Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte
Even though it follows the original storyline with unwavering faith and is helmed by the same writers and directors, the Hindi version of Vikram Vedha is, on paper, not a Xerox copy of the 2017 Tamil film. While R. Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi played cop versus gangster in the grey-toned metropolitan clutter of modern Chennai, the Hindi Vikram Vedha is set in Lucknow and Kanpur, which directors Pushkar-Gayatri depict as peak, north Indian exotica: Mughal architecture; a palette of saturated, warm colours; labyrinthine slums with brightly-painted buildings; Ram leela actors and explosive Dussehra celebrations in the background; Hrithik Roshan prowling with his trademark, feline grace in the foreground. Technically, all this should serve to make the Hindi Vikram Vedha look and feel different from the original. Yet barring Roshan’s solo action sequences, there are few moments in this remake that don’t make you nostalgic for the original.
It’s not that Vikram Vedha isn’t competently made. To begin with, there’s Pushkar-Gayatri’s clever script, which takes the legend of Vikram-Betaal and transposes it into a modern-day thriller. Vikram (Saif Ali Khan) is a trigger-happy police officer who is known for his single-minded determination to wipe out bad guys. On one hand, he seems incorruptible. On the other, he doesn’t hesitate to plant evidence to make the victim of an encounter look like the aggressor, even though it was Vikram and his team that entered the scene, guns blazing. The man that Vikram is looking for is Vedha (Roshan), the craftiest gangster of the Lucknow underworld. When Vedha walks up to a police station and surrenders voluntarily, Vikram knows there’s more to this than meets the eye. It turns out Vedha has his own agenda and it begins with a simple request: “Can I tell you a story?” Twisty, intelligent, packed with complex characters and punctuated with excellent stunts, the script of Vikram Vedha is an actor’s dream.
Add to that Pushkar-Gayatri’s directorial flair. The duo has a gift for crafting moments that convey information to the audience without spoon-feeding and with style. For example, they weave beloved songs from vintage Bollywood films into the background score as a stylish hat-tip to the music that has been the soundtrack to our lives for at least two generations now. Combined with the slow-mo that is distinctive of the south Indian action spectacle, the filmmaking in Vikram Vedha often feels like a cinematic version of the famous slogan of ‘unity in diversity’. This is not a bad thing. Neither is the sight of Roshan and Khan — both ageing aesthetically — striding across a screen or towards the camera. Considering how handsome both these actors are, you wouldn’t think that covering half of their faces with beards would be an improvement, but it turns out that less sometimes really is more.
However, while they are worthy poster boys for middle-aged sex appeal, neither actor is able to excel as you’d expect them to. Khan’s Vikram is not just flat and uncharismatic, he also has one of the unwittingly funniest moments in the film when an idea sparking in his head is mirrored by the sparks that literally fly because he’s using a welding machine. We’ve seen Khan bring out complex, flawed characters before in films like Omkara (2006) and the first season of the streaming series Sacred Games, but despite being gifted a beautifully-written role, he fails to bring that magic as Vikram.
In sharp contrast, Roshan dominates every scene he appears in with his sheer physicality. Yet he has little chemistry with any of his co-stars. His solo scenes crackle with charm as though the real rapport is between the star and his audience. Few actors are as graceful as Roshan and the actor can make everything, even being beaten up, look elegant. So what if he’s a low life from a Kanpur slum, when he’s being pummelled within an edge of his life, Vedha’s legs are ramrod straight, his torso curves with fluid dignity and his toes are so perfectly pointed it would probably bring a single tear to a ballet dancer’s eyes. You can tell Roshan is enjoying himself in Vikram Vedha and he is a joy to watch — but what we see on screen is a star revelling in the way he can command attention rather than Vedha, who is a man grappling with grief and obscuring his pain and darkness with a façade of mischief and menace. Roshan is the only who delivers memorable moments in the Hindi Vikram Vedha, but they’re all instances of the actor’s impressive physical abilities — like the scene in which he navigates a path across the rooftops of a slum — rather than Vedha’s character or personality.
It doesn’t help that the supporting cast, despite looking their parts, all feel strangely generic and flat. Whereas supporting roles like those of Vikram’s colleague and Vedha’s brother felt crucial in the Tamil original, in this Hindi version they fail to make any impact. Radhika Apte, playing Vikram’s wife and Vedha’s lawyer, looks lovely but has no chemistry with her star co-actors, and she fades from memory the moment her scenes end. The cops and gangsters who make up Vikram and Vedha’s posses feel like a blur of moustaches, rather than distinct individuals. Vikram Vedha needs the audience to care about these minor characters, especially the ones that are reduced to becoming dead bodies. When a lethal bullet reaches its target, the film needs you to feel the impact, but this doesn’t happen in the Hindi version. Instead, the film feels like a star vehicle for Roshan and the deaths become monotonous. Consequently, whenever Roshan isn’t on screen to dazzle us with his athleticism, Vikram Vedha lags.
Usually in mainstream Hindi cinema, it’s the writing that fails the actors and directors. However, that’s not the problem in Vikram Vedha. The film’s cleverly-constructed plot is good enough to hold an audience’s attention, particularly if they haven’t seen the original. Yet, despite the strength of the script, it feels as though Pushkar-Gayatri’s direction has lost some of its gleam in translation. More worryingly, the cast of the Hindi Vikram Vedha can’t capitalise on a script that is ripe with potential and opportunities. We’ve seen the Tamil cast milk this story for all its dramatic worth. It’s worth wondering why Bollywood’s actors struggle to do the same.