Spoilers for Brahmastra ahead:
Ayan Mukerji’s decade-long effort, Brahmastra, has finally arrived. Let’s get straight to the point. As the massively mounted fantasy spectacle experience, despite its shortcomings, Brahmastra was, for me, a resounding success in what it set out to do. I left both exhibitions (watched it twice) feeling accomplished and uplifted. See More information: Brahmastra movie review
Where the Brahmastra triumphs is its grand story of good versus evil, visual magic (the VFX was flawless) and lavish world-building. I loved how Ayan mixed Indian mythological elements with superhero origin comic book movie tropes. The opening narration features one of cinema’s greatest orators Amitabh Bachchan (here as a Charles Xavier-like figure who is one of the best things about this film) introducing us to the wonders of the Astraverse.
In this world, the Brahmansh – an ancient, secret order dating back hundreds (thousands?) of years is tasked with protecting mythical objects of immense power called Astras. The great father of all Astras is Brahmastra. To keep it out of the hands of the forces of evil, the Brahmastra was broken into three pieces, each under the protection of a different Brahmansh guardian. (A familiar and welcome trope reminiscent of everything from Bulletproof Monk to the MCU’s Eternals). But someone is hunting these guardians to piece together all three pieces with the help of the mysterious evil witch Junoon (a suitably malevolent and surprisingly well-cast Mouni Roy). This sets the stage for a fantastic origin story centered on Shiva – a man who discovers that he himself is a living Astra.
Shah Rukh Khan’s superbly executed and delightfully showboat opening action set immediately launches us into this world (now that’s how you start a frikkin’ movie). Shah Rukh Khan has an absolute blast with the role channeling frantic energy, almost like Jackie Chan, in a brief but movie-winning cameo as the prankster and arrogant scientist Mohan Bhargava, who gives his life to protect the Astras. (I physically couldn’t stop smiling every second of him. The close-up of his face, eyes twinkling, as he withstood Junoon’s interrogation, may very well be my favorite on-screen look this year.)
Thus, the film offers several stunning and impressively staged backdrops and spectacular moments, intensified by its background soundtrack. The Nagarjuna vs truck scene? The thrilling car chase through the mountains? That glorious pre-break moment? The delightful training montage for the joyous wonder of Deva Deva? Seeing Big B’s Guruji in action? That exciting final showdown where the movie is a full Indian X-Men in us?! (RIP Tenzing you absolute beast).
But the opening scientist sequence focused on SRK also gives us a taste of the movie’s problems to come – when the characters talk to each other. On the one hand, the bad guys repeatedly call him “Scientist” to establish that he is, well… a scientist. Brahmastra’s writing, and in particular his dialogue, is “accessible” and diluted to the point of speaking to us. Simply put, the film’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 an ounce 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 fine characters.
Orphan-DJ-lover-adventure-lover Shiva is the boring generic good guy, if ever there was one. While Ranbir Kapoor is inherently cinematic and candid, as we’ve seen time and time again, he needs a character to bite in order to shine. Relying on charisma alone to create a generic hero isn’t exactly his strong point. But Shiva is more of a permanently perplexing plot device than a person. His whole role here (particularly in the second half) seems to be spewing exposure with some baffling lines. Through it, you can almost feel the movie say “ok, so you get what’s going on right? Should I re-explain anyway? Okay, I’ll re-explain anyway.” (On the other hand, the same exhibition looks like pure poetry in the hands of Amitabh Bachchan’s Guruji, who alone works wonders in selling us this mystical universe.) But, (despite the clumsily realized “seizure visions”) Shiva remains watchable because of the engaging origin story he inhabits and all the action of learning to use his powers and rising to the occasion that come with it.
But what does Alia Bhatt’s Isha really have? The woefully underwritten Isha borders on the incomprehensible. It’s truly unsettling to see an actor of Alia’s caliber reduced to a device that does nothing, a damsel in distress, who only exists to allow Shiva’s origins. (I almost laugh when they call her her “button” to activate her powers – the writers here admit she has only one purpose.) There were times when I was convinced (or naively hopeful) that the film had an ace up its sleeve. That maybe it would reveal that she was a bad person all along. Or, more appropriately – reveal that she was also an Astra. Or maybe Shiva and Isha were two halves of the same Astra. (I still can’t believe they missed that opportunity that was there.) But, unfortunately, it is little more than a “button”. Ironically, Ayan keeping her for most of the movie to convince us (and himself) that she is really important to the plot makes it even worse somehow.
Which brings us to the weakest element of Brahmastra. Your “love” story. I never believed in the mystical connection of Shiva and Isha. Two people obsessively yelling each other’s names every few minutes (usually in life-threatening situations) doesn’t make a soul connection. Strangely, his first “Kaun Ho Tum? Kya Ho Tum?” meet-cute worked for me. (Although, perhaps they should have considered “Trope Ho Tum? Cliche Ho Tum?”). Terrible lines aside, the scene works not because of what they say, but because of 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 best chemistry can only take terrible writing so far. The only “button” this movie really needed, then, was a Netflix-style “Skip Love Story” option.
The intention here is sincere. To ground the epic action fantasy in a sincere and hopeful love of the Hindi movie. After all, as with all blockbusters, it’s intimate smallness that gives grandeur meaning. But here, the human story does not enhance and strengthen the spectacle, it limits its impact, takes us out of it, and sometimes runs the risk of totally derailing the narrative. The greatest action scenes are rooted in emotion. It’s something visionary filmmaker SS Rajamouli, for example, understands well. Rajamouli understands that all the CGI and abs and skillful execution on the planet will never mean as much as a fight you can feel. And here, did I believe in Shiva’s love and primal need to protect Isha during her climax? Yup. Did I feel it? Not particularly.
The fact is that the film’s attempt at the heart broke mine. With this film, Ayan has clearly proven himself to be a highly successful filmmaker with the kind of vision, imagination and visual talent few traditional Hindi filmmakers possess. But the Ayan that many of us have fallen in love with, who has given us poignant personal stories of human connection packaged within the aspirational grammar of Hindi cinema in Wake Up Side and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani? I could barely feel it here.
Instead, Brahmastra works when it is in constant motion. When the world and the plot take precedence over the character. (I also think the movie’s choice not to reveal Dev and Amrita’s faces is a really missed opportunity that would have instantly sparked excitement for part 2. Current rumors circulating say there’s a good chance it could be Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. ).
At its best, Brahmastra is a landmark achievement that manages to do what very few mass-edited Hindi films have done before it – create a universe of possibilities and a rich world of magic and mysticism to explore. Uneven as it is, when it works – it really goes up. Seeing our stars, our artists, our narrative language on a large canvas of fantasy like this was truly a sight to behold. The flame is lit. Bring the Astraverse.