Brahmastra Part One Review: A Chaotic Spectacle That Mostly Lives Up To The Hype

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Brahmastra Part One Review: A Chaotic Spectacle That Mostly Lives Up To The Hype

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Hindi cinema is many things – good, bad and ugly. But it is rarely ambitious. Try and think of a Bollywood movie that truly dared. Not your favourite film, not your favourite actor or director’s best work, not a technical marvel, not a beloved blockbuster, not a wrenching emotional saga, not even a film that brought people together against all odds. Just a movie that felt like it put everything on the line. It’ll take you a while to name one, and even that will mostly end up subjective. On the ambition meter, my Detective Byomkesh Bakshy(!) might be your Kaagaz Ke Phool, which might be someone else’s The Kashmir Files or Lagaan. All of us are right and wrong in our own personal ways. But there’s a good chance all of us might just reluctantly agree on the first film in the Brahmastra trilogy, if we choose to watch it (instead of boycotting it because soc-med trolls said so). Good, bad or ugly; this film displays ambition that few Hindi movies tend to do.

It isn’t always a ‘put together’ film, Ayan Mukerji’s magnum opus. In fact, it often gave me the feeling that between 2013’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and this one, he should have attempted at least one mass-market action flick before tackling a film of this magnitude. Then again, maybe this itself is the one where Mukerji gets it a little wrong, before he starts to get it right. For all its vibrant messiness, I hope Mukerji is given a chance to complete his trilogy, because that third film – a distant dream at this point – might just be the full-blooded extravaganza that we, the spectacle-hungry Bollywood bhakts, truly deserve (in lieu of our unconditional loyalty despite the unabashed mediocrity we are usually served). Part One is the film that sets it all up, and that alone makes it nearly worth the hype.

The complex mythology on display in Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is basic and intriguing all at one. It is also a relentless, fast-moving film that doesn’t feel like it lasts a whopping two hours and forty-six minutes.

The complex mythology on display in Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is basic and intriguing all at one. It is also a relentless, fast-moving film that doesn’t feel like it lasts a whopping two hours and forty-six minutes. And the Harry Potter influences are all-pervasive. No, really. If you’ve gobbled up Rowling’s witch-wizard chronicles multiple times over, the beats of this story will feel familiar far too often. Craft those beats into a thoroughly Hindustani (not Hindutva) context, and you still end up with something that feels a wee bit new, influences be damned. Like Ranbir Kapoor’s recent BO debacle Shamshera, this one too begins with an animated segment that gives you a TL;DR on the context of the story. Creation, devotion, unbridled power, Marvellous Infinity Astras, DC-esque destructive tripartite artefacts, the works. Then, we meet Shiva. Like every Ayan Mukerji film to date, Ranbir Kapoor feels like a stand-in for the storyteller’s own self – a good-hearted explorer who goes with the flow and charts his own course. (When under the influence of exquisite mountain herbs, Mukerji also probably sees himself as a bit of a superhero, and why not?)

Someone is hunting for three parts of a specific object that are the source of immense destructive power. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, a young chap goes about DJing and falling in love-at-first-meet-cute. He’s lucky that the woman in question feels like she’s always up for adventure. The mythical astras formed eons ago have inevitably, morphed into modern-day objects guarded closely by a secret society, headed by a Guruji. While Shiva is busy falling in love, he is also somehow having visions of all these mystical events happening at the background. He is drawn inexorably to both at the same time. The falling in love and superhero-dom play out pretty much in parallel, as Shiva – with Isha very much by his side, go out to solve all of the mysteries at play. And these mysteries unfold in a manner that Hindi cinema has rarely seen.

From the guruji, to the power of love, to the connections with family and lineage, to the innocent wonder at the heart of it, Mukerji’s vision, at least in this first film, stays faithful to its influences.

I’ve already mentioned the Harry Potter influences here, but the various ways in which the fire, fury and gusto with which Shiva navigates this new world he is entering, directly draw from Potter cannot be understated. The mythology uses familiar Hindu elements to chart itself out, but the core of it is Western fantasy, of that there is no doubt. From the guruji, to the power of love, to the connections with family and lineage, to the innocent wonder at the heart of it, Mukerji’s vision, at least in this first film, stays faithful to its influences. Yet, the sequences that unfold along the way are the kind that Bollywood has rarely seen. The action jumps go from Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi, to finally the hills of Himachal Pradesh, as Shiva and the new-found love of his life Isha face off against the mysterious woman and her growing horde, who are desperate to put together the powerful titular Brahmastra, which lies at the centre of all of this.

Mukerji’s lack of experience with staging this kind of ambition shows instantly. It isn’t particularly coherent at all times, often with split-second shots that hide more than they show. The dialogue tends to straddle two distinct flavours – ‘pracheen kaal’ and ‘tapori’ – with no real rhythm between the two. The point, I suppose, is to make all of it both spectacular and accessible at the same time. Think ‘light uss roshni ka naam hai jo…’ That line might be a bit of a meme already; but then, there’s a perpetual motion to the film that only gains momentum all through. From the beginning till the interval point (which is the culmination of a long, breathless and mostly fun action/chase sequence), and then again from there till the end, Shiva’s rapid entry into a world he has no idea about thus far (apart from his mysterious connection to fire) is a steep ascent into ancient lore that seems both immense and basic at the same time.

Despite a Kapoor, an Akkineni, a Bachchan (and possibly another big small Bollywood last name, wink-wink), it is this actor and character that together make up the film’s Bhatt-astra, the luminous thread that binds all of it together.

Yet, despite my reservations all through, particularly with the wholly unconvincing way in which Shiva and Isha discover each other and ignite the fuse that leads to everything that follows, the film has a secret weapon that convinces you to go along for the ride. Ranbir Kapoor ends up the hero, yes. But without Alia Bhatt’s Isha willingly and unconditionally participating in it, this is a story that could have fallen flat. Despite a Kapoor, an Akkineni, a Bachchan (and possibly another big small Bollywood last name, wink-wink), it is this actor and character that together make up the film’s Bhatt-astra, the luminous thread that binds all of it together. By the time Shiva faces up to the demons on the inside and the out, it feels like he just couldn’t have done it without Isha by his side.

The lore itself gets grander all along, though I must confess, I didn’t particularly find an antagonist in the film. Not even Mouni Roy, who seems as immersed into her character’s mission to find the elusive pieces of the Brahmastra as a regular, non-magic person could possibly be. Then again, her character is called ‘Junoon’, so she goes about her India-hopping task with at least a passion that justifies it the nomenclature. This is a good and evil story, but the evil isn’t crafted out in a truly convincing manner. The stakes are mostly told to us, rarely shown. Putting the Brahmastra together will end the world. Why? Not sure. Perhaps that’s a tale for another day, another film. Mukerji has promised us three, after all. No matter what your beef with Bollywood, this is that rare Hindi film that wears its immense heart and ambition on its sleeve, and goes all out to fulfil it. It wobbles a few times, but the intent and scale are both Rajamouli-esque, and that can’t be a bad thing.

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