This ‘Astraverse’ Movie Applauds Epic Visuals Over a Generic Plot

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It has been a long, winding and overwhelming road for brahmastra. I was in college when the whispers of Ayan Mukerji’s superhero fantasy epic started (today I’m practically middle-aged). If personal testimonies don’t count, think about everything that’s happened in the world since the movie was officially announced. Think Brexit, #MeToo, Trump, Biden, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Think of the ravages of Covid-19. Cultural historians would do well to divide our time into pre- and post-brahmastra. Heck, even the queen died before this forest production could come to town.

With: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna, Mouni Roy, Chaitanya Sharma
Director: Ayan Mukerji

And what about Bollywood? – you might legitimately ask. The rules were radically different when producer Karan Johar’s (estimated) over 400 crore bet went to the floors. The Marvel juggernaut, having already conquered the West, was tightening its grip on the Indian subcontinent. The idea of ​​a local “Astraverse” – split into three parts and combining Indian mythology with the kind of top-notch visual effects that superhero franchises are known for – was promising enough. But then covid hit and viewers retreated to their homes. They came back, of course, but largely for RRR and KGF: Chapter 2– huge reality-shattering Southern spectacles, films with breadth and gall and not a titled bone in their bodies. These are not shoes brahmastra was designed to fill.

Ayan begins his film aggressively, prompting a “surprise appearance” the secret of which most already know (hint: it features a scientist impersonating Mohan Bhargav). The Wake Up director Sid then retires to his home, retracing the love story of Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), a kind-hearted orphan DJ, and Isha (Alia Bhatt), a wealthy girl he meets during of a Durga Puja festival and who is instantly transfixed by. Since Alia played ‘Sita’ to Rama Raju of Ram Charan in RRR, it is quite naturally that she becomes the “Parvati” of the story of Shiva. After all, if there’s one thing that connects cinemas North and South, it’s our tendency to spell out mythical symbolisms to audiences.

Like Harry Potter, a character he is clearly modeled after, Shiva has a higher path to follow. He has visions, marked by sudden and violent crises. “There are ancient powers, astras…”, he explains to Isha, who asks few questions and accompanies the walk. The pair land first in Varanasi, approaching elusive archaeologist Anish Shetty (Nagarjuna), then on to the Himalayas, where Arvind (Amitabh Bachchan) is the guru of ‘Brahmansh’, an ancient secret society protecting and harnessing divine weapons . The deadliest of them, divided into three cookie-shaped parts, is the erasing world brahmastrajust a sect of rappers – what else do you call villains named Raftaar, Zor and Junoon (Mouni Roy)? – wants to fly.

DNEG, one of the world’s leading visual effects houses, relied on brahmastra. It is by far the most effects-laden Hindi film ever made (and also the one with the highest budget). Ayan fills the screen with trails, shockwaves, and all sorts of particle effects. The astras, once maxed out, radiate out from behind their wearers in the form of giant luminous animal forms, like beasts from an anime. The artistic style favors the extravagant over the realistic. Not a fault per se, although I wish some ideas had been fleshed out better (a truck collision with the bull Nandi doesn’t pack the punch we want).

You’ll cherish the action scenes, for every time brahmastra settles into its story rhythms, it’s a siesta. Shiva is the same generic origin story you’ve heard thousands of times. The script has a stiff pace that makes you yawn. Ayan barely lands a plot point or emotion that he rushes us to the next one. Take the scene where Guru-ji urges Shiva to stay in “Brahmansh”. In less than two minutes, Shiva has rejected the offer, walked away, turned around, changed his mind and is about to embrace his destiny. Almost nothing should simmer. The dialogue, especially Bachchan’s, is a pain — “Main tumhe DJ se Dragon bana dunga”, “Sahi waqt ko aane mein bhi waqt lagta hai”, “Meri baaton ka saboot, Shiva ke haaton mein hai“, “‘Off’ se ‘On’ ho jayo…button apna dhund ke.”

Ranbir, who turns 40 this month, fits perfectly into the role of a Disneyesque hero. He is the only great Hindi film actor who can so well suggest unconstrained innocence. Alia had such a year on screen (in Gangubai Kathiawadi, RRR and darlings) that Isha feels like a picnic job. Surprisingly, in such a busy ensemble, it’s Mouni Roy who leaves with the best songs. Son Junoon is the film’s only menacing presence; the other villains, bearded and kohl-eyed, look like failed attempts at caricature.

A clue to Brahmastra is in the big action set he offers at the start. Ayan knows that no matter how hard he tries, we are still far from matching Hollywood fare levels. Thus, he plays with a force unique to Hindi films. Bollywood’s “astra” isn’t budgets or VFX or quasi-mythological deep dives. It’s something much simpler and more instinctive. It’s fandom.

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