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Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi opens in Mumbai on March 12, 1993. An old couple banters on the phone, then meets in a market. If you can recognise the date, you know what’s next. In fact, in almost all his films, the date wouldn’t have mattered; a bomb blast would have been enough. But here, for a few seconds, we get life-as-it-is, life-as-it-was. The shock has been replaced by something gentle, something real. Besides, the director has set such a low yardstick for himself for more than a decade that even the slightest deviation from the norm feels like a seismic shift, prompting the question: Is he trying to mend his ways? The answer is simple: yes and no.
Let’s tackle the more predictable, the ‘no’, part first. The film soon cuts to the present-day Mumbai, where an Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) cop, Soorya (Akshay Kumar), intends to hunt the perpetrators of the 1993 blasts. (The old couple in the first scene were his parents.) His senior Kabir (Javed Jaffrey) says that the terrorists had arranged for a ton of RDX; out of which they used 400 kilograms. Soorya’s team must locate the remaining explosives to annul another horrific attack on the city.
Every item in the checklist appears: invincible hero, physics-mocking stunts, dialogue-baazi. The same old form: feverish pans, jump cuts, frozen frames. The softer subplot, featuring Katrina Kaif, is quite formulaic too: a long flashback, a romantic number, a raunchy number, choose-your-family-or-duty sub-genre of emotional manipulation. The movie is also, as expected, inordinately loud. Irrespective of the scene’s tenor, the near-constant background score operates in three main modes: loud, very loud, very very loud. Soorya’s dare devilry is always accompanied by an ear-splitting siren, as if a building has caught fire, culminating in sounds of “Sooooooorya-vanshi”. Like many mediocre masala fare, Sooryavanshi needs to take a break.
A Bollywood superhero in such a set-up can hardly spring surprises or provide narrative undulation. If there’s a problem, then Soorya just needs to show up and — boom! — what problem? Different versions of the same scene recur, again and again, making Sooryavanshi less of a film and more of a dude stuck in a particularly bad acid trip, confusing gibberish repetition for a memorable thrill. Shetty’s actioners follow a simple logic: identify a common target (criminals, rapists, terrorists), posit a simplistic solution, and celebrate the cops doing the killings. Vigilante justice and revenge — two broad strokes that paint every inch of his canvas. And indeed, the initial segment so sorely lacks a voice that it could be any one of his previous outings: Singham, Singham Returns, Simmba.
Here, retribution is signalled through a taunt. An early scene displays the message “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” followed by the visuals of the bomb blasts’ aftermath. Besides, the choice of cops as protagonists — Ranveer Singh and Ajay Devgn appear in the climax — who scoff at the due process is remarkably discomfiting in the context of an India increasingly showing signs of becoming a police state.
Which brings me to the ‘yes’ part of whether Shetty is trying to change as a director. In films like Sooryavanshi, the incendiary rhetoric of terrorists and patriots is often used for vile political ends, such as Islamophobia and Hindu Rashtra, singling out ‘anti-nationals’. But something different is at play in Sooryavanshi. The villain, for instance, is a stereotypical baddie, but the film at least pays lip service to the maddening complexities of conflicts, by informing us that his son was killed by the Indian Army. His wife tells Omar (Jackie Shroff) after hearing his plans of revenge, “What will you accomplish by doing all this?”
When a Lashkar sleeper cell member, Mukhtar (Nikitin Dheer), living in India for more than a decade under a Hindu alias, is doing namaaz, wearing a prayer cap, the voice in my head went, “Of course.” The next scene cuts to another Muslim: a cop who has recently been transferred to Soorya’s team; his father had served the ATS for three decades. The stark binary of ‘good Muslim-bad Muslim’ couldn’t have been more obvious. Of course. But it isn’t as straightforward. In a later scene, for example, when Soorya is interrogating a religious leader, Usmani (Gulshan Grover), accused of giving provocative speeches and brainwashing teenagers, the same father-son duo is present in the room. These are the country’s real Muslims, Soorya tells Usmani in essence, making you wonder whether this is just redundant and gratuitous screenwriting or a committed daub of sincerity?
We then get a backstory of another villain, Bilal (Kumud Mishra). The movie stretches again to point out that his house was set on fire during the Mumbai riots, and the scene allows him to own that moment. (Mishra, reliable as ever, nails it.) Later, when he is about to die, he asks Soorya’s team to bury him near his mother’s grave — and they honour that request. Shetty, of course, does the balancing act in every such scene, where his hero eventually puts the villains in place via an ends-don’t-justify-the-means lecture.
But something more remarkable happens in the climax. Here, the cops are evacuating a Mumbai locality, about to be detonated by RDX, which contains a temple and a mosque. Muslims rush out of the mosque; Hindus leave the temple with as much urgency. The camera then cuts to an old Muslim man looking at something — the idol of Ganesha sitting helplessly, waiting to be rescued — and, along with other Muslims, he helps carry it out. And then the song plays: “Chhodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat poorani (…) hum Hindustani, hum Hindustani.” I sat in the theatre completely baffled and confused — and even — and I shed a tear.
“You’re crying in a Rohit Shetty film?” I could almost hear the voice in my head. But sometimes only the heart speaks because only the heart knows. Was it a good scene in isolation or was I responding to the recent political climate, which made the song poignant and incongruous? Because in a country where the literal “kal ki baatein” could mean horrifying discrimination against Muslim business owners across the country, how could one just move on — how could one just “chhodo” the days gone by? But then there was the old man again, and the song insisted, “Hum Hindustani.”
Bigotry sells, whether it’s politics or cinema. By fashioning a sincere ‘middle path’ in a jungle of many questionable trails, Shetty hasn’t made a good film by default. That is a much complex and arduous effort, but he has at least tried to stay clear from the cesspool that passes for political commentary in mainstream Bollywood. Besides, since he is such a successful filmmaker, maybe this choice will open gateways for more alternate commentaries in Hindi cinema. Because really, in today’s times, it doesn’t take much. One image, a song, and two words: “Hum Hindustani.”