By Pradeep Menon Oct. 27, 2022
Akshay Kumar’s fifth film of 2022 might just be the best of the lot – but it falls short of being a truly compelling action-adventure because of some weak plotting and unconvincing visual effects.
Abhishek Sharma’s Ram Setu is the kind of film that could have gone many different ways. With a protagonist evidently inspired by fictional history-and-adventure buffs Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon, and a high-stakes premise involving a socio-politically sensitive ancient geological artefact, it is both instantly intriguing and possibly polarizing on the surface. While the film feels serious about its own revivalist intentions, it doesn’t particularly demand that the viewer take it seriously. There is a concerted effort to keep things brisk, breezy and audience-inclusive all through, despite flirting a few times with the boundaries of downright silliness.
There is a concerted effort to keep things brisk, breezy and audience-inclusive all through, despite flirting a few times with the boundaries of downright silliness.
It begins in an unlikely place – the deserts of Afghanistan. To be specific, near the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Six years later, in 2007, an archaeological dig is in progress at the site. Enter, the ‘hero’ of the piece – ace Indian archaeologist Aryan Kulshreshtha (Akshay Kumar). The film hits the ground running, as it quickly showcases Aryan’s likeability, his subject matter expertise, his unflinching belief in evidence and facts, his ability to deal with physical challenges (helped by an early unfriendly appearance by no less than the Taliban), as well as his staunch atheism; presumably so he has some form of internal journey to go through alongside the external. Aryan is even shown to gently rebuke his wife (played by Nushrratt Bharuccha) when he learns that their son is reading books about religious deities, protesting that the kid is being programmed into faith.
After establishing that he is the ideal person for the job, Aryan is drawn into the real hunt – uncovering secrets about the true origins of the controversial shoal formation stretching between India and Sri Lanka, which holds religious significance because of its purported Ramayana connection (and which gives the film its title). Aryan starts from the position of being a sceptic – he believes that the formation is natural. He is subsequently tasked with finding conclusive proof for his beliefs, an opportunity he doesn’t want to miss, even though it is hinted that this pursuit could threaten his and his family’s safety. In the mid-2000s, the Rama Setu (also known as Adam’s Bridge) found itself in public consciousness because of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, which originally planned to make a shipping route by cutting across the formation. That is the real-world context and time period in which this film’s fiction is set.
While it shows a spark or two, Ram Setu ends up a mixed sling-bag of a film that is not difficult to engage with, but one that is also easy to tune out of.
A wealthy shipping magnate (played by Nassar) is the puppet master pulling the strings and orchestrating the hunt for proof that the formation is natural, because it would be in his economic interests. For company, Aryan has some eventually insignificant foreign scientists, along with a biologist named Sandra Rebello (Jacqueline Fernandez), and later, an over-friendly Sri Lankan guide who goes by AP (Satya Dev). An important court decision becomes the ticking clock that Aryan and his assorted crew are running against. A polished but ruthless hired goon named Bali (Pravessh Rana) becomes the on-ground adversary hot on their pursuit, as Aryan’s quest takes him deep into Sri Lanka, which is in the throes of civil war.
Bali, incidentally, was a powerful monkey-king who Rama vanquished, thus earning him the unwavering loyalty of Sugriva and his Vanar Sena. The film consistently uses such references, big and small, to the literature that started it all. The film even tries its hand at recreating some powerful imagery and themes from the Ramayana. Even if you can see them coming a mile away, these moments surprisingly work better than the ‘adventure’ bits of the film.
There are two main reasons Ram Setu fails to elevate itself into being the smart action-entertainer that it tries hard to be. The first, most obvious one, is the heavy use of unconvincing visual effects all through.
Another plus for the film is Akshay Kumar. His wildly inconsistent facial hair apart (it changes in length within individual scenes more than a few times) Kumar manages to turn Aryan into an endearing protagonist. Aryan isn’t jingoistic or loud in any way, definitely more ‘archaeologist’ than ‘action star’. And the grizzled look here suits him far more than any other character he has turned out this year. He only gets preachy in the unconvincing courtroom climax, but even that is handled with more restraint than I expected. That the character is laser-focussed on his quest through the film, is perhaps what helps it maintain a certain pace despite its rather long runtime (over 140 minutes).
There are two main reasons Ram Setu fails to elevate itself into being the smart action-entertainer that it tries hard to be. The first, most obvious one, is the heavy use of unconvincing visual effects all through. The entire submersible contraption that Aryan uses while plumbing the depths of the sea around the bridge looks computer-generated at all times, to the point that it is possible they never had or used an actual physical version of it anywhere. This contraption is named ‘Makar’, which means ‘water monster’ in Sanskrit, but can be translated simply as ‘crocodile’. A literal (but visibly fake) crocodile later plays an important role in guiding the hero forward. Even ships and helicopters look post-produced, which doesn’t help the film’s cause. I sorely found myself wishing that it had at least the pulpy production design of the National Treasure movies, but Ram Setu never reaches even that far.
Then, to make matters worse, the actual adventure portions – travelling through verdant country-sides, dense forests and secret caves – don’t ever feel challenging, either physically or mentally.
Then, to make matters worse, the actual adventure portions – travelling through verdant country-sides, dense forests and secret caves – don’t ever feel challenging, either physically or mentally. Rarely are you immersed or invested in the specific place or situation Aryan is in. You are also unlikely to be in thrall of the clues uncovered and/or the clue-solving on display. The leaps made from one riddle to the next are as much a matter of faith as the crux of the film itself. It is only because the plot is in perpetual motion, that you’re likely to go along for the inoffensive ride. While it shows a spark or two, Ram Setu ends up a mixed sling-bag of a film that is not difficult to engage with, but one that is also easy to tune out of.