Ram Setu Review: Who Knew Akshay Kumar Would Be the One to Save Us from Propaganda?

The film is loaded with messaging, but for better or for worse, it trips over its own failures.
Ram Setu Review: Who Knew Akshay Kumar Would Be the One to Save Us from Propaganda?

Director: Abhishek Sharma

Writer: Abhishek Sharma

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Jacqueline Fernandez, Satya Dev, Pravesh Rana

There’s something delightfully bonkers about seeing the trailer of Ram Setu (2022) play on the digital billboard in the middle of the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Juhu Chowpatty in Mumbai. To see an outsized Akshay Kumar, on a floating screen in real life as he walks on water while carrying a “floating stone” in reel life feels decidedly meta. He’s tasked with shouldering the absurdity that is Ram Setu both in the film and outside it — such are the burdens of being the brightest star in the Alpha Sanskari galaxy.

Ram Setu is about the ghar wapsi (homecoming) of Aryan (Kumar), a self-proclaimed nastik (atheist) archaeologist who embarks on an expedition to examine the underwater structure after which the film is named. Initially, Aryan is a regular, liberal-minded hero and therefore unlike any of Kumar’s recent roles. His life is turned upside down when his opinion that the Ram Setu is a natural formation becomes known to the public. Aryan is attacked and his son, who attends — wait for it — Lutyens’ Public School, is bullied by a classmate. Aryan decides the only way to clear his name and protect his family is to find evidence to support his claim about the Ram Setu. Helpfully, businessman Indrakant (Nasser), who owns Pushpak Shipping, wants to fund a scientific expedition to the Ram Setu and Aryan joins a team of international experts, which includes one Professor Andrew who has two dialogues in the entire film (one of them is “That’s correct”).

That Pushpak Shipping has won a contract to demolish the Ram Setu is a minor detail. It doesn’t bother Aryan that he’s sitting on a “floating lab” aboard a ship owned by Pushpak. “Indrakant is a nice man,” he says reassuringly to his wife, thus establishing that even in the world of fiction, Kumar cannot pass as a man of smarts. Meanwhile, the rest of us know better, having gauged that Indrakant is the bad guy from Nasser’s expressions and the detail that Ravana’s chariot was called Pushpak Vimana. Aryan also cottons on eventually, but first he must go underwater in what is unironically described in Ram Setu as a suit that’ll make Aryan feel like Iron Man even though it makes Kumar look like Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. What follows are scenes with visual effects that rival the submarine scene from Parvarish (1977) for kitschy awfulness.

To Kumar and writer-director Abhishek Sharma’s credit, Ram Setu begins well. Sure, it feels outlandish to think of Kumar as an archaeologist and you’ve got to laugh when the site he’s working at in Bamiyan turns up a gigantic ear. “It must have flown off the Buddhas during the explosion and got buried here,” says one character by way of explanation. When a gunfight breaks out soon after, between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, that massive ear dangles casually from a crane while bullets fly everywhere and Kumar and a Pakistani archaeologist stumble upon an enormous reclining Buddha. While this is not exactly how it was discovered, archaeologists actually did find a reclining Buddha near the niches where the Bamiyan Buddhas had once stood. This is not the only blending of fact and fiction in Ram Setu, but more on that later.

Nobody’s watching Ram Setu with expectations of cinematic excellence or realism and the film isn’t bothered with such things. The only point on which it has to deliver for audiences is by being entertaining. For much of the first half, Ram Setu manages this feat. Sharma balances the tropes of commercial Hindi cinema with a storyline that doesn’t seem to be taking itself too seriously. “Lord Buddha ke baad seedha aap ko enlightenment mila hai (After Lord Buddha, you’re the next to have received enlightenment)”, says a character to Aryan, gently ribbing Aryan’s know-it-all ways. Some time later, Aryan rises out of the ocean and walks on water. Some of the people around him gasp with wonderstruck awe. One elderly gent grins and says, “The water’s less than six inches deep over there.”

The turning point for Aryan and Ram Setu is when he discovers a floating stone that dates back to 7,000 years, a date that has randomly been decided as “the era of Lord Ram” (on the basis of dubious claims made in a book written by a bureaucrat from the income tax department. The book, which is shown in the film, and its author are real while the floating stones, which look like durians, are not). This discovery convinces Aryan that the Ram Setu was made by the vanar sena (army of monkeys), as described in Valmiki’s Ramayana. This is inconvenient for Indrakant, who was counting on Aryan’s atheism and needs a report that will give him the clearance to demolish the underwater structure. He orders his smouldering henchman Bali (Pravesh Rana) to get rid of Aryan. The plot almost succeeds but at a critical moment, a Sri Lankan Tamil tour guide named AP (Satya Dev) shows up and saves Aryan’s life. Our born-again believer lands in Sri Lanka with environmentalist Dr. Sandra Rebello (Jacqueline Fernandez), looking for evidence that Ravana’s Lanka was real. “If I can prove the existence of Ravan, it’s proof that Ram existed,” Aryan tells Dr. Rebello, adding that they’re more likely to find remains from the ancient era in Sri Lanka because its civil war has kept the country from developing the way India has, which would be laughable if it wasn’t offensive. By this time, Ram Setu has gone so far off the rails that its opening sections, which included footage of the Bamiyan Buddhas being blown up in Afghanistan, feels like a different film by a different filmmaker.

The point of showing the Bamiyan Buddhas being destroyed is to make the threat looming over the Ram Setu in the film, feel real. If you’ve sat up in alarm because a film that lists Dr. Chandraprakash “Chanakya” Dwivedi as its creative producer is also finding parallels between the religious extremists of Afghanistan and a (fictional) Indian government, calm down. Ram Setu is set in 2007, not the present. Also, there are disclaimers at the start of the film that assure us that any resemblance to real people or actual incidents is coincidental and unintended.

So naturally, when Ram Setu tells us that an evil corporation, backed by a callous and corrupt government, wants to demolish the bridge described in Valmiki’s Ramayana, we should not be thinking of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, which was approved in the mid-2000s when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance formed the government. When the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) in Ram Setu submits an affidavit saying there’s no evidence that the Ram Setu could be man-made and that Valmiki’s Ramayana is “mahakavya” and a work of the imagination, we should not remember ASI’s actual 2007 affidavit, which said the “contents of the Valmiki Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and other mythological texts, which admittedly form an important part of ancient Indian literature...cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters, or the occurrence of events, depicted therein.” Both in Ram Setu and in reality, ASI had to withdraw its affidavit following public protests led by pro-Hindutva organisations. These resonances between fact and fiction must be coincidental and not any indication of Ram Setu attempting to embed into public memory what the right-wing revisionist perspective claims as its victory against anti-Hindu forces.

Ultimately, Ram Setu sits in an uncomfortable limbo between pandering to the illusion of majoritarian victimhood and the aesthetics of B-grade, masala movies. This is a film full of ludicrously stupid contrivances. For instance, a character says “I’m out of this” and is promptly shot to death so that they are very literally out of this. AP is able to make a phone call to get government-backed rebels to arrive, complete with a chopper, when the bad guys chase Aryan into Jaffna. Speaking of AP, he tells Aryan his full name when they meet, but Aryan only realises who AP actually is right at the end — by which time everyone should have guessed the grinning and resourceful tour guide’s identity (though this blip could possibly be filed under #NastikProblems). Alongside this silliness are the more problematic arguments that Aryan makes in the bland climax that unfolds in the courtroom. At one point, Aryan implies Mughal monuments, like the Taj Mahal, are given more respect and care than Hindu monuments like the Ram Setu. He also says the Ram Setu is a reminder that each time anyone dares to violate a woman, a Lord Ram will rise to bring justice. (No one mentions the agnipariksha-shaped twist in the Ramayana or points out to our man of science the data on crimes against women.) Aryan’s testimony in court sounds like a speech delivered at a political rally and this would have felt far more sinister if Ram Setu had remained as engaging as it was in its early sections. Kumar is so entertaining as the nastik Aryan that the devout Aryan feels singularly listless in comparison. Add to this the awkward writing, bland acting performances and laughably bad visual effects, and you get a film that’s not just boring but also plagued with absurdity despite its valiant efforts to remind audiences of real events.

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