I already put up the No Spoilers review. I’m not necessarily going to direct you to it instead of this one. This is a very good movie, and has some plot surprises built in. But it is also a very angry movie, so I am essentially giving you a “trigger” warning. If you are someone (like myself) who sometimes finds yourself crying with rage at political ads, this is not a healthy movie for you to watch. Instead, read my summary so you have an educated understanding of what this film is.
Whole plot in one paragraph:
Harshwardhan Kapoor and his best friend Priyanshu Painyuli are activists in 2012, cheerfully part of the India Against Corruption movement. They meet Ashish Verma, a shy glasses wearing aspiring journalist covering the movement. They are goofy and cheerful and laidback and decide to deliver justice, “Insaaf”, through a goofy superhero wearing a paper bag over his head and youtube videos showing their campaigns. But then the Jan Lokpal bill fails, and the movement ends. Harsh goes on to a corporate job as a coder, and his cynical interesting girlfriend grows up from messy hair in a club, to nice clothes and professional internships. Ashish gets a job writing listicles for a website. But Priyanshu stays faithful, living off his friends and spending his days still trying to investigate and fight corruption where ever he sees it. Priyanshu gets a lead on a water scam and puts up a video showing how the municipal water is being stolen and put into tankers and then sold back to the people at inflated prices. His informant is beaten for being in the video, Priyanshu is still anonymous, until after a drunken fight, Harsh impulsively uploads a video showing Priyanshu’s face. The next day, Priyanshu is caught on TV and beaten by a mob for being “anti-national”. He still won’t stop, goes back to the water plan that night to film more evidence, is caught and beaten to death. Harsh is broken and doesn’t know what to do, he was planning to take a job in America and leave the country in a week, he seemingly does, but at the last minute doesn’t get on the plane. Instead, he moves into a hide out and starts investigating Priyanshu’s death. Harsh also goes to Priyanshu’s old karate teacher for self-defense lessons, and uses his computer skills to hack and spy. He tracks down the real scam, they are collecting water and taking it out of the city, storing it, planning to blow the water distribution pipes so the city will have no water at all and then sell their own water back to them. No one believes Harsh, and the evil politicians frame him as a terrorist, shooting a cop in cold blood just so they can blame it on him. But Harsh keeps going, fights to the death to try to stop the bombing. Luckily, Ashish was following him that night and saves his life. Only, Harsh tells him to tell everyone that he died. The politician succeeds, not only sells the water back to the city, but makes a deal to get a permanent water concession. And then, suddenly, Ashish and Harsh’s girlfriend (who is a lawyer, we just now learn) are in court suing the second in command while Harsh, in superhero costume, breaks in to give justice to the Big Bad.
In my “no spoilers”, I talked about how the film gets lost along the way. The thing is, there’s a pretty straight forward build to these origin story movies. You start out light and fun, our hero is just an average guy, maybe a bit more moral and caring than others, but otherwise average. Then something really terrible happens to him which opens his eyes to the problems of the world and gives him a burning desire to fix it. He starts off his superhero campaign half-cocked and unknowing, but then slowly learns from his mistakes and seems to be on top of things. Until he comes up against the Big Bad who easily defeats him. All seems lost, but he buckles down, tries harder, gets better, maybe finds a few allies, and finally ends by defeating the Big Bad and swearing to keep fighting no matter what.
(Light and fun)
This film hits all those beats, but not in the right way and not in the right mixture. The opening “average guy” moments, those are hilarious and perfect. Harsh and Priyanshu have no big political philosophy or wise words, they just like to get high and go to rallies. But they do care about the country, it’s threaded through, the rallies are fun but not just fun, they have hope that something will change and get better. And they are serious about their silly “Insaafman” youtube videos. Priyanshu a little more than Harsh, but they are still a little serious, think they are actually making changes in a small way.
That would normally be where something “bad” happens and they become superheroes. But this movie goes a different way. Instead, we jump forward 5 years. Harsh has lost his way, while Priyanshu has become the hero. He still just has the silly paperbag costume, but Priyanshu has been going to karate class for 5 years regularly, he has gotten better at investigations, and he really really really cares. What started out as a sort of vague youthful interest has matured and hardened into a lifetime dedication, and a frustration at all the others who have dropped out and no longer care. Represented by Harsh, who still has that little nugget of guilt inside, of worry for his country, but mostly is just tired and ready to find an easier life. He wants to move to America, marry his girlfriend, buy a house, be happy.
This part is the first part that starts to feel too real, too angry. The fight between Priyanshu and Harsh when Harsh finally gives in and gives a bribe in order to get his passport, that’s getting to the heart of a pain that is familiar to me. The anger at those who have just given up, who say it is too hard, who have turned selfish as they get older. If this were the only moment in the film that felt that real, it would be okay. But it’s not, it’s just the first salvo.
(Rang De kind of did the same thing, but with the entire country. The passionate sacrificial fire of Bhagat Singh and his people, versus the current uncaring youth)
Harsh uploads Priyanshu’s video that night, and it’s not completely clear why. Because Harsh isn’t a good enough actor to tell us through his expressions. The next day, Priyanshu is labeled a “traitor” and “anti-national” by the media who gleefully record him being beaten outside his home (including one man wearing a saffron scarf). Which is also just a little too real. Any criticism of India, means you are working for Pakistan. Any anger directed at someone who criticizes India is laudable and should be encouraged. Don’t listen to the criticism, put your fingers in your ears, if you do it will poison you and make you as “anti-national” as the one speaking.
And then Priyanshu is taken to meet the man coordinating the scam, a controller for the city government (actor name not available to me), who threatens him and beats him further. And finally, we see Priyanshu in the hospital, with a broken arm and beaten face, and Ashish and Harsh and Harsh’s girlfriend there too. And Harsh feels….? I have no idea what Harsh feels! I assume it is supposed to be some sort of “guilt that is so deep he can’t speak it” or “sense that he has lost his way somehow and a chasm is open between him and Priyanshu” or something like that. But his face doesn’t tell us, and he doesn’t have any dialogue to help either. It is a HUGE HUGE flaw in the film, Harsh did this truly terrible thing to his friend, and we don’t know if he feels bad or not.
That night Priyanshu goes to investigate again, leaving the hospital, and is killed. And Harsh has to identify the body. In terms of building Priyanshu’s character, this sequence is done very well. The only one to identify and claim him is Harsh. And at his funeral, Harsh performs the rites, and the only other people there are Harsh’s girlfriend, Ashish, and one tired looking thin young woman. You can fill in his whole life, his only family a sister who doesn’t have the same fire inside he does, his only friends who were able to put up with his dedication Ashish and Harsh, and Harsh’s girlfriend by association. Someone whose whole life was about justice and righting wrongs, and in the end he was barely missed, there is no one left to remember him because he spend his energy poured into the country he loved instead of the people around him. But again, I need to know what Harsh thinks about all this! And his face is giving me nothing.
(His face is giving me “stunningly handsome and charismatic”, but then he always gives me that)
I can piece it together a little from his actions, but that’s not quite enough. Harsh gets drunk, wanders the city, finds the Karate teacher who showed up at Priyanshu’s funeral and drunkenly begs him to teach him. The teacher easily trips him until he lays flat on the floor, which is when he lets out that primal scream that merges into the song that I mentioned in my other review. And then next thing we see, he is saying goodbye to his friends at the airport, and then NOT getting on the plane, instead going to a secret hide out and starting his campaign.
But, why? I mean, I know why, because I know the details of the plot and I can piece it together. Harsh felt so guilty that he kept it all inside, withdrew into himself, and finally decided that he has to continue his friend’s crusade, in his honor and because he was right, there is a nobility in serving the country that is greater than anything else, even if no one cares, even if you feel you are alone in it, it is the right thing to do. But I’m not getting ANY of that from Harsh’s face. I’m getting more character understanding from things like his choice of hide out, the old abandoned luxury hotel where he and Priyanshu used to flop back in their young and moneyless days, a place that ties his past with his present, and is also just plain practical.
Oh, and then we see his campaign start. The early failed attempt from all the superhero movies. While still somewhat intelligent. And also believable, he uses hacking to change the flight manifesto to make it appear he got on the plane. He uses parts of a cell phone to build a hidden camera. He puts red lights on a mask to make a disguise and costume. All of this seems reasonable, the hacking is the biggest reach but it is a one time thing, maybe his company helped right the code for that so he could do it, I will allow it this once. Modifying a cell phone camera and stuff like that, easy peasy, there’s all kinds of youtube tutorials on it, assuming our hero is a reasonably intelligent guy with some modest mechanical ability, I can buy it. But it still doesn’t work because he doesn’t have the fighting skills. Luckily, he is saved by the Karate teacher. Of course, because the wise fight master will always appear to guide you.
And then there is the training/preparing moment. He spends all his time on fight practice, and on following his quarry. Finally he plants a bug and learns more about their plans, which also leads to a fun sequence of him being uncomfortable and in disguise at a dance club.
(Using this song, but tragically not this version of this song)
And then there is the second more practiced attempt. With a few more “youtube tutorial” style enhancements. He adds a modification to his motorcycle to jumpstart it to super fast, along with red lights on front. He builds a fight suit with protective padding on the torso. He has all the fight training now. He’s a lot better. And he seemingly succeeds, after a thrilling tense motorcycle chase, he gets away with the evidence. But it doesn’t matter because they shot a cop and blamed it on him.
And here is where the film goes into a dive and doesn’t seem to know how to get out of it. Because this is what happens, right? Anyone who criticizes is against us, and any crime attributed to him can be believed. It’s depressing and it’s real. If you stand up, you will be cut down. And there is no way to change it.
Harsh can’t get anyone to believe him, to look at his evidence. He decides his only choice is to try to stop the bombs from going off, even if he will be killed and labeled a terrorist in the attempt. Ashish follows him and videotapes from a distance his last stand. Harsh fights and fights and never gives up, but eventually is defeated. The bomb goes off, he is captured, and a police officer shoots him and dumps him over a bridge.
And it kind of feels like that is the ending which feels “true” to the filmmakers. That is how they see the world. You have to fight, it is right to fight, but there is no hope of winning. You will lose and no one will ever even care or know.
There would be a way to make that ending work, at least a little. The title of the film is “Bhavesh Joshi: Superhero”. Harsh isn’t Bhavesh Joshi, that is Priyanshu’s character. The hero isn’t the man in the mask, the hero is the dedicated passionate young man who never gave up on fighting corruption, on making things better. Harsh is just carrying on his identity. In his video messages and so on, that’s how he identifies himself, Bhavesh Joshi, all his actions belong to his friend, not him, are for his friend, not him. They are one, he is merely the body, Priyanshu is still giving him the spirit.
And so the ending would be/could be Harsh dying. And the police officer who already had moments of doubt takes the mask and carries on, Ashish posts the video and carries on, and perhaps other young people see it and start a movement. That’s the ending of Rang De Basanti, that’s the ending of Bhagat Singh the person in real life, the faith that if you can’t win, you also won’t lose.
(This is also the problem with Delhi 6. Abhishek should have died, the whole film is building towards that. And then, he doesn’t, and the whole film falls apart)
Only, for some reason, the film pulls away from that, the logical conclusion. They try to make it work by having Harsh fake his own death, therefore leading Ashish and his girlfriend to continue his battle. But it doesn’t feel “right”. The whole film, the darkness and the cynicism and the hope against all odds, was leading to Harsh dying.
And in a very basic level, Harsh alive takes up too much time. We need to see his girlfriend decide she can prosecute the case, Ashish bringing her evidence, find out why this “impossible to bring to justice” person became suddenly possible. It’s really quite strange, almost feels like a dream scene for a moment, the way we go from the dark impossibility of stopping them to a bright courtroom with nothing in between. Because the time that should have been spent, just five minutes showing how it happened, is wasted instead on Harsh’s survival.
Or maybe they never really had a plan for that court case at the end? There was a clear build towards Ashish becoming part of Harsh’s destiny, but his girlfriend was set up more as a loss, something he would have to give up for his destiny. And there was certainly no indication that she was a lawyer before the very end. And of course no evidence or anything else that looked like it would help make their case was hinted at before just then. So maybe there is an earlier draft of the film in which it is all a loss. Harsh dies, and Ashish lives to tell his story, with no hope that anyone will ever notice or care. Or Harsh survives/dies (the original Harsh dies, the Bhavesh Joshi Harsh survives), and is determined to keep fighting, but there is no promise he will ever win, no court battle being fought, just one man alone trying to do what he can.
The film just doesn’t work, is the thing. It’s too many different films in one. The opening is like a perfect short film of young guys trying to change the world. That is fine, it is clearly set apart from the rest by the 5 year time jump. The next part, Harsh and Priyanshu as friends who have grown apart, that is meaningful and strong.
(This should have been the tone of the whole film. A sort of sad nostalgia for the hopes of youth, which is tempered into a fiery determination even if there is no hope in maturity)
And then suddenly we go from that, to Harsh as a struggling superhero, complete with unrealistic training montage. And then back into the darkness and impossibility of making change, which fits with the second part of the film, when Harsh and Priyanshu have moved apart in their goals in life. And after ages of diving deep into this depression despair and hopelessness, out of nowhere we have hope. Just for the last five minutes of the movie.
If you want dark, then end dark, and open darker. If you want light, then keep the humor of the opening and take out the darkness of the friendship falling apart, and the overwhelming darkness of the failed superhero attempts and just keep the happy training montage and successful superhero parts, ending with a reasonable and logical happy ending. But don’t drag the audience from light too dark with no warning until nothing starts to matter.