War Review: A Glorious Bollywood Action Entertainer that Reinvents Hrithik Roshan

Bollywood

War Review: A Glorious Bollywood Action Entertainer that Reinvents Hrithik Roshan

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Last year, Yash Raj Films, arguably Bollywood’s most powerful legacy production studio, boasted three film releases. There was Sidharth Malhotra’s Hichki which engineered Rani Mukherji’s comeback to Hindi films after four years, Sharat Katariya’s Sui Dhaaga, a follow-up from one of the most assured directorial voices of this decade, and Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan, YRF’s most expensive outing that unfortunately also turned out to be its biggest disaster. In their own way, all three films were bogged down by the trademark YRF problem: its insistence on sacrificing imagination at the altar of embarrassingly lavish budgets. But the failure of Thugs of Hindostan in particular, had even deeper repercussions. It underlined the risk of the studio’s growing irrelevance, its inability to adapt to the demands of a millennial audience, and presumably left it with no other option than to recalibrate its strategy.

Perhaps that explains why the first YRF release in 2019 comes in October, almost a year after Thugs of Hindostan. It seems to have paid off. Siddharth Anand’s War is a glorious return to form; an unadulterated resuscitation of both the Bollywood action genre and YRF’s propensity to mount a mainstream entertainer that shocks, surprises, and entertains in equal measure. More importantly, it betrays the studio’s willingness to confront its own weaknesses and strip itself off excess. Essentially, War is what you get when YRF decides to go to therapy.

When War was initially announced last year, it was easy to dismiss the film as generic fan-service that would put as much thought to its plot as Chetan Bhagat reserves for the titles of his books. For one, the film’s existence seemed centered entirely around managing the coup of bringing together Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff – an actor who has visibly modelled himself on Roshan’s traits. Between the two of them, there existed endless possibilities for Anand to get away with making the film all about attention-grabbing dance-offs and insulting displays of core strength.

A year later, War features both these things. And yet it is also so much more. Written by Shridhar Raghavan and Anand (the dialogues are by Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’s Abbas Tyrewala and Aditya Chopra is co-credited for the story), the movie stands out for not taking the action genre for granted. In the recent past, action films (Baaghi, Satyameva Jayate) have resorted to using the genre only as a means to an end – to service either an underdog tale or a performance of nationalism. But War takes its action seriously and refuses to overplay its hand. It remains acutely aware of its strengths (which involves using Shroff in such a limited way that he is tolerable) and is at once, pulpy, stylish, racy, and surprisingly intelligent. The result is a homegrown action entertainer that strives to prove that a mainstream film can be engrossing and fun without being obligated to underestimate the audience’s intelligence.

War takes its action seriously and refuses to overplay its hand. It remains acutely aware of its strengths.

The premise of War is straightforward: Kabir (Hrithik Roshan, coming the closest to essaying a Greek God), a former soldier, has suddenly gone rogue and his protégé Khalid (Tiger Shroff) volunteers to hunt him down, ensuing a chase that spans across Delhi, Iraq, Malta, Portugal, Kerala, and even the Arctic Circle. As is expected, the plot is littered with flashbacks, evil gangsters, betrayals, a generous withholding of information, and a climactic plot twist that in hindsight, will seem nothing short of genius.

For much of its 156-long-runtime, War feels, foremost like a carnival of flexibility: Shroff’s introduction is an action sequence (a frenetic three minute one-take hand-to-hand combat scene that shifts from a room to a swimming pool), where his legs do all the acting. They are ably backed up by Roshan’s calf strength over the next two hours. Even then, it takes a while to get used to the fact that no one walks in War. Instead they stretch, run, jump, kick, attempt backflips, glide around poles, and bend their bodies in ways that would seem infuriating if it didn’t look so irresistible. 

The film’s charm is aided by the fact that both the actors share an electric chemistry and the action set-pieces thrill with their fluid choreography, and occasional ingenuity. Anand shoots the portions (the cinematography is by Benjamin Jasper) that have Roshan and Shroff with an urgency that delivers on the hype built around both the actors share the frame. There’s Roshan riding a bike through fire, Shroff making the act of dodging bullets look like ballet in slow-motion, and Roshan driving a jeep out of a plane that has caught fire with a delicious arrogance that is worth the price of admission. These are ridiculously laughable scenarios on paper and yet War translates them in a way that makes it nearly impossible to take your eyes off the screen. It’s been a while since a Bollywood film has made action look this inviting.

The prime reason that War’s wholehearted commitment to irreverence feels rewarding despite its several flaws (the two women have nothing to do, the conveniences keep stacking up, and Shroff gives all of one expression in most scenes) is single handedly due to Hrithik Roshan. As Kabir, Roshan plays an elevated, broodier version of Aryan in Dhoom 2, turning in an enjoyably hammy performance that isn’t too self-conscious of his reputation. In scene after scene, he does so much while doing so little: there’s a slight glare here, a sly smirk there, seamlessly synthesised with a body language that ekes out confidence in cockiness. 

War is a reminder of the joys of letting overgrown men fight and hunt down enemies simply because that is what men sometimes want to do.

In his hands, Kabir becomes a physical embodiment of swag, as if he is a gust of wind on a warm sunny day – a rewarding evidence of Roshan’s potential as an action hero (The film teases a sequel, which might necessarily not be a bad thing). In more ways than one, War then, feels like a reinvention of Hrithik Roshan as we knew him. Not only does the actor benefit from playing a character closer to his age, but he also seems to be genuinely invested in essaying someone who is divorced from serving romantic sub-plots or dramatic outbursts. 

Yet War’s biggest asset is that the film knows its worth. It is best evidenced in its steadfast reluctance to pander to chest-thumping nationalism or exaggerated masculinity. For a film that is packaged as a harmless entertainer, War bellies expectations with a nuanced commentary on religion and the price of patriotism. The film features both Hindu and Muslim protagonists and the makers subvert the trope of a Muslim protagonist being asked to prove their allegiance to the country by sneakily subscribing to it. 

In fact, the distance that War covers can be aptly summed up in one scene: Baaghi 2, last year’s biggest action entertainer, featured a distasteful scene that had its lead, an army officer, tie a stone-pelter to his jeep as a human shield. In the climax of War, a lookalike of Narendra Modi is made to acknowledge and celebrate the selfless contributions of a Muslim soldier toward protecting India in front of his widowed mother. It’s a subtle but terrific indictment.

But more than anything, War feels like a long over-due reminder of the joys of films letting overgrown men fight, kick, shoot, and hunt down enemies simply because that is what men sometimes want to do. It is the kind of film that thrives on reducing the distance between a critic and an audience. This is best reflected in a scene where Arati (Anupriya Goenka) jokes about wanting to elope with Roshan’s Kabir. Shroff’s Khalid replies with a smug “Get in line.” Roshan simply smiles. And I almost wished that I knew how to whistle.

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