Jisme hai dum toh fakt Bajirao Singham. We heard these lines a decade ago in Rohit Shetty's first police film, Singham. As it turns out, the supercop was wrong. He wasn't the only powerful one. In 2018, he was joined by Sangram 'Simmba' Bhalerao in Simmba. And now in Sooryavanshi, we get ATS chief Veer Sooryavanshi. With each film, director Rohit Shetty is building the foundation for a homegrown cop universe modelled on the MCU – in the climax of Sooryavanshi, the three stand back-to-back, raining bullets on terrorists, exactly like the Avengers had done in the first Avengers film in 2012.
Rohit is the chief architect and champion of a problematic but powerful fantasy in which men in uniform can do no wrong. Simmba might have started out as a corrupt cop but the rape and murder of a woman he considers his sister turns him into an avenging angel who murders the rapists in cold blood inside the police station. Rohit's cops have no qualms about encounter killings. All three gleefully kill the men they deem guilty without due process and the films, including Sooryavanshi, unapologetically celebrate this.
This is of course an overwhelmingly male universe. The women are minor diversions – romantic partners or ammunition to be used by villains. Rohit's energy is mostly focused on his leading men who are presented as paragons of virtue and hyper-masculinity. Their slow-motion entries, their swagger, the way they wear their sunglasses – each aspect is showcased and underlined with rousing background music. Singham's key accessory is a lion's roar. These aren't men with angst or even a hint of anxiety about what they do or their place in the world. They are masters of the universe who deliver killer lines, punch through innumerable bad guys and save the world.
It's a formula that works because Rohit is the master of masala. He has an uncanny talent for blending dialogue-baazi, comedy, thrilling stunts and high drama in just the right doses. He knows when to land a punch so viewers have to applaud – as I did when Singham made his entry in Sooryavanshi. Just when all seems lost, an armored vehicle comes in spinning and Ajay Devgn, casually cool, walks into frame. These moments are designed with skill and dexterity by a director who knows the art of pushing buttons.
But Sooryavanshi doesn't have enough of them. And that is this film's fatal flaw. Rohit thrives on creating larger-than-life characters who are written in broad strokes and who inhabit a fantastical world in which anything is possible. But Sooryavanshi attempts to have a more solid connection with reality. Rohit, who came up with the story, screenplay writer Yunus Sajawal and the dialogue writers Farhad Samji, Sanchit Bedre and Vidhi Ghodgaonkar, borrow from headlines of the recent past. The film begins with the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts and offers a fictionalized version of events. Instead of Dawood, we get Jackie Shroff as the Lashkar chief, who 27 years later, is still plotting havoc. Sleeper cells have been planted throughout the country. And 600 kilos of RDX is still lying around, waiting to be detonated.
The busy plot also has to make room for Sooryavanshi's complicated personal life and romantic songs; backstories for the villains so that the film doesn't come off as anti-Muslim; an evocative but not entirely convincing plea for communal harmony; speeches about Hindustan ka Musalman; big-ticket entries for the three male stars; even bigger action sequences that involve multiple helicopters, cars being blown up and always, hand-to-hand action because how else can a man prove that he's a real man?
Which causes this film to stretch to two hours and twenty-five minutes. The first half seems longer than it is because the character of Sooryavanshi doesn't have the flamboyance or fun of either Singham or Simmba. Akshay Kumar, once again, is an upright saviour and son of the soil. He's solid as always in the action sequences but the frequent preaching becomes a slog. Sooryavanshi's habit of forgetting names offers a few laughs but there is little color or masti. Which is why it's such a relief when Ranveer Singh appears. He injects a much-needed dose of mischievousness into the film.
Sooryavanshi works hard to be an entertainer that can also somehow deliver key messaging about the tragic consequences of religious hate, the undying spirit of Mumbai and the unstinting bravery of Mumbai's cops but the storytelling sags under the load. At one point, the plot pauses to allow for a romantic flashback – Sooryavanshi and his wife Ria are getting steamy as they sing Tip Tip Barsa Pani ata fair ground. Akshay sang the same song twenty-sevenyears ago in Mohra with Raveena Tandon. Katrina Kaif looks smashing but this sequence is oddly dispiriting. It reiterates that in Bollywood, the more things change, the more they remain the same – literally.
Therefore, these cops will return. I hope that the next time, they and us have a more thrilling ride.