That Om Raut’s Adipurush is yet another addition to Hindi cinema’s canon of films championing exclusionary politics – especially in sacred spaces like a movie theatre – is a non-issue. At this point, we’ve seen too many of them in the last few years to muster fresh anger each time. All the talk about Dharm and Adharm, carefully chosen colour temperatures to visually demarcate ‘good’ from ‘evil’, a not-so-subtle invoking of the bhagwa dhwaj (a saffron flag), surrogate characters slyly hinting at the ‘enemies’ of the nation. It’s become normal for a commercial Hindi film. Even if one were to somehow shut one’s senses to the film’s intent, Raut’s adaptation of the Hindu mythological epic, Ramayan, is one of the most tacky, perplexing and derivative attempts.
I kept spotting the most inane things in Raut’s film that were realised using VFX. Like the wound on Surpanakha’s (Tejaswini Pandit) nose – a red blob of pixels looking distractingly false – a net used to take someone captive, or ‘underwater’ sequences in the climax. For something billed as one of the most expensive films ever, I kept wondering how such shoddy work was allowed to pass, and how many of these effects could be achieved practically for a fraction of the cost.
Raut’s earlier film, Tanhaji (2020), was also almost entirely shot on a soundstage using green screens – but that one at least seemed tethered to some form of (heightened) reality, which never seems to be the case with Adipurush. Especially given how inconsistent time and speed feel, where characters like Raghav (Prabhas) and Shesh (Sunny Singh) move as per the contrivances of the screenwriter. Sometimes they’re scampering and keeping up with a deer, and sometimes they’re moving around like other mortals. Especially with Prabhas on screen, it’s mostly happening in slow-motion, so it becomes hard to tell.
It’s understandable Raut wants to take us on a fantastical, VFX-heavy odyssey, so as to visually distinguish his film from the half a dozen adaptations earlier, including Ramanand Sagar’s popular TV show from 1987. However, what remains disconcerting is how much of this latest “interpretation” seems lazily borrowed from Western IPs. Lankesh or Raavan (Saif Ali Khan) resembles the Khal of the Dothraki clan in Game of Thrones; he rides a giant bat seemingly like the dragons of the Targaryens; his army comprises Orcs (probably from Middle Earth) and bloodless zombies (resembling White Walkers). The reference point for Janaki or Sita (Kriti Sanon) seems to be the 1991 version of the Ramayan created by Japanese animators. Key characters like Angad and Sugriva and his vaanar sena are built like in the Planet of the Apes.
The scene in which Lankesh descends in Lanka after abducting Janaki looks like a futuristic garrison in the Dune or Andor universe. Vibhishan (Siddhant Karnick) and Indrajit (Vatsal Seth) are dressed in overcoats like in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Indrajit, especially with his braids and superpower of running incredibly fast, seems inspired from DC’s The Flash (co-incidentally released on the same day as Adipurush) and Marvel’s Quicksilver. In a runtime of nearly 180 minutes, not a single flourish in the film’s (frankly) overwhelming VFX or action scenes feel like it has not been lifted from an American show/film.
One would assume a retelling of the Ramayan in 2023 would at least have a fresh point of view. If it borrows its vision so heavily to tell the same old good-vs-evil story most kids know by heart, then does it necessitate being remade at all?
While watching the actors go through the motions, I kept thinking what made them sign the film. Prabhas – who practically concocted the ‘pan-India star’ phenomenon with the Baahubali films – hasn’t seen any success since. If he’s going to play another superhuman role along the lines of Amarendra/Mahendra Bahubali – who better than Lord Ram? To Prabhas’s credit, he brings a physicality to Raghav, especially in tastefully designed action sequences, like when he’s sliding and shooting arrows at thousands of bats descending on him. On the flip side, he often drawls in his speech. At best, Prabhas seems like an actor who thrives on one-word prompts before a scene: “laugh”, “cry”, “smoulder” etc; the effect is, he comes across as unintentionally comical in a few scenes.
Kriti Sanon, who has played a balancing act between commercial films (Dilwale, Housefull 4) and performance-oriented roles (Bareilly Ki Barfi, Mimi), probably saw this as a good career move. The film doesn’t need her to do much, except look worried, shed a tear or two, and mouth unimaginative dialogue (by writer Manoj Muntashir) along the lines of “Your shadow may leave you, but I won’t”. It makes sense for Sanon to participate in a film that doesn’t demand a lot from her ability, but also probably guarantees an upside. Singh, who made a name for himself in Luv Ranjan’s films, carries the expression of bewilderment (probably wondering why he’s being made to react to a tennis ball for the motion-capture sequences) through most of the runtime. Possibly looking to take his next leap, Adipurush is unlikely to do any favours to Singh’s career.
Saif Ali Khan, as Lankesh, is the only one having fun. Khan did something similar in Tanhaji, as Udaybhan, where he chewed the scenery like it was no one’s business. There’s a scene here when Lankesh tries to convince Janaki to forget Raghav – and Khan plays him like someone with dissociative identity disorder (like James McAvoy in Split) and one begins to see the glimmer of potential that Khan probably saw while signing up. Of course, apart from having a film that is widely watched, earns money, and propels Khan’s career for a few more years.
The buck probably stops with director Om Raut, who looks out of his depth handling an epic fantasy of this magnitude. Apart from the lack of good taste in VFX, Raut also makes some staggeringly simplistic choices showcasing ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in binaries. An example: the portions featuring Raghav, Janaki and Shesh seem overly cautious and reverential, while everything about Lanka portions are edgy. Whether it’s Lankesh getting massaged by serpents or women flaunting their curls and cleavage [short-hand for the women in Lanka being promiscuous?].
There’s a moment towards the end when Mandodari (Sonal Chauhan) greets her husband Lankesh in a white saree, right before he steps out to fight Raghav, foreshadowing his doom. It’s a rare commercial Hindi cinema moment that pops, however, it appears in the final stretch when most of us are numbed by the unsophisticated storytelling. It might be fair game to make communal films these days, but politics is the least of Adipurush’s concerns. Raut forgets that for a film to be an effective vessel for propaganda, it needs to keep its audience awake till the end.