Director: Rohit Dhawan
Writer: Rohit Dhawan (based on story by Trivikram Srinivas)
Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Paresh Rawal, Kriti Sanon, Manisha Koirala, Ronit Roy
Here’s the good news: Kartik Aaryan looks great in slow-mo. In fact, it would be fair to say the chemistry between Aaryan and the wind machine is better than what the actor has with anything or anyone else in Shehzada. Director Rohit Dhawan’s adaptation of Allu Aravind’s blockbuster hit (2020) has, among others, Kriti Sanon, Manisha Koirala, Paresh Rawal, Sachin Khedekar, Ronit Roy, Sunny Hinduja and Ankur Rathee in its cast. All these actors have little to do in the film, but they do have scenes with Aaryan. However, none of them can match what happens when the wind machine and Aaryan come together in slow motion. Whether he’s leaping through the air or executing a dramatic punch, the wind lends aerodynamic charm to the actor, adding body to his already full-bodied mane, plastering his shirt to his torso, and highlighting the athletic lines of his limbs. Unfortunately, none of this adds much to the film’s narrative muscle. When the scenes are at regular speed and expecting Aaryan to shoulder the weight of a listless story, Shehzada feels about as entertaining as hitting your head repeatedly with a cushion. It’s not particularly bad or painful, but feels entirely pointless.
Produced by Aaryan, Shehzada is 145 minutes of fan service for who are granted the sight of their hero as yet another middle-class dudebro, who navigates the challenges of life by dishing out toothy grins and one-liners. Entertaining as this may be for some, this act is already feeling repetitive. In terms of story, Dhawan has made small but significant changes to the Telugu original, but they only serve to dilute the characterisation, relationships and conflicts of the central plot. If watching Paresh Rawal — who plays a Machiavellian patriarch — get slapped counts as climactic entertainment, this version is for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a good old fashioned family entertainer with a bit of a morality tale, look up the Telugu original (which, for all its flaws, doesn’t lack for drama).
In Dhawan’s anodyne retelling, Bantu (Aaryan) is the equivalent of that adorable Labrador whose reels you watch while spiralling on Instagram. He’s a good boy and he defeats the evil of the world with his goodness and goofiness (and muscles. Which he only uses to establish what a good boy he is). It’s evident from details like Bantu’s email being “[email protected]” — a hat-tip to Anil Kapoor’s unforgettable intro from Ram Lakhan (1989) — that Dhawan is drawing on the over-the-top heroism of a bygone era. In all fairness, Aaryan certainly has the beard growth and hair to follow in Kapoor’s footsteps.
As is the fate of most good boys — just ask that Labrador — Bantu is surrounded by people who don’t really deserve him. Topping that list is his curmudgeonly father Valmiki (Paresh Rawal), who secretly exchanged babies at birth so that his newborn son could grow up in the millionaire Jindal’s home while the real Jindal heir (a.k.a. Bantu) suffers the ignominy of a middle-class life in Valmiki’s home. Valmiki takes great joy in knowing his biological son is getting the benefit of being pampered silly by his rich adoptive parents. Meanwhile, he heaps challenges upon the real Jindal heir, beginning with naming him Bantu. Bantu grows up on hand-me-downs and struggles to get ahead, but being a good boy, nothing gets him down.
Eventually, Shehzada becomes an updated and more boring version of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972), in whichplayed a domestic help named Raghu, who works for a bickering family that lives in the ironically named Shanti Niwas (the phrase translates to “the abode of peace”). Little by little, Raghu wins over everyone and brings the family together. In Shehzada, Bantu does much the same once he’s hired as the Jindal patriarch’s companion — only with more action scenes and less inventiveness. Aside from the minor difference between Mukherjee and Dhawan’s storytelling skills, Bawarchi worked because it explored class bias and prejudice. Wrapped in the endearingly-simple comedy was an unmistakable critique of elitist behaviour. In contrast, Shehzada spends much of its time making a villain out of the middle-class everyman, as embodied by Valmiki, and glorifying the rich, who are more caring and appreciative of Bantu than the family that raised him. In fact, it’s the rich who seem to be victimised, thanks to Valmiki’s scheming behaviour. As a social critique, Shehzada is confused and it’s made more dull by the lack of any clear sense of conflict or drama in the plot.
In an effort to hold on to the audience’s attention, there are some hummable (but forgettable) songs and storytelling twists — like a nurse who gets pushed off a ledge and slips into a 25-year-long coma; and a drug dealer who goes around murdering people with an umbrella. There’s also a romantic sub-plot that’s so skimpy, it makes Kriti Sanon’s outfits in Shehzada look outsized. However, none of this helps to relieve the monotony of watching Bantu grin and save the day again, and again, and again. Especially since the film’s plot is singularly short on logic. Why, for instance, are there no security cameras in a millionaire’s office and why is an empty Delhi Metro compartment doubling up as the bad guy’s lair?
Ultimately, the point of Shehzada is to establish Aaryan as the goodest boy of them all and to give his fans scenes that they will want to watch on loop. However, despite its best efforts, Shehzada may prove to be a loyalty test for ‘Kartikians’. Even though Aaryan is in his element in both the fight scenes and when he delivers Hussain Dalal’s version of witty one-liners, it’s not a compelling performance. Instead of adding credence to the idea of Aaryan being Bollywood’s next megastar, Shehzada suggests the actor needs to find scripts that will properly utilise his screen presence (instead of doing himself a disservice with projects like ). The Hindi cinema audience is ready to cheer Aaryan on, but films like Shehzada don’t seem worth that effort.