Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor in Brahmastra
Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor in Brahmastra

Brahmastra review: Ranbir-Alia film is a grand spectacle minus originality

Directed by Ayan Mukerji, the film constantly tries to make your jaw drop to the floor with the visual effects, but since we never empathise with the characters on screen, it remains a distant spectacle.

Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva, directed by Ayan Mukerji, was announced eight years ago and is one of the most expensive Indian films made till date with a whopping budget of Rs 410 crore. Considering the time and money put into the project – planned as a trilogy – one expects nothing less than a marvellous spectacle unfolding on screen. And if your reading list has never included fantasy series such as The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, this ‘astraverse’ extravaganza that marries Hollywood style superhero films with Hindu mythology may leave you impressed. Almost.

The cinematic universe of Brahmastra is built around a secret society of rishis – known as the Brahmansh – who possess the powers to control different astras. The most powerful of these astras is the Brahmastra which was broken into three pieces 30 years ago. The film opens in comic book style, setting up the premise, and then breaking into a very enjoyable cameo from Shah Rukh Khan who plays Mohan Barghav, a scientist in possession of the vanarastra. With his charm and comic timing, SRK easily draws you into the world of Brahmastra.

Mohan is under attack from Junoon (Mouni Roy, who is styled in black clothes and a big silver nose stud to emphasise her villainy), the Queen of Darkness, who wants a piece of the Brahmastra which is in his possession. The visual effects are magnificent and just as you allow yourself to be mesmerised, the film cuts to Mumbai where its actual hero is worshipping in a Durga temple. And his eyes fall on a beautiful young woman with a rose demurely tucked behind her ear.

The romance between Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) and Isha (Alia Bhatt) is an old school, chaste romance set in the contemporary world and as a result, the actors themselves don’t look too convinced about it. He’s a lower middle class orphan with a golden heart; she’s a rich young woman. The characterisation never goes beyond this. In their first conversation, Isha asks Shiva, “Who are you?” A besotted Shiva responds with “What are you?” Till the end, we don’t get an answer for either. She’s leaving for a party but ends up accompanying him to a birthday party in his place – for an orphan child. Obviously, Shiva’s gesture floors Isha. Someone should do a thesis on how orphans have been used in Indian cinema as a plot device to make people fall in love.

Among the most important sequences in a fantasy series is the point when the hero discovers their superhuman powers and tests them out. It’s not only the character who is gleaning more information about how this power works, it’s also the audience. Under what circumstances does it work and to what extent? How can it be controlled or destroyed? In the Malayalam superhero film Minnal Murali, for instance, we have those hilarious scenes with the protagonist testing out his powers in a small village – from breaking doors to holding up the ceiling fan.

In Brahmastra, Shiva has apparently known for a while that fire cannot harm him but it has never occurred to him to figure out why or experiment with it. Everything happens in the context of the rather plain and uninteresting love story and this drags down the pace of the film. You can see the makers’ effort to constantly have you drop your jaw to the floor with the visual effects, but since we never empathise with the characters on screen, it remains a distant spectacle. Take Rajamouli’s RRR – that marvellous interval block works not only because of how wild it is in imagination. It’s also because you feel Bheem’s pressing need to rescue Malli and take her home. In Brahmastra, Shiva and Isha are always professing their love for each other but you never quite get the depth of their feelings.

The action sequences are choreographed and executed well. Though you watch these without any suspense or sense of urgency, they still make for good entertainment. Other characters like Nagarjuna’s Anish Shetty too come and go without involving you emotionally in their fate. Amitabh Bachchan plays Guru, a Gandalf-Dumbledore type person who is the leader of the Brahmansh. Again, there’s no meat to his character.

The lack of originality isn’t limited to the plot; it extends to how the characters have been envisioned and depicted too. So, all the ‘evil’ folks are dressed in black, wear thick kajal, and speak in the same growly tone. There’s also an unnecessary shot of a Muslim man becoming possessed with Junoon’s dark magic. The earnest couple at the centre of this grand adventure always looks pristine and perfect, in their pastel clothes. Several places feature in Brahmastra, from Varanasi to Himachal Pradesh, but they appear as postcard versions of themselves. You don’t travel with the film, experiencing the difference in location and culture. Remove the VFX and music and what you have is an underwhelming story that’s lifted from several sources.

Hindu mythology, like Hellenic mythology, is full of imaginative stories about gods with human attributes and conflicts. It is a great idea to create a cinematic universe with these inspirations. But what we have in Brahmastra is a troubling lack of conviction to go full throttle. As a film, it may be remembered for its technical craft but it’s not going to leave anyone holding their breath for Parts 2 and 3.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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