Wild Card: A for Alchemy of Souls, B- for Brahmastra

Now that the first part of Brahmastra is a hit, perhaps its makers will be able to invest in the storytelling in part two
Wild Card: A for Alchemy of Souls, B- for Brahmastra

From the moment it opens, Brahmastra Part One: Shiva (2022) wants you to know it’s a big-budget film. To make sure we never forget this, director Ayan Mukerji lobs visual effects (VFX) and spectacles at regular intervals, at the audience. Here’s a giant song-and-dance routine! Look, flames! There’s Shah Rukh Khan with a monkey patronus, sorry, I meant as Vanarastra! Watch Nagarjuna (literally) bulldoze the bad guys as Nandiastra! Here’s an archer dude who fires arrows that turn into snakes! It’s a relentless barrage of sparkle and shine, which hopes to blind you to the flimsy plot and flimsier storytelling. 

For a film that’s been years in the making, Brahmastra’s plot is a disappointment. Not only does it feel like a patchwork quilt of motifs borrowed from every existing fantasy franchise, from Harry Potter to Twilight and Star Wars, the script may as well have more plot holes than it has VFX shots. There’s a lazy disregard for narrative logic which weakens Brahmastra’s foundations. For instance, it’s never made clear whether Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) is the only one able to livestream the misfortunes of other Brahmansh members. Neither do we know why he only sees Brahmansh members when they’re being tortured or are about to die. The Scientist seems to know Shiva’s watching what’s happening to him, but when Shiva shows up at the Brahmansh ashram, the Guru (Amitabh Bachchan) doesn’t seem to know what hit him. At one point, we’re told that the one thing stronger than the destructive powers of the deadly Brahmastra is “pyaar ki aag” (the fire of love). Having raised the stakes by saying the survival of the planet depends on the Brahmastra remaining in three pieces, the script flounders in the climax when the good guys aren’t able to stop the Brahmastra from coming together. At this point, to distract us from the realisation that the pieces of the Brahmastra come together to create a giant, spinning Oreo cookie which does not destroy the world, Brahmastra needed something truly spectacular. “Pyaar ki aag” doesn’t cut it — especially when its physical manifestation is a cringing Alia Bhatt, a howling Kapoor and the fiery outline of an outsized male torso with many, flailing arms. 

The problem isn’t the VFX, which is technically excellent, but the imagination guiding the effects.  Shiva’s flame-buoyant avatar looks far less striking than the Vanarastra, Nandiastra or even the phoenix-like bird we saw Shiva manifest earlier in the film and this is because of the carelessness in the storytelling (you can’t fix that in post-production). Instead of figuring out an imaginative rendering of Shiva’s personality — for example, the Scientist is characterised by irreverence and mischief, which is represented through the monkey — we get a flame-coloured blimp and a shirtless Shiva. Even if you have a thing for Kapoor’s abs, this is not a particularly memorable visual because it doesn’t feel grounded in Shiva’s character.  

In sharp contrast to Brahmastra’s mediocre plot and thoughtless use of computer-generated imagery is the VFX-packed, fantasy K-drama Alchemy of Souls, which recently completed its first season. Written by the Hong sisters (Hong Mi-ran and Hong Jung-eun make up the writing duo behind celebrated K-dramas like Hotel del Luna), Alchemy is set in an imaginary land called Daeho, where magic is a part of everyday life. Our first glimpse of Daeho is a top shot, complete with a crystalline water dragon dancing in the skies. It’s a striking image and immediately establishes Alchemy’s landscape as fantastical. Even so, this world feels more credible than Brahmastra’s vision of an India made up of spacious Mumbai chawls and villages in Himachal Pradesh that have an uncanny resemblance to alpine Europe.   

Technically speaking, with 16 hour-long episodes to tell its story, Alchemy had more time to waste than Brahmastra with its 166-minute runtime. However, Alchemy hits the ground running from the show’s very first scene. The setting is a city that looks like it’s from a fairy tale and we see a woman offer food and shelter to a homeless mother and child. There’s a morbid underside to this generosity — the mother and child find themselves trapped in a room with a monstrous creature who is described as a soul-shifter that has “run wild”. In his present state, the creature hungers for human energy and sucks the life out of living people. If he doesn’t feed on humans, he will turn to stone and die. Within the first few minutes, the Hong sisters establish the terrible consequences of soul shifting and that it is forbidden in Daeho, even though one mage has been shifting souls from one body to another in secret. From the fact that Daeho is a magical kingdom to the arrogance of mages, this opening scene lays down the basics of both the world in which Alchemy is set and the story it’s telling.  

There’s not one scene in Brahmastra that manages this. Each episode and scene in Brahmastra seems to be a vehicle for VFX, rather than a part of a well-worked-out story. In Alchemy, the VFX complements the story. In Brahmastra, visual effects dominate the narrative in the hope of camouflaging lapses in logic. For example, when Isha (Bhatt) and Shiva are on the world’s worst first date, it takes a stellar cameo by Khan and multiple VFX shots to keep us from rolling our eyes at how Isha and Shiva’s meet cute begins with him delivering a clunker of a pick-up line (“What are you?”) to her interrogating him about his parents, and shedding a single tear because Shiva’s able to smile even though he’s poor and orphaned. Only for the date to end with Isha twiddling her thumbs in Shiva’s room while he goes off to have a fit. She finds nothing weird in our hero’s behaviour — so much so that she cheerfully insists on travelling with him to Varanasi. She’s convinced Shiva is trustworthy, presumably because, with his chosen family of orphan kids, he reminds her of Mr India (1987). Never mind the minor detail that Shiva and the script forget about those kids once Isha and Shiva leave Mumbai. Considering how badly the relationship is written and how half-baked Isha is as a character, it’s not surprising that Bhatt and Kapoor fail to add any chemistry to Brahmastra

Mukerji clearly rewatched a lot of fantasy adventures while writing Brahmastra, but it seems he didn’t notice how women are no longer token characters in this genre. Despite every international superhero franchise amping up its women characters, in the male-dominated world of Brahmastra, women have only supporting parts. While Isha does get to drive a car (briefly) and there’s one shot in which Dimple Kapadia pilots a helicopter, no woman in Brahmastra gets to sit in the driver’s seat, narratively speaking. The only one who seems like she’s strong and independent is Junoon (Mouni Roy), but for all her ruby-eyed glare and furious roars, she turns out to be a puppet, mastered by a man. Isha exists only to hype up Shiva and to this end, the bulk of her dialogues are her calling out his name. To help him achieve greatness, Isha needs Shiva to rescue her at regular intervals, which is a trope from fantasy storytelling that you’d think we’d have outgrown by now.

That said, Alchemy is proof that even old-fashioned tropes can be made to work if they’re used intelligently. The drama’s lead pair are Mu-deok (Jung So-min) and Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook), and much of the first season is about Jang Uk coming into his own. Born to one of the most powerful families of Daeho, Jang Uk is nevertheless a bit of an outcast because his father cursed him so that he cannot perform magic, despite belonging to an illustrious line of mages. Jang Uk, like Shiva, has to discover he has special powers and has to learn how to use them. Helping him is Mu-deok, a blind and frail beggar woman whose body has been taken over by a deadly assassin Naksu, who has vowed to kill Daeho’s mages. However, Naksu’s new body can’t handle her powers, so she’s reduced to being the largely-helpless Mu-deok and live by her wits, rather than magic or muscles. 

When Jang Uk meets Mu-deok, he realises she’s housing the soul-shifting Naksu and asks her to become his teacher. Mu-deok agrees on the condition that he will help recover Naksu’s sword, which is essential to the assassin recovering her powers. In this way, the Hong sisters set up a situation in which the heroine does need the hero to protect her, but the relationship between the two is far more equal than in traditional fantasy tales. As Alchemy unfolds, Mu-deok and Jang Uk work together closely and also fall in love, but each one develops as a distinctive character with their own personality and motivation. While Isha simply adores Shiva, Mu-deok challenges Jang Uk and works towards her own goals, which have nothing to do with Jang Uk. Heroism in Alchemy is not the exclusive reserve of men. Even though the focus is on Jang-Uk, Mu-deok also gets time in the spotlight.

Alchemy is yet another bit of evidence to suggest the old hierarchy that placed films — specifically, films that are released in cinemas — on top of the cultural pile, is obsolete. Long-form storytelling, as done for streaming platforms (and television, in South Korea), is where truly sophisticated storytelling may be found. Despite being a television series, Alchemy tells an infinitely better story than Brahmastra. While Mukerji’s film is mired in a lack of originality and relies heavily on tropes (visual and otherwise), Alchemy looks and feels original, with complex ideas as well as characters. Now that Brahmastra is a bona fide hit, maybe the makers will find some time and money to invest in the storytelling for the sequel. If not anything else, maybe they can take a few cues from the Hong sisters.  

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