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Film

'Vikram Vedha' Is a Compelling Retelling of the Vikram Betal Fable

The action packed film raises moral questions about good and evil.

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Sun and moon, heads and tails, questions and answers: Vikram (Saif Ali Khan) and Vedha (Hrithik Roshan) are two parts of the same page, racing towards the same story. They loathe each other; they complete each other. Vikram wants to outrun Vedha; Vedha is Vikram’s shadow. They’re truly Vikram and Betal (Vedha’s last name), cannibalistic Siamese twins. Vikram is an “encounter specialist”; Vedha a dreaded gangster. The criminal has murdered 16 people; the cop 18. Vikram wants to arrest Vedha; his nemesis surrenders. But Vedha has just climbed Vikram’s back. Over the next two hours, he will tell three stories – ask three questions, each with a moral dilemma – helping the blinkered cop not just see but observe.

A remake of the 2017 Tamil film of the same name – both made by the directorial duo Pushkar-Gayathri – Vikram Vedha lives for style. When Vedha walks towards the cops to surrender, he’s first filmed from the back like a true Indian hero. When he’s interrogated in the police station, the camera circles around the table, as if dizzy in his presence: the cops change, Vedha stays. His first story cuts to a flashback in Kanpur, 13 years ago, when Vedha, a recent entrant in a famous gang, is about to commit his first murder. Moments away from slicing his victim in an open field, he hears a Raj Kapoor song on the radio: ‘Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe Ho Nisaar’. Vedha stops; it’s his favourite song.

A brief interruption, then the show goes on. Heads smashed, jaws broken, bodies flung. A man struggles in the lake; Vedha approaches him in slow-motion. The blazing sun looks down. Vedha finishes his business with bewitching nonchalance, as ‘Kisi Ka Dard Mil Sake To Le Udhaar’ plays. It doesn’t happen often – and it’s not happened in a long time – but that scene made me feel like a 12-year-old in a single-screen theatre. Over the last decade, Roshan’s career has largely resembled Rohit Sharma’s form in 2012: enough talent, limited outcome. But here, the actor plants his front foot forward and smashes consecutive sixes over extra cover – with one hand.

Later, Vikram’s team searches Vedha in a cramped neighbourhood but fails to find him. Because Vedha is literally above them, jumping across roofs, walking past a wide range of people – aunties, kids, girls practising karate – greeting them with a smile as he glides off. The great thing about these sequences is that, unlike many ‘self-aware and funny’ Hollywood heroes – whose performances within performances belong to an identifiable type – Roshan’s Vedha is his own man.

The dazzling set-pieces aren’t used as a crutch, either. Vikram Vedha’s core contains several compelling stories that continue to escalate tension, reveal character and muddy motivations. And that central commitment makes the movie earn its indulgence. Right before the interval, after his roof-hopping exercise, Vedha bumps into Vikram. It’s raining – Vedha is unarmed; Vikram holds a gun. The scene’s contradictory elements are obvious: a) pragmatic logic demands that Vikram shoots Vedha, b) movie logic dictates that Vedha survives. He of course does, and we get a tense fistfight, where Vedha allows the cop to hit him. But it’s not a dumb set-piece: Vikram doesn’t kill him because Vedha knows why his friend Abbas (Satyadeep Mishra), a fellow cop, was murdered. Vedha is back on Vikram’s back; it’s time for the second story.

Vikram Vedha dignifies the masala Hindi actioner. A movie lit by power, humour, and soul – an original movie, an Indian movie. Which is why some of its (basic) misfires are so disappointing. The most obvious one – so obvious that I’ve only bemoaned it 1,000 times before (and will continue to do so, I’m sure, even when I’ve turned 70) – is generic and inauthentic hinterland Hindi. If the dialogues sound clichéd – featuring “hui gawa”, “budbak”, and “kaahe” – then Roshan and Khan’s dictions, even though brimming with effort, dilute them further. Roshan, especially, seems to operate in two modes: strained and smooth. When not worried about wearing an accent, he slays. Take that rainy scene for instance. Vedha teases Vikram to shoot him, then drops a smile, and says, without any affectation, “Mauka bhi hai, mausam bhi hai.

The sporadic formulaic excess and dated vocabulary also dim the film. An overlong and piercing background score at the start doesn’t heighten but undercuts tension. Two songs – one after Abbas’ death, signalling ‘pathos’, and the other milking Roshan’s dancing – bloat the movie. Two crucial plot turns – centred on a large sum of stolen money and Vikram solving the puzzle, all of a sudden, through a (visual) detail from Vedha’s story – lack a thorough thought process.

But thankfully, Pushkar-Gayathri follow a maxim fast deserting many Hindi filmmakers. Four simple words: Just tell the story. A movie like Vikram Vedha could have easily featured strained profundities, or overflowing frills, but the directors resist that temptation. Themes don’t decide the story here; the stories decide the theme.

The makers carry no pretensions of reinventing the wheel. Many films have contemplated the similarities between a murderer and a cop. Even its central question has found enough representations on screen: Is it possible to separate absolute good from absolute evil (if they exist at all in the first place)? Ditto Vedha’s direct questions. But their persistent and piercing quality – challenging our latent simplistic beliefs – refuses to leave us. King Vikramaditya, the protagonist of the legendary tale, knew the answers. So does Vikram, so do we. We’re all trapped: The phantom will accept defeat only when we don’t have an answer. It’s this addictive circularity that makes Vikram Vedha so compelling: the audience is Vikram; this diabolically delicious film, Betal.