The relentless action that explodes on the screen accompanied by blinding fireworks and a high-decibel background score is a key part of the nearly three-hour-longBrahmastra Part One: Shiva. It isn’t the pyrotechnics, however, that define the film that kicks off Bollywood’s first proposed superhero trilogy. Its sweep, scale, style and swathes of originality do.
That is not to say that the astraverse (a universe of weapons drawn from the elements and the natural world) created in Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is likely to give Marvel’s multiverse a run for its money. Or even that this film is an epitome of perfection. Parts of it do go a tad awry. Others are somewhat enervating, given the film’s full-tilt, unbridled approach to the genre.
Brahmastra takes the devices of the superhero flick as we know them and stirs them up in a way that isn’t entirely potboiler-style derivative, which is quite a feat given that it is primarily intent on rustling up a maximalist universe where everything is designed to dazzle the audience into willing submission.
Writer-director Ayan Mukerji couches the overlong adventure fantasy in an engaging, if a touch facile, love story between a DJ and the strong-willed, free-spirited girl who he falls in love with at first sight while whipping up a musical frenzy at a Mumbai Durga Puja pandal.
Their blossoming romance and the fire-hurling power that the boy possesses propels the two lovers down the path of duty and places them in situations from where they can go in only one fraught direction. The adventure takes them to the holy city of Varanasi and to the Himalayas, where time seems to stand still. But the duo has no time to pause and wonder what on earth is going on.
The Brahmastra saga is steeped in ancient Indian mythology, but the film expertly skirts around overt religiosity while stressing on the core concept of a timeless war between roshni (light) and andhera (darkness), between selfless sacrifice and righteousness on one side and personal ambition and destruction on the other.
Hindu religious festivities – Durga Puja, Dussehra, Kali Puja and Diwali, which is the time around which the film is set – dominate the first half hour of the film. That apart, the play on Shiva and Parvati – Isha is one of Durga’s names – is obvious, but one character rechristens the male protagonist ‘Dragon’, perhaps a nod to Norse and Viking mythology with an eye on universalizing a story rooted in Bharatvarsh.
The young couple’s mission is to stop the machinations of the forces of darkness that are looking to take control of the world by grabbing the three pieces of the brahmastra – a weapon of mass destruction that has survived for eons under the watch of Lord Brahma, the God of astras, and his human designates and has been inactive for three decades – and making them whole again and unleashing mayhem.
In the astraverse, the three pieces of the brahmastra are guarded by a trio of men – a scientist, an artist and a mystic – all of whom exist in the here and now as individuals who seem ordinary enough until they begin to reveal the hidden, distinct and elemental powers that they have been granted.
In the long-drawn out battle royale that ensues, the hero, Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), has to first grasp the dimensions of his destiny as a saviour of mankind before he can embark upon an all-out confrontation with Junoon, the Queen of Darkness (Mouni Roy).
The young man is assailed by doubts and reservations. But what lies in store for him is preordained and, as it transpires, there is no turning back him. He is aided by his beloved Isha (Alia Bhatt), a woman who isn’t given to playing second fiddle, and a homilies-spouting Guru (Amitabh Bachchan), who dwells in an ashram in the Himalayas where he grooms the next generation of defenders of the light.
A couple of other veteran superstars, one from Mumbai (whose identity shall stay unrevealed), the other from down South (Nagarjuna Akkineni), make appearances as principal figures in inexplicable and unsettling visions that Shiva has as he struggles to find an answer to the question that Isha repeatedly poses to him: Tum ho kaun (who are you)?
While Shiva does not volunteer too much information himself, detailed and verbose explanations are provided especially in the second half by the all-knowing Guru. These passages tend to slow down the film. But once the exposition is out of the way, Brahmastra hurtles along towards the all-important climactic clash between Shiva and Junoon, who is guided by a shadowy evil being.
Some of the background information pertaining to the grand role that has been thrust upon Shiva is overly complex and rambling, which might ironically enthuse many in the audience to watch the movie more than once.
Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is a high-octane blend of generic Hollywood conventions and predictable Bollywood tics, of technical razzmatazz and emotional traction. In the matter of the latter, the presence of the newlywed Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt adds a real, tangible edge to the onscreen romance between Shiva and Isha, a union of equals despite the fact that one is a superhero and the other a mere mortal.
The most striking aspect of Brahmastra is its firm eschewal of the kind of hypermasculinity that films of this nature usually perpetuate. With Ranbir Kapoor anchoring the action and the screenplay steering clear of the peddling of unbridled machismo, what we have is a male protagonist who willingly cedes ground to the woman in his life.
In fact, the man, by his own admission, owes a great deal to his mother – a backstory that is alluded to here, but is held back for subsequent instalments of the trilogy.
In one scene, Shiva describes a job at hand as meri zimmedari(my responsibility). Isha corrects him promptly – it’s humaari zimmedari (our responsibility), she says.
In another scene early in the film, Shiva says to Isha that he has no surname because he does not know who his father is. In the same breath, he reveals that he plans to adopt the surname of his wife. Here is a superhero who is ‘super’ in more ways than one.
Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is a spectacular production that benefits immensely from the VFX done by DNEG. The crucial action scenes, even as they strain credibility, throb with life and deliver their share of excitement.
The story plays out in recognizable spaces – in an orphanage, an artist’s atelier, a hermit’s home – in a marked departure from Hollywood’s heightened and divorced-from-reality superhero movie template.
On the acting front, Ranbir and Alia achieve the impossible: they ensure that Shiva and Isha are always believable even as the goings-on around them are beyond fantastic. Mouni Roy, playing the arch-villainess who is out to wrest the brahmastra and wreak havoc on mankind, carries the daunting weight of the role without wilting.
Brahmastra Part One: Shiva, ambitious and entertaining, has the makings of a blockbuster of the sort that Bollywood has been desperately seeking for a while.
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna, Mouni Roy
Director: Ayan Mukerji
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)