Director: Ayan Mukerji
Writers: Hussain Dalal (dialogue), Ayan Mukerji
Brahmastra works intermittently because it front loads its first half with star cameos framed within “mass” spectacle scenes, and because of the charm and star quality of its leads. Not so much for its story, its world, or the quality of its writing. I watched the Telugu dub in a packed theater in Vizag where the crowd was primed to cheer from the word go. And for a large part of the first half they did. By the end of the film though, there was mostly silence and the odd sarcastic quip.
The very first scene, arguably its best, encapsulates the appeal of the film—to give nothing away, it opened with a cameo that made the crowd in my theater go wild to the point where I could hear almost none of the MCU-esque quips. They didn’t matter, because the star was doing their thing, the action was engaging enough, the effects colorful and eye-popping enough to frame the star in that particular way Vikram (Kamal Haasan’s 2022 film) did—where the story didn’t seem like it mattered. Just like Virat Kohli’s century last night made you forget India’s Asia Cup exit. But the spell doesn’t last.
The film’s inspirations are constantly waging war against each other, and end up stripping each other of their appeal. Its visual aesthetic, the quickfire pacing of the story, and its threadbare hero’s journey plot betray Brahmastra’s primary influences — Harry Potter and the MCU. And yet, much of the appeal of the MCU and Rowling’s world comes from their irreverence — their ability to treat their worlds with levity. Iron Man can mock the MCU’s version of the Norse God Thor, dismissively referring to his attire and his flowery English as “Shakespeare in the Park”, but Brahmastra cannot afford to do this with its setting, especially in the current political climate. And yet, unlike the Telugu mythological fantasy and the films of its most successful practitioners Kodi Ramakrishna and SS Rajamouli, the film doesn’t tap into the emotional grammar or the viscerality of the Hindu epics to overwhelm you with mythological melodrama. But to its credit, it manages to avoid many of the the pitfalls of countless Telugu fantasy failures like Shakthi, Anaganaga Oo Dheerudu.
The third inspiration pervading the film, apart from the Hollywood Fantasy and the Rajamouli spectacle, is Bollywood romance. And this is exactly where the film promises to soar, but never quite manages to. This is largely because of a curious inability to create a textured world that reflects the realities of real India outside of Juhu and Colaba. Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) is a poor orphan who works as a DJ and provides for kids at an orphanage invoking Mr. India, yet unlike that film, you never buy that he comes from or inhabits the sort of background the film tells you he comes from. (The kids too are swiftly forgotten after a scene or two). You get the sense that the characters are play-acting their back stories and their dramatic motivations, that they are emphasising through dialogue what the screenplay has failed to through drama.
And yet, Alia Bhatt is star enough to transform a woefully underwritten character, Isha, into one of the primary attractions of the film. Her performance is so earnest that you’re as invested as Shiva (Ranbir) is in her safety, and you buy his undying love for her. The meet-cute, as shallow as its writing is, works because Ayan Mukherjee leans into 21st century Bollywood’s biggest strengths—its ability to move you through the swoon of romance and star-chemistry.
The Telugu dub, I suspect, will play better for Telugu audiences compared to the Hindi version. For one, the lyrics by Chandrabose are markedly better. The infamous “Kaajal ki siyahi se likhi hai tune jaane kitnon ki love storiyan” becomes “Nee kanti kaatukatho raase untaade naa nuduti raathalane”—that his fate was written on his forehead by her kaajal. Chiranjeevi’s opening voiceover had the crowd break into a cheer, and Nagarjuna gets a surprisingly substantial cameo with a great “mass” action scene that makes little sense, but has enough heft to make it land. ( I do think that Ayan misunderstood Nagarjuna’s appeal though — I would rather he appeared with his trademarked locks and shades, as a slightly smug mentor-figure showing the naive Shiva the ropes to this secret world he’s being inducted into) I have also heard complaints about the Hindi dialogues, but the Telugu version had nothing noticeably egregious.
Where the film comes undone is in its third act. Here, the single worst thing about the film—the wafer-thin, almost dimensionless villain Junoon (Mouni Roy) and her minions take over and you realise that the more interesting characters and plotlines that kept you engaged were just sequel-bait. I couldn’t help but compare this to Baahubali: The Beginning which also ended with questions for the sequel to answers, and yet managed to close out with a very satisfying final battle. The film runs out of the visual creativity that fuels its action sequences in the first two-thirds and whimpers to a decidedly tepid close.
And yet, despite the appalling flaws in its writing, I enjoyed Brahmastra as a theatrical experience — primarily because of the superficial appeal of the constant stream of stars who get their own “mass” scenes and the prettiness of the lead pair. I will never revisit it. I have little investment in the world it teases or its mythic weapons — if there’s a sequel, I will be hard pressed to remember what happened in the first film. This is hardly masala, after all, to linger on in the after-taste. No, this is half-baked soufflé.