Breaking down the highs and lows of Brahmastra: From fantastic Shah Rukh Khan to wasted Alia Bhatt
Brahmastra is a landmark achievement that manages to do what very few massively-mounted Hindi movies have done before it - create a universe of possibility and a rich world of magic and mysticism to explore. Uneven as it is, when it works - it truly soars. It released on September 9.
Spoilers for Brahmastra ahead:
Ayan Mukerji’s decade-long endeavor Brahmastra is finally here. Let’s cut to the chase. As the massively-mounted fantasy spectacle experience, despite its shortcomings, Brahmastra was, for me, a thundering success in what it set out to do. I walked out of both screenings (I’ve watched it twice) feeling fulfilled and on a soaring high. Read more: Brahmastra movie review
Where Brahmastra triumphs is its grand good vs evil story, visual magic (the VFX was flawless), and lavish world-building. I loved how Ayan mixed Indian mythological elements with superhero-origin-story comic book movie tropes. The opening voiceover sees one of cinema’s greatest orators Amitabh Bachchan (here as a Charles Xavier-type figure who’s one of the best things about this movie) introduce us to the wonders of the Astraverse.
In this world, the Brahmansh - a secret, ancient order dating back hundreds (thousands?) of years is tasked with protecting mythical objects of immense power called the Astras. The big daddy of all the Astras is the Brahmastra. To keep it from the hands of evil forces, the Brahmastra was broken into three pieces, each one under the protection of a different Brahmansh guardian. (A familiar, welcome trope that reminds you of everything from Bulletproof Monk to the MCU’s Eternals). But someone is hunting these guardians to gather all three pieces with the help of mysterious evil witch lady Junoon (a suitably malevolent and surprisingly well-cast Mouni Roy). Thus setting the stage for a fantastical origin story centered on Shiva - a man who discovers that he is himself a living Astra.
The excellently-executed and delightfully showboat-y opening Shah Rukh Khan action set piece immediately throws us into this world (now that is how you start a frikkin movie). Shah Rukh Khan has an absolute blast with the role channeling a frenetic, almost Jackie Chan-like energy in a brief but movie-winning appearance as the playful, cocky scientist Mohan Bhargava who gives his life to protect the Astras. (I physically couldn’t stop smiling through every second of him. The close-up of his face, with eyes glowing, as he’s resisting Junoon’s interrogation, may well be my favourite visual on screen this year).
Like this, the film serves up various dazzling, impressively staged set pieces and spectacular moments, heightened by its banging background score. The Nagarjuna vs truck scene? The thrilling car chase through the mountains? That glorious pre-interval moment? The delightful training montage to the joyous wonder of Deva Deva? Seeing Big B’s Guruji in action? That exhilarating final face-off where the movie goes full Indian X-Men on us?! (RIP Tenzing you absolute beast).
But the SRK-focused opening scientist sequence also gives us a taste of the movie’s issues that lay ahead - when characters speak to each other. For one, the bad guys repeatedly call him “Scientist” to establish to us that he is, well ...a scientist. Brahmastra’s writing, and in particular its dialogue, is “accessible” and watered down to the point of talking down to us. Put simply, the movie’s micro elements (which make up much of the first half) almost undo the achievements of the macro (much of the second half). I wish Ayan Mukerji had put even an iota of the same painstaking effort into these characters as he did into this rich story and lavish visuals.
Meet Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) and Isha (Alia Bhatt) - two impressively wafer-thin characters.
Orphan-DJ-kind-hearted-adventure-loving Shiva is the dull generic good guy if ever there was one. Despite how inherently cinematic and sincere Ranbir Kapoor is, as we’ve seen time and again, he needs a character to bite into in order to shine. Relying on charisma alone to create a generic hero isn’t exactly his forte. But Shiva is more permanently perplexed-looking plot device than person. His entire role here (particularly in the second half) seems to be to spew exposition with some bafflingly bad lines. Through him, you can almost feel the film say “okay, so you get what’s happening right? Should I re-explain anyway? Okay I’ll re-explain anyway”. (Conversely, the very same exposition feels like pure poetry in the hands Amitabh Bachchan’s Guruji who singlehandedly does wonders in selling this mystical universe to us). But, (despite those awkwardly performed “seizure visions” he has), Shiva remains watchable because of the engaging origin story he inhabits and all the learning-to-use-his-powers action and rising-to-the-occasion that come with that.
But what does Alia Bhatt’s Isha really have? The woefully underwritten Isha borders on unwatchable. It's truly unsettling to see an actor of Alia’s caliber reduced to a do-nothing-eye-candy-damsel-in-distress device who exists merely to enable Shiva’s origins. (I almost laughed when they call her his “button” to activate his powers - the writers here admitting that she has only one purpose). There were times I was convinced (or naively hopeful) that the film had an ace up its sleeve. That maybe it would reveal her to be a bad guy all along. Or, more fittingly - reveal that she was also an Astra. Or perhaps Shiva and Isha were both two halves of the same Astra. (I still can’t believe they missed that opportunity it was right there). But alas, she is little beyond a “button”. Ironically, Ayan keeping her in most of the film to convince us (and himself) that she’s actually consequential to the plot, makes it even worse somehow.
Which brings us to the weakest element of Brahmastra. Their “love” story. I never bought Shiva and Isha’s mystically-drawn-to-each-other connection. Two people obsessively keep screaming each other’s names every few minutes (usually in life-threatening situations) does not a soulful connection make. Oddly, their first “Kaun Ho Tum? Kya Ho Tum?” meet-cute worked for me. (Though, perhaps they should have considered “Trope Ho Tum? Cliche Ho Tum?”). Terrible lines aside, the scene works not because of what they say, but the look in their eyes when they say it. (I just want someone to look at me the way Alia looks at Ranbir). But even the greatest chemistry can only take terrible writing so far. The only “button” this film really needed, then, was a Netflix-style “Skip Love Story” option.
The intention here is sincere. To ground the epic action fantasy in a heartfelt, hopeful Hindi movie love. After all, as with all great blockbusters, it's the intimate smallness that gives the grand bigness meaning. But here, the human story doesn't enhance and strengthen the spectacle, it limits its impact, takes us out of it, and, at times, risks crippling the narrative entirely. The greatest action scenes are rooted in emotion. It’s something that visionary filmmaker SS Rajamouli, for example, understands well. Rajamouli understands that all the CGI and abs and slick execution on the planet will never mean as much as a fight you can feel. And here, did I believe Shiva’s love for and primal need to protect Isha through the climax? Yes. Did I feel it? Not particularly.
The fact is, the film’s attempt at heart, broke mine. With this film, Ayan has clearly proved himself to be a blockbuster filmmaker with the kind of vision, imagination and visual flair that few mainstream Hindi filmmakers possess. But the Ayan that many of us first fell for, who gave us touching, personal stories of human connection packaged within the aspirational Hindi film grammar in both Wake Up Side and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani? I could barely sense him here.
Instead, Brahmastra works when it's constantly in motion. When world and plot take precedence over character. (I also think the film’s choice to not reveal the faces of Dev and Amrita is a truly missed opportunity that would’ve Instantly drummed up excitement for part 2. Current rumours doing the rounds say that there’s a good chance it’ll be Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone).
At its best, Brahmastra is a landmark achievement that manages to do what very few massively-mounted Hindi movies have done before it - create a universe of possibility and a rich world of magic and mysticism to explore. Uneven as it is, when it works - it truly soars. To see our stars, our artists, our storytelling language in a sprawling fantasy canvas such as this was truly a sight to behold. The flame is lit. Bring on the Astraverse.