Ugh, I did not like this movie. I did not like it so much that I couldn’t sleep last night. So I am writing this review on very little sleep, therefore very grumpy, and hating it even more than my last review when I compared it to vomit. What a fun read this will be for all of you!
Astras are super powerful thingies created years ago, the most powerful of which is the Brahmastra, which is broken in 3 pieces. Ranbir, an orphan DJ in Bombay, has a vision of Evil Mouni Roy torturing Shahrukh Khan until she gets the piece from him and learns the other piece is with Nagarjuna in Varanasi. Ranbir goes to Varanasi along with his love interest Alia, they find Nagarjuna and get the piece from him, he dies protecting them, and then they go to the remote Ashram run by Amitabh who has the last piece. Amitabh trains Ranbir in his Magical Astra Powers and tells him that his parents were Magical Astra Users also. Then evil Mouni Roy shows up, big fight, she gets the last piece and creates the Brahmastra which wakes up Ranbir’s father who has been controlling and directing Mouni this whole time. The end of the world starts, and then Ranbir uses his powers to protect Alia and somehow stops the end of the world? And then the movie is over.
I’ve had all night to think about this, and I think the main problem with this movie is the clothes. I think what they were going for is “look, super powered ancient beings, but they dress just like us!” Only it doesn’t work because they don’t dress like “us”. They dress like a very small specific portion of the world which, in the minds of these filmmakers, is the whole world. And that’s the whole problem with the film.
It’s not just that this movie is blind to other viewpoints, it is blind to being blind. The beauty of film as an artform is that it involves so many creative souls, all working together and bringing out a shared vision. But this film is made by people who cannot imagine anyone existing who is not just like them. And so they dress folks like “everyone” dresses, meaning the way wealthy urban Indian youth dress. And we, the audience, are supposed to go “wow, this person dressed like a normal person has huge powers”. But instead I think “this person dressed like the 1% of society with all the power now has even more power”.
It’s not just the clothes, it’s everything. Everyone speaks Hinglish, everyone goes to cool nightclubs and dance parties, everyone can drive a car, everyone has all their basic needs met and only must be concerned with incidentals. If that is the case, then what is the point of anything? Why should I care if the villain wins or the hero? If the couple stays together? If Ranbir learns how to use his powers? This world is already fixed, the issues are so superficial, so transitory, that there’s no meaning to anything.
Let’s back up and talk about the “astras”. This has always been my least favorite part of Hindu writing, the whole “and then after hundreds of years of devotion, he was rewarded with a super cool magical thing”. It’s my least favorite part because often the super cool thing is just, well, super cool. It doesn’t serve humanity in any great way, it’s just a cool thing. I can accept it as part of a larger philosophy, a larger idea that sacrifice and struggle reap rewards. And most of all I can accept it because I know the “super cool gift of the Gods” is a very very small part of the overall Hindu philosophy. It is about using your gifts in the way determined by Dharma, following overall concepts of society fitting together as a whole and you needing to do the best you can within your place inside it. The super cool weapon thing is just the lightest touch on top of it all. To put it in the simplest way possible, it is not about the weapon, it is about who wields it.
This movie misses that point entirely. First of all, it has this very odd opening concept of “devoted folks prayed and were given Astras by the Gods”. But, which Gods? What Gods? And why did they want the Astras? Heck, why did the Gods have to give them anything in return for their devotion? What is the value system here that we are proposing? I DON’T KNOW!
We get a later story to explain the villain, and the explanation is “he wanted all the Astras, so his girlfriend/fellow Astra warrior fought him”. But why is it bad to want all the Astras? This whole movie is about “ooo, Astras super cool”. And the villain is introduced as “he was super powerful and mastered a lot of Astras”, as though everyone was just cool with that and kind of impressed, until all of a sudden they weren’t cool with it any more.
What’s so frustrating about this movie is that it is not as though the filmmakers decided “oh, I don’t want to deal with that part”, it’s like they were blind to even the idea that maybe they SHOULD talk about what makes Astras good or bad and what their purpose is, besides being cool.
Which brings me to Alia. There were two moments with her character that really stood out to me as “wow, they don’t even think of women as people”. First, when she is getting to know Ranbir, he gives her a whole long story of his parents and his life and his philosophy. And this is when, in a normal conversation, you would say “and who are your parents?” I’m not even talking film dialogue, I’m just talking about how humans work. And Ranbir never asks her. For the whole movie, start to finish, all we know about Alia is that she is from London. I don’t know who her parents are, if she has siblings, if she has a passion in life, what she studied in school, truly NOTHING. That’s remarkable. That takes a shocking amount of blindness to not notice your second lead, the actor with the second most screentime compared to the hero, has a character with no identity AT ALL beyond a name.
The other moment that hit me as I was watching it is later in the film when they are in the middle of a car chase and Ranbir is having visions and doing Astra things. But he is still driving the car. The car stopped, Nagarjuna who was driving got out, Ranbir started having weird vision things, Nagarjuna told them to leave, Ranbir and Alia got in the car WITH RANBIR DRIVING. At first I just laughed, the way you do in movies when the person supposed to be driving the car keeps looking away and doing dumb stuff. But then it hit me, why isn’t Alia driving? It’s a standard thing in action movies, Bang Bang did it, A Gentleman did it, The Bourne Identity did it, the hero has to be fighting and whatever so the heroine has to drive the car. But in this movie, Alia is such a forgotten entity that she is sitting in the car, doing nothing, while Ranbir both drives and has visions, and eventually also fights while driving. To be fair, later in the scene Alia is allowed to drive, but only with Ranbir telling her “faster faster, go go go”, and eventually TAKING THE WHEEL FROM HER AGAIN.
Beyond the “Alia is totally forgotten as an independent being with agency” in this scene, looking back on it the fact that Ranbir is driving is problematic in a different way. How does he know how to drive? His character is supposed to be an orphan raised in the slums surviving by working as a DJ. That is not someone who usually knows how to drive a car. Where is his access to a car? Where is the necessity for him to ever bother learning? But again, the absolute blindness of this film to anything outside of a very narrow area of experience means they cannot conceive of a 30 something cool dude who doesn’t of course know how to drive.
There’s so much blindness around that kind of privilege here. This movie is a great case study for why you should be careful when writing outside of your comfort zone. Ranbir is introduced as a cool DJ who spends Diwali celebrating with a bunch of orphans in the slums because he used to be an orphan himself. But, after the celebration scene, Ranbir takes Alia to his room. Which is a rich young man’s room. Maybe the bed is on the floor and the walls are unfinished, but it’s enormous with space for sitting, playing the keyboard, listening to music, everything. Space is the greatest luxury, we JUST saw a bunch of orphans squeezed into a hallway going to bed in triple bunks, and now Ranbir has this massive private area? And no one involved in the movie even thought about it, because of course your bedroom would be private and huge and include a keyboard and so on.
And of course your remote Himalayan Ashram exists just to teach people (rich English speaking cell phone owning cool clothes wearing people like Us) how to use cool weapons, and not to help the surrounding community in anyway. And of course when the Evil Villain Woman takes over the neighboring village and turns all the men into mindless drones, you only care about saving yourselves and not helping the village in any way. And of course the girl you like falls in love with you for no reason immediately, and of course you were born with the most magical powerful powers of all, and of course you are also a successful DJ instead of any sort of logical job for an orphan, and of course once you have the opportunity to have Magical Powers, you walk away from all the other orphans who were ultimately just window-dressing to your character, and of course to ALL those things.
Because you dress the way “everyone” dresses, and if you aren’t dressed like this, you aren’t a person. Sorry villagers, poor people, old people, children, and anyone else who is trying to exist in your world and thinking it also might belong a little bit to them.