The over-inflated Bollywood superhero fantasy “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva” is the kind of pre-fabricated Hollywood-style event blockbuster that the Hindi-language film industry has been chasing after for years now, but somehow still hasn’t nailed.
This family-friendly action-adventure circles well-charted territory that was previously meandered about by other recent Hindi language superhero pics, like “Krrish” (2006), “Ra.One” (2011), and “Krrish 3” (2013).
The main selling points of “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva,” which follows a formulaic plot to thwart an evil demigod, are its lavish special effects and MCU-style branding. (The movie is the first in a planned “Astraverse” trilogy.) Neither the action scenes nor the musical numbers stand out though, and none of the characters or their performers transcend their expected roles.
Released about a month and a half before Diwali, “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva” still presents itself as a holiday-themed spectacular, right down to its protagonists’ heavily foregrounded certainty that love and light will inevitably defeat encroaching darkness. (Diwali is “a festival of light,” as a newspaper headline boldly declares within the movie)
A handsomely animated opening scene establishes the movie’s mytho-fantasy backstory: for centuries, the Brahmānsh, a clandestine group of Himalayan cultists, have protected the world using their super-powered Astra weapons, like the Brahmāstra, the Astra whatsit to rule them all. Now, in modern-day Mumbai, the “Watchmen”-style murder of a prominent scientist (Shah Rukh Khan in a prominent and extensive cameo) kicks off a mysterious plot to re-unite the Brahmāstra, whose three pieces have been split up and entrusted to various members of the Brahmānsh.
The fate of the world depends on Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor), a happy-go-lucky DJ who can sometimes manipulate fire with his mind. Shiva’s also plagued by “Lord of the Rings”–style visions of Dev, a fiery stone deity who psychically empowers the evil Junoon (TV star Mouni Roy), the latter of whom murders Khan’s character and steals his portion of the Brahmāstra. Junoon wants to use the Brahmāstra to revive Dev, but the reunification of that particular Astra could destroy the planet, so Shiva must stop her.
Shiva’s joined in his hero’s quest by under-developed girlfriend Isha (Alia Bhatt), whose love gives Shiva enough magically enhanced strength to match Junoon and her makeshift army of Dev-worshipping cannon fodder. Shiva’s also mentored by the imaginatively named Guru (Amitabh Bachchan), the leader of the Brahmānsh and a primary source of expository dialogue following the movie’s post-interval break. Guru also teaches a multicultural group of Astra-using kids at his Himalayan ashram, where the Brahmānsh ultimately confront Junoon and her followers.
This familiar plot occasionally stops and starts for action scenes and musical numbers. Shiva’s fire powers stand out among the Brahmānsh’s abilities since his multi-colored pyrotechnics have more personality than everyone else’s generic-looking energy beams. Everybody strikes action-figure poses and vaults around surprisingly well-lit and generously paced action scenes, which are at least snappier than the MCU’s over-edited set pieces.
Unfortunately, even the movie’s best song-and-dance numbers tend to substitute kitchen-sink pageantry for dynamic choreography and distinctive production design. A festive introductory musical number features an impressive number of performers and some attractive costumes, but nothing really memorable regarding song lyrics or dance moves. At least Bachchan gets to rattle a big blue sword; the Bollywood figurehead does not otherwise stand out in scenes that were clearly designed to showcase visual effects. Still, for such an expensive and well-hyped production, “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva” will probably disappoint fans of recent maximalist Indian blockbusters, particularly South Indian hitmaker S.S. Rajamouli’s crossover hit “RRR.”
Still, it’s telling that Bachchan doesn’t get to do much in “Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva” despite his venerable token role. Big B has been passing the proverbial baton to the next generation of Bollywood stars for a few years now, but very few of his successors have successfully broken out of their cookie-cutter star roles. So it’s unsurprising that, while Bhatt and Kapoor have some chemistry, their characters’ romance never seems to matter beyond paying constant lip service to the power of wuv.
Isha constantly inserts herself into Shiva’s narrative, and he inevitably realizes that she deserves to be his sidekick, because only her affection can kick his superpowers up a notch. This pseudo-romantic power dynamic will seem especially disappointing to Bhatt’s fans, who know she can and often has done better, as in her marquee-topping performances in “RRR” and “Gangubai Kathiawadi” from earlier this year.
Kapoor doesn’t fare much better, despite being more prominently situated in this movie’s firmament of stars. He’s certainly not helped by plodding dialogue and an unlovable search for his lost parents, whose identities will surprise only the most credulous viewers. Then again, both Bachchan and Khan have done a lot more with much less, so Kapoor’s not completely blameless for sweating his way through such a hotly tipped lead performance. He practically drowns on dry land when, in a later scene, Shiva slowly but surely pieces together how he’s related to Dev.
Maybe the inevitable sequel, tentatively named “Brahmāstra Part Two: Dev”, will feature a protagonist worth rooting for. Until then, expectant Bollywood fans will have to make do with “Part One,” a wan tentpole whose qualities never exceed its unrealized potential.
“Brahmastra Part 1: Shiva” opens in U.S. theaters Sept. 9 via 20th Century Studios and premieres Nov. 4 on Hulu.