Director: Abhishek Sharma
Writer: Abhishek Sharma
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Nassar, Jacqueline Fernandez, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Satyadev Kancharana, Pravesh Rana
For the first 30 minutes of Ram Setu, Akshay Kumar plays a shockingly sensible character. In fact, the film itself looks reasonable. It opens in 2007, when a team of international archeologists arrive in Afghanistan six years after the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan. On noticing that the middle-aged Indian member, Dr. Aryan (Kumar), is seated with the pilot up front, a Pakistani counterpart makes a quip about “India’s penchant for control”. Another jokingly asks Aryan if he was busy giving the pilot a speech. Aryan laughs it off, admitting that he simply bribed the pilot to land in the dangerous area – he is a man of science, with no time for emotional or patriotic speeches. I found myself agreeing with this man. A bit too much. At this point, I wondered if Kumar had finally broken after a spate of recent box-office flops.
There’s more. Minutes later, we see Aryan at a press conference in Islamabad after escaping a Taliban attack in Bamiyan. He publicly agrees to share the spoils with Pakistan, and even silences an Indian journalist who questions this decision. “Dharm sirf todta hai, sanskruti sabko jodti hai (Religion divides, culture unites),” declares Aryan, with sage-like calm. Back home in Delhi, his wife, Gayatri, expresses her displeasure at local newspaper headlines targeting Aryan’s magnanimity. She is revealed to be a chaste Hindu lady from Varanasi, and his son, Kabir, reads Bal Ganesh comics in his spare time. Aryan teases them because he is an atheist who only “believes in things that can be proven”. I found myself nodding along vigorously: The man is so right, it hurts.
Soon enough, the plot delves into the real-life dispute surrounding the titular bridge. Aryan submits an affidavit stating that the Ram Setu – which, according to the Ramayana, was the bridge built by Lord Ram’s Hanuman-led Vanara (monkey) army to rescue Sita from Ravana’s clutches in Lanka – is not a man-made structure. He’s only doing his job. He is promptly suspended, left by his wife and attacked by right-wing goons at his son’s school. Aryan vows to clear his name; an industrialist (of course he’s named Indrakant) offers to fund his research mission. He sets out to prove, scientifically, that the formation of the ‘bridge’ predates the alleged era of the Ramayana. At stake is also the future of the Sethusamudram project, which could shorten shipping routes and save billions in fuel costs. The stage is set for a perfectly rational quest. At this point, I looked around the dark cinema hall, half-suspecting that I had walked into the wrong movie.
In a saner decade, a character like Aryan might have been an underdog hero – someone who bravely exposes the fault lines between Indian history and Hindu mythology, between truth and literature. His mission would have reiterated what he already believed – that Ram Setu is a chain of limestone shoals connecting India’s southeast coast to Sri Lanka’s northwest island. He would not only find personal redemption but also trigger a new era of maritime trade. It may not have been a great film, but it would at least be a responsible one. In this post-truth age of Hindi cinema, however, responsibility is a man-made myth that connects art to politics. Today, it’s not the nation that needs to be saved; it’s the saviour. It’s not the world that must transform; it’s the movie hero. As a result, the rest of the film is designed to suggest that Aryan’s sensible behavior in the first half-hour were actually symptoms of an ignorant Hindu man. Apparently, his wife was right, as were the bloodthirsty newspapers and the religious bigots who blackened his face. Everyone else – the shipping tycoon, the ruling government (UPA in 2007), the Pakistani archeologist, that ‘Indian control’ joke, the affidavit, even Aryan himself – was wrong. Which only means one thing: Aryan will find the time for an emotional or patriotic speech. This was the right movie after all. Trust Kumar to put Hinduism before heroism.
Fortunately, Ram Setu is too shabby to be problematic. Its craft is worse than its ideology: The red flags suppress the saffron ones. Much of the film feels like an expensive excuse to arrive at the climactic courtroom speech – one where Kumar’s Aryan passionately asks why heritage (Muslim) structures like the Taj Mahal and Qutb Minar aren’t subjected to the sort of scrutiny that Ram Setu is; one where he calls Ram Setu the original symbol of love and respect towards women; one where he demands to know why progress must happen at the cost of Hindu tradition; and one where he dismisses the Islamic and Christian name for Ram Setu (Adam’s Bridge) as anti-Hindu propaganda by the British. His argument is questionable at best: When the prosecutor asks how a Hindu God can be credited for building a bridge purely by virtue of it belonging to the same timeframe, Aryan’s answer goes on the lines of “Because everyone says so!”.
For starters, Aryan’s expedition is awfully imagined and staged. The first half features Aryan on Indrakant’s cutting-edge ship, under a lean-mean project manager named Bali (Pravesh Rana). The underwater shots of Aryan probing for evidence in an Iron-man-style exosuit are replete with poor visual effects; he often looks like a Buzz Lightyear wading through a glass of water. The hammerhead sharks down there look more realistic than the humans. Once Aryan switches sides, the action moves to Sri Lanka, where Aryan and the random environmentalist on the team, Sandra (Jacqueline Fernandez), race against time – aided by an all-in-one local guide named AP (an affable Satyadev Kancharana) – to prove that the bridge was genuinely built by Lord Ram. If I had a penny for every time a character mentions the term “Civil War” in this half without backing it up, I’d have been the wealthy industrialist’s son in the film.
From a rebel camp in Jaffna to the hills of Nuwara Eliya – where Aryan and co. follow an unassuming crocodile to locate an underwater cave – Ram Setu spares no cliche in its quest to become a homegrown adventure epic. It is by no means an action film that understands how water works – characters regularly emerge from the ocean and river only to appear bone-dry in crisp Budget Indiana Jones outfits. The maximum level of detail available is Sandra saying “I’m glad our bags are waterproof” so that she can take out a flashlight in the caves. This is also by no means a film that understands how action works. In the opening Afghanistan parts, Aryan and his Pakistani colleague are chased by a gun-toting Taliban gang only to slip through a hole in the ground into a secret lair. Aryan gasps at the hidden Buddha statue there and – cut to the Islamabad press conference. How did they escape from there? How did they get back to Pakistan when the Taliban had surrounded the place? What is this sorcery? Nothing like a jump-cut to eliminate annoying concepts like shot transitions and continuity.
This happens again later in the film, when the helicopter carrying our heroes crashes into a stream; the next shot shows the charred copter on the banks of a river while they conveniently stumble out. Seconds later, Aryan is in court, gatecrashing the crucial Ram Setu verdict. Add teleporting to the list of disputed fact-meets-fiction things that the scientist uncovers in this film. Of the performances, the crocodile isn’t too bad; it moves with rawness and elegance, doing a fine job of pretending to not sense the sneaky humans behind. By the time Aryan delivers the mind-numbing courtroom speech, a lot of the film’s narrative ineptitude feels like water under the bridge. Or, in this case, over a bridge – that may or may not be a bridge. Nobody knows, but everyone knows.