktail of modern characters and ancient powers. Unlike the Baahubali films or RRR (2022), mythology is the default palette in a contemporary setting. So you have bullets and guns puncturing the scale of implausibility. There’s a lengthy chase across the mountains but it’s in trucks and cars. There’s a journey, but it’s aided by GPS. You have a supernatural showdown in a Delhi penthouse. You have Gods dueling in emoji mode. You have many trials by literal fire, and cellphones connecting soulmates. I get the point behind the hybrid of technology and myth, science and religion, but it prevents the grandeur from committing to a single tone. It’s a generic fusion of Western style and Eastern substance, neither of which can go bonkers. That’s not to say a period setting would have solved things at a drawing board level. But even the modern-day foreground in Brahmāstra is devoid of belonging and identity – like a foreign interpretation of Indian legend.
As a Bollywood enthusiast, I’m conditioned to root for the rare mega-budget fantasy title. I look forward to a screening with first-date jitters: Will this finally be the one? I go in with hope, despite being armed with the knowledge that thinking big in Hindi cinema is too often sacrificed at the altar of thinking wide. The thrill of pure creation for a movie-loving nation is too often reframed as a quest to appease disparate Hindi-speaking cultures. It took me all of fifteen minutes to gather that Brahmāstra does one under the guise of the other. And I spent the next 150 minutes hearing it speak, wondering why it’s striving to impress me instead of being authentic to itself. I wanted to interrupt and tell it to loosen up a little, relax, but our date was a one-way street; it was a socially acceptable medium to impress everyone else in the vicinity as well. All I could do was pick at my food and slyly remark – at the risk of sounding like a culinary cliche – that the dish “lacked the main ingredient of love”. But the veiled dig fell on deaf ears. And once the date was over, it was my ears that were ringing. Maybe next time, the hopeless romantic in me thinks. Maybe the next one will weep in awe when it sees me so positive in the face of persistent heartbreak. The possibilities, after all, are endless.