An Action Hero Review: A Pulpy Love Letter To Cinema

Starring Ayushmann Khurranna and Jaideep Ahlawat, the film is directed by debutante Anirudh Iyer
An Action Hero Review: A Pulpy Love Letter To Cinema

Director: Anirudh Iyer
Writers: Anirudh Iyer, Neeraj Yadav
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Jaideep Ahlawat, Harsh Chhaya 

Two diligent-looking R&AW officers walk into a room where Ayushmann Khurrana, playing an action hero Maanav, is doing a plank. He is in handcuffs. The officers, when they first see him, are baffled, almost smirking at this horizontal, clenched block of muscle, with his chest contoured like a Moulin Rouge performer’s cheek. They wait for him to complete his excruciating stillness, so he can sit across the table, opposite them, and tell his story, from the beginning, of how he ended up here. Of how superstar action hero Maanav ended up in London, like a fugitive accused of murder. 

At first I did not get the reference — that these two officers are thinly veiled attempts representing film critics. When, after an hour of narrative flashback, filled with the absurd, the questionable, the improbable, when Maanav gives them a glance, they are nodding their heads in disapproval. They just don’t believe his story. One of the officers tells him, I don’t know whether to laugh at your story or to merely disbelieve it. Maanav delivers the punchline. That in either case, it is the officer who loses. And he is right. Whether we choose to disbelieve or dislodge an ironic chuckle, we have lost — our time and our possibility of joy. A deft but subtle swipe at us who often look at a film and either wag our tongues at it or doubt the laxities and logical malleability of its crumbling world. 

A love letter to cinema, that is how best I can describe An Action Hero. Not in the familiar syntax of an ode, but with a pulpy, twisty, slick, stylish, loud, brash, and often bizarre sheen that is just as bumpy as it is burning with fresh ideas. In that same vein An Action Hero is also an icicle stabbed in the necks of all those who have pulverised Bombay Cinema the past few years — the audience who demand too much from their heroes, the rich and moneyed who funnel moolah into films expecting kickbacks like having stars dance at their weddings, the media who refuse to see the industry as more than a drug-fuelled bacchanalia in the moral gutter, and yes, even the critics, who have become so cynical they refuse to allow themselves the possibilities of swapping their desire for ironed, uncreased logic with a desire for uncritical joy. 

Maanav is an action hero — not the action hero, but an action hero — who through a bizarre sequence of events, is forced to become that which he has often played on screen. He pushes the brother of a powerful local goon, Bhoora played by Jaideep Ahlawat. That brother trips, falls, his head slams against a rock, and he dies. The film then descends into that familiar cat-and-mouse chase, a muscular catechism, across the United Kingdom, of Bhoora chasing Maanav. What is unfamiliar, is the psychological route through which the film paves itself. Bhoora is just one of the most clever subversions of the grunting, vengeful brother. On the surface, he is baying for Maanav’s blood. But soon it is clear that this vengeance is not for the death of his brother as much as the bruise to his ego because of how long Maanav had made them wait on his set. It is one of the most potent writing decisions, which casts doubt over an entire genre. When men seek revenge on screen for the death of someone close, is it blinding grief or a broken ego that they are struggling to express? When men are howling, what masculine anxiety are they ripping out, like loud fart?

Jaideep Ahlawat takes this figure, built to break all stereotypes, a kurta clad bumpkin in foreign shores, and does such a grotesquely phenomenal job, his face being able to hold the weight of a thousand colliding feelings without collapsing, you wished he was given a more fitting ending. The last time we were so taken by a villain that we grumbled about the short end of the stick they received was the second season of The Family Man. This grumbling is, in some sense, a grave success of the writing, the directing, the acting. To make its audience want better for its characters, even the nasty ones, especially the nasty ones.  

Allow me, for a second, to exaggerate. The scene of the year, one whose memory will throb decades later, I hope, is Jaideep Ahlawat being introduced in this film. He is being given the bad news, while eating, that his younger brother was found by the roadside, dead. He is eating while this news is being digested. From the edge of the screen, a plate of chapatis is offered to him — you can see the hand, not the face — and you can sense that Bhoora wants to reach out for another chapati, but is also thrown by the news he just received, and torn by his reaction. Is this the first thing he does on receiving the news? 

Ayushmann Khurrana, instead, is unable to grasp the edges of this larger than life figure as the film begins. A deafening background score, instead, keeps our attention unwavering. Even when he delivers punchlines, the camera is not offering a close-up, but a smooth swipe, sometimes just a shot of his car cruising along a coast to a bumping, rather devoid of personality, heroic rap. Does the film also recognize his limitations as an actor? When he is supposed to play the action hero — the action hero, not an action hero — bubbling with anger in his eyes, he is just not able to muster that compelling, exaggerated vein of blood. It made me wonder, have we ever seen Khurrana perform anger in a way that did not cement his common-man reputation? Because cinematic anger is grander, more obvious, more charismatic. It requires the voice, the stillness of a Bachchan, a Yash, a Rajinikanth, a Chiranjeevi. It is when the film requires him to be the common man in uncommon situations, forcing him to descend from the mass-hero to the urban-hero figure, that Khurrana shines, with that twinkle, that pale tiredness, that gait of hope in a hopeless situation. 

You can ask, where are the women? There is Malaika Arora Khan in a cameo, playing a version of herself, a star forced to dance at the wedding of a don, and Nora Fatehi, who in a compressed rectangle dances on the side of the screen, as the credits roll on the other side. There is no mother, no wife, no sister, no daughter that is spotlighted. Neither Maanav nor Bhoora are given origin stories or desire. Neither needs explanation to exist. It is a film so engrossed in the present, it refuses to, even for a second, look back, massaging your empathy for its characters with a crutch-like flashback. Alternatively, it is a poignant note, of how the life of the action hero, the gangster, is ultimately so lonely, it yanks personality solely from the antagonists it concocts. That these two figures need a villain, in order to satiate that dull, lifeless shore on which they wait for some threatening wave. 

Besides, the film does not need to give its protagonists a lover, for historically, Bombay cinema has shown us that when you have two men on screen — either as thick friends or throttling foes — the women, often, feel like forgotten afterthoughts, so potent is that homosocial throb. So, in An Action Hero, they don’t even try. Instead, all that expectant sexual tension is thrown at Maanav and Bhoora, wondering, if these two people who just want to get at each other’s throats, will, eventually, find reasons to hold hands, and not twist them, instead. This film gives Bhoora and Maanav the space to mount and dismount each other, grunt, growl, pummel, choke, stroke, scratch, pull, thrust, and thrum. For Bombay Cinema has cemented another grisly yet fascinating idea — that violence is its own form of love.

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