Review of ‘Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva’

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Superhero movies and romantic comedies agree: Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It compels iconic heroes as well as wayward lovers, resetting the moral compass and purifying the soul. That’s the ethos behind “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva,” the first part of a Bollywood trilogy from director Ayan Mukerji. The film is both sci-fi/fantasy and Bollywood romance, an ambitious introduction to a mythological cinematic universe with the expected hiccups of building a massive world from scratch. It is an admirable attempt and unmissable theater experience for any Bollywood fan.

“Shiva” sets up Mukerji’s “Astraverse” saga, where a group of people protect the sacred light of the universe in its various forms, called Astras: Water, earth, wind and the film’s fire – but also animal forces, such as bull or monkey. Brahmāstra is the last of these energies, carrying the essence of them all, divided into three parts and kept separate to ensure the safety of the world. This and the other Astras are entrusted to and kept secret by an Illuminati-like group known as the Brahmansh.

The film explains all this at the top (though better than most because it is narrated by Bollywood’s biggest superstar Amitabh Bachchan), but too soon; after the opening sequence, we switch to Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), this story’s ordinary-yet-extraordinary hero, and for the next hour, both he and we barely have to think about something as trivial as world-saving Astras, because there’s a girl .

Shiva falls hard and fast for Isha (Alia Bhatt) for reasons that neither he nor the film can quite articulate. The real-life couple’s on-screen debut doesn’t translate to the best career chemistry for either of them (which is fine and normal and actually speaks well of their acting skills with other scene partners). A lot of “Brahmāstra” hinges on the notion that Shiva and Isha’s connection is as strong as any Astra, but it feels less like two people falling in love than two people who watched too many Bollywood movies and mistook coincidence for The destiny. When Shiva begins experiencing unsettling visions and flashes of power that reveal him to be Astra the Fire, Isha joins him to find out what it all means.

On paper, “Brahmāstra” is not an explicitly Hindu film. The idea of ​​Astras is rooted in Hindu mythology but adapted to Mukerji’s vision. The film is still full of Hindu imagery and themes: the name Isha is a form of Lord Shiva’s wife Parvati; Sanskrit chants and lyrics; the image of Isha and Shiva walking around a fire (part of the Hindu wedding ceremony); characters who regularly pray and celebrate the Hindu festivals of Dussehra, Durga Puja and Kali Puja. Only the villains have no discernible religion.

But the central themes – the coexistence of light and dark, and the triumph of good over evil – are universal. They are as intrinsic to Hindu texts as they are to Harry Potter, to “The Lord of the Rings,” Star Wars, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”—any sci-fi fantasy epic you can name that “Brahmāstra” is likely to resemble one time or another.

Unfortunately, the film’s godless villains are painfully flat. Their leader is Junoon (Mouni Roy), whose entire identity is her crimson streaked hair and jet black eyeshadow. A villain could be an excellent showcase for any female actor, but not one so conspicuously signed and performed (the aforementioned eyeshadow does most of the heavy lifting). Junoon’s wasted potential is a shame and ironic given how well she could have played in the hands of someone like Bhatt himself.

For as much as the film seeks to elevate Shiva and Isha, the latter is criminally underutilized. It’s a step up from most depictions of a romantic interest in a superhero film, but disappointing given Bhatt’s known skills in films like “Raazi” or the recent “Darlings.” Isha is literally boiled down to Shiva’s “button” – the force that drives him and unlocks his firepower, a tool in his hero kit. She’s smart, brave, and loyal, standing by his side even without her own Astras, but in constant need of rescuing—at least through Shiva’s eyes. Kapoor himself does not bring much to the role, nor does the role lend itself to innovation and challenge. The physical prowess he brings to dance sequences translates to stunt work and what can only be described as firebending, but Shiva is otherwise indistinguishable from the puppy dog ​​sad boy archetype, anything but synonymous with Kapoor’s leads (some of which Mukerji also directed).

The plaster is otherwise inflated; the protagonists’ forgettable friends disappear after the first episode, when they are overwhelmingly eclipsed by a group of children in Shiva’s care. Once he appears halfway through the film, Bachchan is a welcome grounder, striking a perfect balance between stern and benevolent as Guruji, but a handful of other disciples at his ashram are easy to lose track of and weigh this section down.

A man and woman stare at each other from opposite sides of an ornate fence;  still off "Brahmastra Part 1: Shiva."

“Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva”

Photo courtesy of Star India Pvt. Ltd., Dharma Productions, Ayan Mukerji & Ranbir Kapoor

Mukerji’s script keeps the story focused and moving, even with a few periodic dumps of exposition. The comedy is notably strongest, with sharp jokes popping up between banal romantic and dramatic dialogue – although some of this may be lost on non-Hindi speakers. The resulting tone is a little disorienting as the film tries to balance its emotional bildungsroman with appropriate frivolity, but it works overall. To that end, the first act moves quickly, but the pace is inconsistent and the finale too long.

“Brahmāstra” is one of the most expensive Indian films ever made, with an estimated budget of 410 crores or over $50 million. The investment pays off with dazzling CGI of Astra’s lightsaber powers, similar to the visuals on “Ms. Marvel.” Since there is no comparison in real life for what god-like light power would look like, “Brahmāstra” is made to create its own visual language, packed with brightness and saturation matched in the lush cinematography and coloring. The film’s editing may be heavy-handed bordering on chaotic, but anyone who has ever watched an Indian soap opera will feel right at home.

Pritam’s soundtrack manages to blunt his own talents as a composer and the versatility of singer Arijit Singh. “Kesariya” and “Deva Deva” are more similar than different, barely clearing the sliding bar for originality in a Bollywood music scene increasingly populated by remixes and any old song auto-tuned and titled “2.0”. At least “Dance Ka Bhoot” is charming and folksy, serving to introduce Shiva’s character through Kapoor’s formidable dancing talent. Composer Simon Franglen’s background score, while serviceable, lacks the distinction necessary for a film of this magnitude and could have benefited from more Indian classical influences given the film’s themes.

“Brahmāstra” throws a lot at its audience, especially with the rules and history of the Astras, which wasn’t necessarily needed in “Part One.” After all, it’s not like audiences understood the intricacies of the Infinity Stones when they were introduced in “Age of Ultron.” The film accomplishes most of what it sets out to do, such as building Shiva’s story and path forward, and the look and feel of Astraverse combat and training. The second half of the film hits some predictable but satisfying twists and turns leading up to a reveal that will have to wait until “Part Two.” Like other big blockbusters, it leaves the audience wanting more.

Grade: C+

“Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva” is now playing exclusively in theaters.

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