Bholaa is Kaithi on steroids. Director, leading man and co-producer Ajay Devgn take Lokesh Kanagaraj’s 2019 action drama – Kaithi means prisoner - and cranks up the volume, literally and metaphorically, to 11. The operating principle of this film is more is more. So there are multiple bad guys who have so many henchmen attacking Bholaa on so many occasions that it’s impossible to keep count. Every frame is stylized to within an inch of its life. The background score, by K.G. F composer Ravi Basrur, is so loud that in a few scenes, it’s difficult to understand the dialogue. And in places, the exaggeration is so extreme that Bholaa resembles a video game with its titular character moving up levels one by one. One of the bad guys seems straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Kaithi wasn’t overtly interested in realism or logic either. But Lokesh deftly married Western tropes with masala sensibilities. He created a gripping story that takes place over a single night in which a man with a checkered past, staggering strength and unyielding morals finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Karthi was terrific as Dilli, who, released from jail after 10 years, gets caught in a bloody war between cops and drug lords. The stakes are high – 900 kilos of cocaine, Dilli’s daughter who is waiting at the orphanage to meet him for the first time, 40 policemen who are drugged and unconscious and moles on both sides making victory that much harder.
You would think this was enough plot to work with. But Bholaa has four adapted screenplay and dialogue writers – Aamil Keeyan Khan, Ankush Singh, Sandeep Kewlani and Sriidhar Rajyash Dubey – who add more. We get a gender swap for a key character – the SP who forces Bholaa to drive the truck is now a female cop named Diana. The good thing is that this allows the film to include Tabu who after the Drishyam series and Kuttey, is back in uniform. There is something so inherently dazzling about Tabu in Ray-bans, shooting baddies while hanging onto the side of a jeep that I want to recommend that Rohit Shetty consider adding her to his cop universe. But the narrative doesn’t give her much to do. There is one scene in which Diana talks about what she has lost in the line of duty. Tabu, with moist eyes and a steely gaze, does so much with so little. But mostly, the heavy-lifting is done by Bholaa himself.
Now here’s where I get confused. Ajay has been a leading man for 32 years. He swept to stardom with that iconic split in Phool aur Kaante and continues to deliver hits with the regularity of a cuckoo clock. Just last year, he was in RRR, Gangubai Kathiawadi and Drishyam 2. This is an actor with multiple National Awards and a built-in superstar persona. He doesn’t need elevation. When he walks into the frame, he owns it. But this film insists on talking up his character at regular intervals. One of many tweaks in the Hindi version is a new character whose only function is to construct and embellish the myth of Bholaa. The crowd listens, stunned, as this man waxes eloquent about Bholaa. He says: Uski saans ruk jaati hai lekin woh nahi rukta.
Like the other three films in which Ajay has directed himself – U Me aur Hum, Shivaay and Runway 34 – in Bholaa also, his character is a father and very much, the alpha male. Bholaa is essentially a superhero without a cape but with celestial overtones. The film references Lord Shiva who also loomed large on Shivaay. It’s widely known that Ajay is a keen devotee of Lord Shiva and even has a tattoo of him on his chest. Bholaa is positioned as the human incarnation of the lord of destruction. The film is peppered with visual references. A key scene takes place at an outdoor temple where a gigantic statue of Lord Shiva stands – a low angle shot frames Bholaa and statue side by side. For the final battle, the weapon of choice is a trishul. We see Bholaa doing a maha-aarti and when he puts that ash on his forehead, you know there will be trouble.
But to have an impact, a superhero who might be a demi-god needs a ferocious villain and this is where the film stumbles. The set-up is ek chattan aur sau shaitaan. But none of these shaitaans have any real menace to them. Deepak Dobriyal, with earrings, eyeliner, tattoos and a nail ring, plays an unhinged cocaine addict. This is a man so heinous that he bludgeons his own henchman to death, then sits on his body and snorts a line. Deepak is a terrific actor but Ashu bhaiya mostly requires posturing. Vineet Kumar as his older brother Nithari gets even less. That name may refer to the horrific Nithari case in which children were murdered. This guy, with eyes bulging out says, khakee mera favorite khana, ab tak gyarah khaa chuka hoon. But he barely evokes fear either. The equation is skewed further because Bholaa is presented as virtually indestructible. In Kaithi, Lokesh created moments in which we were genuinely afraid for Dilli. But here, we know that Bholaa will conquer all. The only suspense is how. However, Sanjay Mishra as the hapless constable who must find his inner hero, finds a few moments to shine. As does Amir Khan who provides comic relief as Kadchi.
Ajay isn’t a dull director. He works consistently to keep the story moving and the visuals, by DOP Aseem Bajaj, are flashy but inventive. The action sequences in this film, which include a six-minute-long chase sequence, have ambition and scale. Like he has done in his earlier films, he also includes a song interlude where you don’t expect it – here’s it’s a remix of the iconic Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai from Guide. The effort is consistent but his obvious talent for spinning a yarn seems to get lost in the noise. And the 3D doesn’t help – in one scene, Bholaa punches a man in the face and teeth and blood come flying at you. There are also visuals of bones ripping out of flesh and in one scene, when Bholaa hits a man on his chest, his heart comes out of his back. At least I think it was a heart. Perhaps Nithari speaks for the film when he says: Rakht ke bhakt hain hum.
I’m not a Rakht ka bhakt and Bholaa exhausted me. But I’m intrigued by the clash promised in the sequel.
You can see Bholaa at a theater near you.