Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Eight years since it was first announced (for a December 2016 release), the first film in Ayan Mukerji’s long-delayed Brahmāstra series has finally arrived, playing on 8,000 screens worldwide—the most ever for a Bollywood release. The result is a dazzling chore. Produced by the Disney-owned Star Studios, the star-studded Hindi language production is meant to kick off an Avengers-style superhero universe, the “Astraverse,” drawn in part from Hindu mythology. However, its slavish dedication to re-enforcing its own lore ends up consuming even its most sophisticated visual effects. What it seems to forget, while drawing from a litany of Hollywood influences, is that while spectacle first drew people to the likes of Marvel, it was their characters that kept audiences coming back. By the end of the first “Astraverse” entry, there’s little by way of real humanity to be found.
Brahmāstra: Part One — Shiva is the first in an intended trilogy, and it opens as any good fantasy story should, setting up the backdrop through comic-style animatics. This vivid 2D sequence establishes what the trailers already have, while laying out a few more specifics: our world is home to divine weapons, or “astras,” each with their own connections to plant and animal spirits. Through the centuries, these magical artifacts have been guarded and wielded by a secret society of dozens of heroic protectors, the Brahmānsh, whose role today involves concealing the three broken shards of the most powerful weapon of them all, the Brahmāstra, a stone disc that, when re-forged, can unleash untold destruction.
This exposition comes courtesy of Bollywood elder statesman Amitabh Bachchan, whose raspy voice imbues the setting with gravitas. Bachchan appears later in the film, and his narrations also check in with us from time to time. The story kicks off in modern day Mumbai by following a young, poor DJ named Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), a man in search of purpose, who crosses paths with an attractive, rich London tourist named Isha (Alia Bhatt) at the Hindu festival of Dussehra, which celebrates the victory of good over evil. Both characters are exceptionally plain, whether attempting to engage in saccharine romance, or when expressing philosophical musings with a melodramatic cadence.
Shiva has a strange relationship to fire—he fears it, and has terrible nightmares about being burned as a child, yet he seems invulnerable to flame—but his general outlook involves seeing the lighter side of life, often literally (he frequently mentions, and then explains in excruciating detail, the idea of choosing light over darkness). The other side of this dynamic, the aforementioned darkness, is established concurrently in New Delhi, through an action scene involving a special appearance by mega-star Shah Rukh Khan. Khan plays “The Scientist,” a member of the Brahmānsh, and the only actor in the film who seems to be having any fun; as usual, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in, cracking wise in his penthouse apartment when three assassins clad in black—led by the sorceress Junoon (Mouni Roy)—invade his home and attempt to steal the Brahmāstra shard he keeps in his possession.
The Scientist also possesses a magical anklet, the Vānarastra, which the subtitles call the “super monkey weapon” (the vānar, in Hindu scripture, are a race of divinely-created humanoid apes), which envelops him in a golden shimmer and allows him to scale walls, resulting in a frenetic, eye-popping display of supernatural action. When he moves, the anklet leaves a comet-like streak behind him, akin to a monkey’s tail, and on occasion, an ape-like spirit appears to emanate from his torso, like an aura, mimicking his movements as he fights off Junoon’s blasts of smokey red magic; think Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff. It’s a jaw-dropping intro to the movie’s visual effects, which are as cleanly rendered as they are colorful and imaginative. Admittedly, part of the joyful shock here stems from seeing Khan literally bouncing off the walls, but the action’s freneticism soon gives way to incomprehensibility.
Elsewhere, the unsuspecting Shiva begins having visions of The Scientist, so he becomes privy to Junoon’s plan to track down the remaining shards, and unlock the super-weapon in order to resurrect her mysterious, unseen master, who appears only in the form of a giant statue in ominous shadow (the reasons for her dedication to him are never quite made clear). Shiva decides to take his destiny into his own hands, embarking on a road-strip journey to piece together clues from his visions so he can track down members of the Brahmānsh, like Telugu star Nagarjuna in his brief role as “The Artist” Anish Shetty, whose astra allows him to access the super strength and speed of the divine bull Nandi from Hindu scriptures, or Bachchan as “The Guru” Raghu, whose astra is… a sword. The more of these astras that are introduced, the more they begin to vary in style and influence, moving further away from their religious roots and towards something more broadly fantastical. It’s not entirely a bad idea, since each new power feels novel in the process (for instance, a younger Brahmānsh possesses a bow that shoots glowing green serpents, while another simply has a shield), but few of these abilities are rooted in anything resembling personal ethos. Swap them around, and the effect would be largely the same.
Whenever an action scene begins, there’s always a light-show—a fitting aesthetic approach for a story that, at least nominally, is about choosing light over darkness—but no matter how bright the colors, or how expertly rendered the VFX, they end up being buried by hyperactive editing that seldom allows the viewer to absorb any visual or emotional information. What’s on-screen is nice to look at in isolation, but we’re rarely given the opportunity to gaze at it, or truly feel it. There’s no sense of space to the action from shot to shot, even though individual frames are well-staged, which is a fitting microcosm of the movie at large: its individual ideas are alluring, but they’re strung together so haphazardly that they swiftly lose all impact.
Brahmāstra: Part One is clearly concerned with establishing the rules of its universe (which aren’t particularly consistent to begin with; people’s abilities seem to shift and manifest at random), so to ensure that viewers are familiar with the various astras and their place in the story, practically every line of dialogue in the second half includes the word “astra,” and is used to lay out the various pieces on the chess-board. The problem is, even the most inattentive audience members would only need to be reminded once or twice of what this, that or the other weapon can do, or who wields it. Yet when Shiva finally joins forces with the other protectors, rare are the moments when they aren’t simply repeating information with which they, and the audience, are already intimately familiar. It brings all the drama to a crashing halt. After a while, the repetition becomes comedic, albeit unintentionally; you can practically expect characters to stop dead in the middle of fight scenes to discuss exactly how many pieces of the Brahmāstra they need to combine to create the ultimate weapon. (Three. It’s three. It’s a small number, and it’s very easy to remember, but it comes up dozens of times).
And yet, this isn’t even the most egregious use of dialogue in the film. That would have to be nearly every romantic exchange between actors Kapoor and Bhatt, a real-life married couple who display a shocking lack of on-screen chemistry as Shiva and Isha. Their characters are rendered not just in broad strokes, but joyless ones, as they trudge through a pre-ordained romance on fast-forward that somehow can’t seem to move quickly enough. They fall in love because they have to—the script tells them so!—but neither one is enough of a three-dimensional person, with real traits, opinions or quirks, for this love to feel meaningful (let alone urgent, when it becomes entwined with the story’s magical elements). What few musical numbers the movie has in its first half soon fade from memory, because they don’t stem from real people with a real story to tell. Rather, they stem from the broad ideas of the “hero” and “heroine” in the general Bollywood parlance. The result is a try-hard “chosen one” superhero tale, which copies its bog-standard plot points from everything from Marvel (the astra pieces may as well be Infinity Stones), to Avatar: The Last Airbender (the film features a young airbender boy!), to The Lord of the Rings (the villain’s flaming spirit, housed in his statue, resembles Sauron), to Star Wars (you’ll figure this one out on your own), but it can’t match any one of them, because it doesn’t have an ounce of originality in its bones.
Disney’s attempt to pitch Brahmāstra as a Bollywood Avengers becomes especially overt in one scene, where a young group of five Brahmānsh members—new recruits to the organization, each with their own powers—introduces themselves to Shiva as the “Avengers” of the troupe, but only in the movie’s English subtitles. Their real reference, in the Hindi dialogue, is to “the Pandavas,” a group of five warrior brothers in the Hindu epic the Mahābhārata, but this idea is so fleeting, superficial and interchangeable that it practically rips away the movie’s façade. Its use of Hindu mythology is less of a precise story influence (structurally or visually) and more of a mish-mash, with characters and concepts borrowed seemingly at random, with little care for symbolism. On one hand, it’s refreshing for an Indian film of this scale to be able to use and remix Hindu imagery at will, without constraints—India’s growing Hindu right wing is often a silent factor in such production decisions—and seeing weapons like curved tridents, à la the Hindu deity Shiva, imbued with the magical weight of Captain America’s shield or Thor’s hammer is pretty neat. But on the other hand, Mukerji doesn’t weave any of these elements into forms that carry their own meaning, beyond the broad strokes of “love” and “light,” which are framed in so nebulous a fashion (by characters with so little grounding in familiar emotions) that they’re practically meaningless.
Brahmāstra: Part One — Shiva may have shiny new packaging, but it houses toys re-assembled from the spare parts of other, better toys you might remember, now held together with little more than Scotch tape and glitter.
Published on September 9, 2022