Director: Rohit Shetty
Writers: Sanchit Bedre, Vidhi Ghodgaonkar, Yunus Sajawal, Farhad Samji, Rohit Shetty
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif, Ajay Devgn, Ranveer Singh, Jackie Shroff
Cinematographer: Jomon T. John
Editor: Bunty Nagi
Rohit Shetty makes big, simple-minded entertainment and sometimes is able to do it with a certain conviction (his scene transitions are fast and forceful, the action is shamelessly unrealistic). Singham and Simmba, now a part of the Cop Universe that Sooryavanshi is the third instalment of, had their high points. At their worst, they made a mess when it came to handling a social issue – corruption, rape – with insufferable righteousness and a lack of understanding of its complexities. These problems dial up in Sooryavanshi, which takes on terrorism and also has Akshay Kumar as an add-on. There's a lot of lecturing and talking down to muslims as if they need education in how to be good Indians.
Shetty tries his darnedest to send out messages of communal harmony, but it's conveniently blind to certain facts. For instance, the film lays the groundwork for the action by showing that Sooryavanshi had lost his parents in the Bombay blasts. We follow the main architects behind it Omar Hafiz (Jackie Shroff) and Bilal Ahmed (Kumud Mishra) – standing-in for Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon. Bilal has a justification: he says he turned against his own country because the mobs burnt down his family in the riots, that preceded the blasts. But we don't get a mention of the the Babri masjid demolition that took place month ago, the event that sowed the seeds of communal violence. Their plan is revealed: a group of jihadi soldiers from Pakistan will cross the border and stay here for years. The idea is to blend into the country, take a Hindu name, start a family. They could be anyone – your watchman, a gym trainer in Bengaluru, an auto driver in Agra, or a boatman in Kerala. The mission is to execute another series of blasts, like 93, using RDX that is supposedly buried somewhere in Maharashtra.
Sooryavanshi is not too different from your garden variety contemporary Hindi film in that it feeds on Islamophobia in a way that's lazy, dangerous and opportunistic. And the more the film appears to look 'secular', the more it ends up othering Muslims. There's a scene where female family members of a terror suspect is brought in by the police. Sooryavanshi conducts a mock-torture by asking female officers to simulate sounds of them being beaten up. While faking voices of the Muslim women in their custody, one of them mistakenly says 'pitaaji' – to which he retorts something to the effect of 'Say Abbaji instead. They are not Shastris. They are Muslims.' Apart from it being played for laughs, with a sexual innuendo thrown in earlier, it feels gratingly tone-deaf and in its own way furthers the narrative propagated by the current government.
Nobody goes into a Rohit Shetty film expecting a nuanced take on a complex issue, but the fact that I spent the first half of my review talking about it says something about the film's entertainment quotient: Sooryavanshi could have probably glossed over some of these problems if it were more fun (unless your idea of fun is Kumar calling Katrina Kaif's character, Ria, Malaria and Hernia – she is a doctor; he calls everybody by wrong names).
The plot is often hinged on coincidences: Ria and their son are in the same hotel when Sooryavanshi, along with other cops, reach there to catch Bilal (who is secretly in Mumbai for a day). The scene is preceded by another coincidence: Muslim officers are in the same graveyard where Bilal has gone to pay his last respects to his mother (Kumud Mishra humanises the character). There are no memorable action scenes apart from a helicopter and speedboat stunt in Bangkok. Kumar is zippy enough to sail us through, but the character doesn't have the mythical gravitas of Singham, nor does his performance have the cartoonish glee with which Ranveer Singh played Simmba.
It's left to the film's trump card – an Avengers Assemble style coming together of Singham, Simmba and Sooryavanshi – to do much of the heavy-lifting. Sooryavanshi is the first major Hindi theatrical release since the pandemic and will serve as a litmus test for cinema halls in India. The last 30 minutes, when the movie unleashes its cinematic universe crossover, is good reason to hope that some things are meant for the big screen. Singh gets some genuine laughs and the banter between the three stars is not something we get to see often in our movies. For a brief while, the terrorists takes a backseat – best illustrated in a bomb-diffusing scene in the climax: it's about the life and death of a major character, but the scene's mainstay is their exchanges. Earlier, Singh tells one of the terror masterminds that people like him give Pakistan a bad name, resulting in cricketers unable to take part in IPL and artists to work in Bollywood: 'Terrorism zyada, toh entertainment kam'. That pretty much sums up the movie, too.