Brahmastra Movie Review: This 'Astraverse' movie claps epic visuals on a generic plot 

Mouni Roy is entertaining as the antagonist Junoon, but the real villain of Brahmastra is the writing
Ranbir and Alia in Brahmastra
Ranbir and Alia in Brahmastra

It’s been a long, winding, patience-annihilating road to Brahmastra. I was in college when murmurs of Ayan Mukerji’s superhero fantasy epic first began (today, I’m practically middle-aged). If personal testimonies don’t count, think of all that’s transpired in the world since the official announcement of the film. Think of Brexit, #MeToo, Trump, Biden, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. Think of the ravages of Covid-19. Cultural historians would do well to divide our era into pre and post-Brahmastra. Heck, even the Queen has died before this lumbering production could ride into town.

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

And what of Bollywood? - you might rightfully ask. The rules were radically different when producer Karan Johar’s 400-crore-plus (estimated) bet went on floors. The Marvel behemoth, having already captured the West, was tightening its grip on the Indian subcontinent. The idea of a homegrown ‘Astraverse’—broken into three parts, and combining Indian mythology with the sort of best-in-class visual effects superhero franchises are known for—was promising enough. But then covid happened and viewers retreated to their homes. They returned, of course, but largely for RRR and KGF: Chapter 2—immense, reality-shattering Southern spectacles, films with scale and gall and not an entitled bone in their body. These aren’t shoes Brahmastra was conceived to fill.

Ayan begins his film aggressively, springing a ‘surprise appearance’ most already know the secret to (hint: it features a scientist who goes by Mohan Bhargav). The Wake Up Sid director then withdraws to home turf, tracing the love story of Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), an orphaned, good-hearted DJ, and Isha (Alia Bhatt), a rich girl he encounters at a Durga Puja festival and is instantly transfixed by. Since Alia played ‘Sita’ to Ram Charan’s Rama Raju in RRR, it’s only natural that she becomes the ‘Parvati’ of Shiva’s story. After all, if there’s one thing that ties the North and South cinemas together, it’s our tendency to spell out mythic symbolisms to the audience.

Like Harry Potter, a character he’s clearly modeled on, Shiva has a higher path to follow. He’s been having visions, marked by sudden, violent seizures. “There are some ancient powers, some astras…” he explains to Isha, who asks few questions and comes along for the ride. The couple land up first in Varanasi, approaching elusive archaeologist Anish Shetty (Nagarjuna), and then in the Himalayas, where Arvind (Amitabh Bachchan) is the guru of the 'Brahmansh', an ancient secret society protecting and harnessing divine weapons. The deadliest of these, split up into three cookie-shaped parts, is the world-obliterating Brahmastra, which a cult of rappers—what else do you call villains named Raftaar, Zor and Junoon (Mouni Roy)?—want to steal.

DNEG, one of the world’s leading VFX houses, has tooled on Brahmastra. It’s easily the most effects-heavy Hindi film ever made (and the highest-budgeted one as well). Ayan fills the screen with trails, shockwaves and all sorts of particle effects. The astras, once maxed out, beam up behind their bearers as giant luminous animal shapes—like beasts out of an anime. The art style favours the extravagant over the realistic. This isn’t a fault per se, though I wish certain ideas were fleshed out better (a truck collision with the Nandi bull lacks the desired thump).

You’ll cherish the action scenes, for every time Brahmastra settles into its story beats, it’s a snooze. Shiva’s is the same generic origin story you’ve heard a thousand times over. The screenplay has a rigid, yawn-inducing rhythm. Ayan has barely landed a plot point or emotion than he rushes us to the next. Take the scene where Guru-ji is exhorting Shiva to stay on in the 'Brahmansh'. In less than two minutes, Shiva has rejected the offer, walked away, turned, changed his decision and is on his way to embracing his destiny. Almost nothing is allowed to simmer. The dialogue, primarily 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… apna button dhund ke.”

Ranbir, turning 40 this month, fits impressively into the role of a Disneyesque hero. He’s the only major Hindi film actor who can suggest unstrained innocence so well. Alia has had such a major screen year (in Gangubai Kathiawadi, RRR and Darlings) that Isha feels like a picnic job. Surprisingly, in such a packed ensemble, it’s Mouni Roy who walks away with the best bits. Her Junoon is the only threatening presence in the film; the other villains, bearded and kohl-eyed, look like failed caricature attempts.

A clue to Brahmastra lies in the big action set-piece it offers at the start. Ayan knows that no matter how hard he tries, we’re still miles from matching the levels of Hollywood fare. Thus, he plays to a strength that’s unique to Hindi films. The ‘astra’ of Bollywood isn’t budgets or VFX or quasi-mythological deep dives. It’s something far more simple and instinctual. It’s fandom.

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