Photo: ‘Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva’
In ‘Brahmastra: Part One — Shiva,’ Ayan Mukerji wants to welcome you to the Astraverse.
‘Brahmastra,’ the introduction to the new Bollywood universe, has been in the works for some time. In 2017 Karan Johar, an Indian filmmaker whose company (Dharma Productions) produced the film, announced the movie as the first of a trilogy. “The Astraverse,” it would be called, according to Mukerji, who reportedly worked for a decade on developing the original script, where Hindu mythology meets a modern superhero coming of age story. It’s Bollywood’s first attempt at something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mukerji found big names for the big project, attaching the legendary Shah Rukh Khan and Bollywood “it-girl” Alia Bhatt, with new star Ranbir Kapoor leading. That’s not to mention Amitabh Bachchan, one of India’s all-time most influential actors, who Frances Truffaut once called a “one man industry” due to his utter domination of the industry in the 1980s.
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Principal photography for the film took place over the course of five years, finishing up earlier in 2022, including on-site shooting in Bulgaria, London, New York, and its native India. That process was interrupted for about a year due to Covid, prolonging an already long road — one of the longest in the history of Indian cinema. As the obstacles mounted with reshoots and restrictions, the studio had to recommit to the film’s success by increasing funding, so the film wouldn’t — couldn’t — be a flop. That resulted in the promise of the best CGI and special effects ever before seen in an Indian movie, and so the buzz surrounding it grew even as the film gestated under Mukjeri’s watch.
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The much-anticipated film debuted this weekend to box office success, opening at No.1 in India grossing nearly $19 million on its first two nights, making it the 10th biggest domestic opening for any Indian film, and 2nd for IMAX screenings. Globally, that number looked more like $25 million in total, with Disney releasing the film in larger markets like the UK. Despite the commercial success, the film’s release has not been without controversy. There have been objections to the film on the grounds of its appropriation of Indian religious culture, with some bemoaning Mukerji’s decision to change the titular protagonist’s name to “Shiva,” a Hindu god. Kangana Ranaut, an Indian actress herself, claimed as much on her Instagram story, writing “Everyone who called Ayan Mukerji a genius should be jailed immediately…[because he] tried to exploit religious sentiments by changing the film name from Jalaluddin Rumi to Shiva last minute.”
Apart from that, #BoycottBrahmastra was trending on Twitter this weekend and before due to outrage over some of Kapoor’s past behavior, including comments about his supposed beef-eating habits, a big no-no for Hindus. Luckily for Mukerji, the controversy doesn’t seem to have derailed the commercial success of the film, perhaps even fueling it. Critically though, the movie has fared perhaps below what many were hoping given the ambition of the concept — 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. This movie, though, is not seeking the approval of the critics — it’s a spectacle and a landmark for Indian cinema.
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‘Brahmastra’ is certainly not revolutionizing any narrative structures or movie tropes — in fact, the opposite is true. It’s a classic fantasy-esque story of good vs. evil, imbued with rich Hindu mythology and world-building. In this world — the Astraverse — as the movie begins by explaining, exists the Brahmansh: a secret order of warriors sworn to protect their personal objects of power known as Astras. The most powerful of these objects, weapons really, is the Brahmastra, powerful enough to destroy the universe, which was long ago broken into 3 parts, each piece to be safeguarded by a member of the Brahmansh. For thousands of years, this cycle continued… until now.
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After the lore is established in a well-done montage, the movie opens exactly how you hope it does: a kick-ass action sequence with none other than Bollywood royalty Shah Rukh Khan. Khan, who plays a character referred to as “Scientist,” gives his heroic Brahmansh-warrior a quirky personality, setting the tone for classic yet unique action. Junoon (a well-cast Mouni Roy), an evil mistress intent on reuniting the lost Brahmastra, plays the villain in the opening scene and the movie. From there we meet Shiva (Kapoor), a DJ whose childhood as an orphan has led him to run his own local orphanage, and Isha (the incomparable Alia Bhatt), a rich girl who quickly falls for Shiva’s infectious love of life. When Shiva begins having visions involving the mysterious fate of the Scientist and other members of the Brahmansh, he and Isha embark on a journey to stop Junoon and the evil forces seeking to reunite the Brahmastra.
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There’s much more to the story, as the lore doesn’t stop building until the very final scene, but the spectacle of the film is worth witnessing in person. There’s no doubt Mukerji has the big screen in mind for ‘Brahmastra,’ with big-budget action scene after big-budget action scene, complete with slick and colorful CGI. Color in many ways is what makes this Bollywood action flick work so well, as, despite the relatively familiar action sequences and thrilling stakes associated with the film, there is an inescapable cultural identity that makes it work. The Indian identity is strong in ‘Brhamastra’ and while there are likely aspects in the film that benefits financially from Indian religious culture, it never feels contrived in a manner some Hindi critics have accused it of being. In every sense, it’s an original Indian endeavor and that includes genre as well.
Within the first 10 minutes, there is a long song and dance number performed by a manic Kapoor devoted to an Hindu celebration day. It isn’t connected to the plot and it doesn’t characterize anyone in any significant way, other than perhaps that Shiva really loves dancing, but it’s there. It reminds you, or maybe just a cynical American, that a movie is a celebration: of art, of culture, of life that’s worth enjoying. In fact, Shiva’s attitude toward his own life, despite the tragedy that characterizes all epic heroes, is one of beauty and awe. It’s infectious and imbues the film with meaning. The Hollywood system is used to churning out action flicks that take a story of epic proportions for granted, tinkering with the formula like a toy that needs to be updated. The real problem, though, is that they’ve lost their meaning in a sea of B-list films that swim in their own idolatry promoting countless types of cultural orientation.
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‘Brahmastra,’ while clunky at times (and when it’s bad, it’s pretty damn bad), makes up for its faults with its originality and its earnestness. Watching Kapoor dance himself to death for 5 minutes in the name of his gods may make a few Americans walk out of the theater in the first act, but if you stick around you’ll be reminded that any epic journey is a religious one too. ‘Brahmastra’ has no problem being explicit about its religious overtones, and no doubt the criticisms of the film will remind you of the zealous Indian audience it’s playing to. Yet, to an American, there is something meaningful about it. We are quick to be cynical about our own narrative and insist that the more critiques of our society a film can rattle off, the better. To see a film unafraid to indulge in its own cultural identity and religious mythology (all the while pulling off some sweet CGI), it makes Shiva’s journey all the more enjoyable.
Director: Ayan Mukerji
Writers: Hussain Dalal, Ayan Mukerji
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan, Amitbah Bachchan
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.