Maanav (Ayushmann Khurrana), a Bollywood hero, is battling a crisis. Wearing a jacket over his bare chest – revealing abs bursting with personalities that demand their own Aadhaar cards – he looks at the mirror and snaps at his secretary. Maanav can’t get angry. He has to shoot an action scene, and the rage just doesn’t come. Haven’t we heard about such starry tantrums before? In fact, go three sentences back, effect a small revision, and see the magic: Bhai can’t get angry. Sounds familiar? Welcome to An Action Hero, a movie so sly that its winks feel like blinks.
A few scenes later, Maanav does find his anger. (He’s waited three months for his Mustang, and it’ll reach him in another week.) Maanav flies and punches and poses; he’s aced the shot. But he’s also made another hero – a local hero – wait for hours, Vicky (Sumit Singh), the brother of a local politician in Haryana, Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat). Vicky wanted a photo with Maanav. Now Vicky is pissed, and he chases Maanav in his car. They finally meet; a brawl ensues. Maanav pushes Vicky whose head hits a rock and he… dies. The actor flees. Beware what you wish for: Maanav wanted rage; he got road rage. A Bollywood star craves a hit; Maanav got a ‘hit and run’. Does this sound familiar? A star, a car, a 2002 night — yeah?
If these two paragraphs make you believe that An Action Hero, directed by Anirudh Iyer, plays out like a simple satire, then, well, it doesn’t. After the excellent tense opening, I expected the hero’s emasculation, some cheeky commentary on stardom’s transience, and how the real dwarfs the reel. But something else happens. Maanav, citing Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya’s examples, flees to London. Actions have consequences? Not really, if you’re famous. But it’s not that simple, either. Because if you’re even one degree away from the power’s epicenter — such as Rhea Chakraborty or Aryan Khan — no action can also have grave consequences.
The accident hasn’t humbled Maanav. He remains an action hero even in real life. He rains punches, shoots bullets; he jumps and zips and drives. When he meets Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat), who has flown to London to kill him, the latter challenges him to a fist fight. It’s not far-fetched to assume that a movie like this would let Bhoora – the ‘little man’ – beat the shit out of the star. But that doesn’t happen, either. Maanav overpowers the bulky Bhoora and locks him up in the car’s trunk.
Maanav is tough to slot. He’s not exactly virtuous, showing limited remorse at a death, even though unintentionally, caused by him. But not evil, either. When a member of his support staff agrees to take the blame, saying he was driving the car, Maanav dissuades him. In both cases, the movie doesn’t prod us to tilt one way or the other. It shows a scene, tells a story, and moves on.
Something else, though, continues to gain momentum: the TV anchors going ballistic covering the case. Almost all of them link Bollywood to the “drugs” mafia; one lung-raining anchor – inspired by the man who has the “nation” on his speed dial – breaks into “Mujhe drugs do! Mujhe drugs do! Mujhe drugs do!” He also screams, “Kahan hai humaara action hero?” It made me wonder: Where have I heard that before?
So the movie has an ambiguous hero (more evil than good), a murderous ‘villain’, an equally vile mainstream media – and limited commentary otherwise. When I couldn’t find a ‘pattern’, I stopped looking for one, and just let the movie hit me. I was surprised. Iyer pays close attention to big set-pieces and small moments, excelling at building tension. In the road rage scene, for example, I had no idea right till the end whether Vicky was dead or alive. The movie features fresh background score complementing the scene’s rhythm. Well punctuated rap sequences further sustain our interest. Action sequences? Immersive, taut, kinetic. Aiding Neeraj Yadav’s smart screenplay, the filmmaking packs a lot in a few frames. Above all, Iyer’s made a movie that’s truly difficult to predict. He sniffs a potentially boring scene from a mile and brings his A-game to turn it around. Forget the thematic underpinnings, this filmmaking is alive.
Most importantly, Iyer doesn’t use comedy as a formulaic beat. You won’t get a (forced) gag at regular intervals just because the movie is supposed to be funny. In fact, jokes disappear for long periods. And when they arrive, they’re original, timely, and funny. There too, the film retains its delicious randomness. There’s an Akshay Kumar cameo (where the actor plays himself and looks, after years, funny and real). In London, Maanav meets a man named Sai (Neeraj Madhav), who is a lawyer from nine to five, a chef for the next five hours, and does “extracurricular activities” – which includes hacking for a fat fee – after 10 pm. (Karl Marx would have been proud.)
Like a typical Action Hero character, Sai exceeds his ‘job responsibilities’ and tips the gangsters off about Maanav for a hefty sum. (Yeah, scratch that part about Marx being proud.) And this is how Masood Katkar (Gautam Joglekar) – a gangster modelled on Dawood Ibrahim – enters the film. Donning the gravitas of a veteran journalist, Masood worries about his ‘fading relevance’. A climactic conversation between Maanav, Masood, and Bhoora is one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in Hindi cinema this year.
An Action Hero reminded me of Shahrukh Khan-starrer Fan more than once. Their conceits are broadly similar: A regular man troubling a Bollywood star. But if Fan told a unidimensional story revering the status-quo – depicting the star as ‘victimised’ and an audience member unhinged – then An Action Hero is much more complicated. During a fight sequence, Bhoora does indicate a ‘public as dictator’ mindset – saying “we’ve made you stars, do what we say” – but as the movie gets deeper and darker, that feels like a throwaway remark.
Because towards the end, the movie finally reveals itself. The commentary becomes smarter; the characters get sharper – the motivations more devious. The film doesn’t spare anyone, including – and especially – the Indian public and media’s confused, helpless, and toxic relationship with stardom itself. Saying anything more would be spoiling its glorious last stretch, but I’m compelled to note how An Action Hero looks at powerful people: When they double down, the world doesn’t punish but rewards them. Celebrates them. Who is doing the real dancing: the stars or the audiences? Who gets the luxury of choice?
The journey is done; the loop is closed. First an actor, then a hero, then a star – and then, God. A phoenix-like God. Controversies, callousness, crimes – nothing matters. Because this is life in a video-game mode. You always live more than once. A different level, a different image, a different reason to be deified. The hint is in the name itself: Maanav. Or, as the word is out on the street, Being Human.