Dir: Karan Malhotra. With: Akshay Kumar, Jackie Shroff, Sidharth Malhotra, Jacqueline Fernandez. 156 mins. Cert: 15
Bollywood has long eyed up Hollywood for inspiration: since the millennium, it’s redone everything from The Godfather (2005’s Sarkar) to the David Duchovny heart transplant saga Return to Me (2004’s Dil Ne Jise Apne Kahaa). Fox’s high-profile Brothers forms an interesting case study, reworking material that flopped first time around: Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, that 2011 mix of mythology and mixed martial-arts that sought to provide rock ‘em-sock ‘em entertainment to crowds whose credit had been crunched. (Sadly, they couldn’t afford the ticket.) That film was very specifically tied to an America reeling from rounds of foreclosures and lay-offs; removed of that context, the story can’t pack the same punch.
The husband-and-wife team of Karan Malhotra (who directs) and Ekta Pathak Malhotra (who adapts) doubtless sensed the underlying melodrama would translate easily into Hindi. Again, the focus is on damaged men – a father and his estranged sons – who can only truly express themselves through violence, although the Malhotras have reconfigured the relationships. Their retelling opens with the father (Jackie Shroff), sometime boxer-turned-greying drunk, emerging from jail, before introducing “bad son” Monty (Sidharth Malhotra, no relation), a pushover in this version, and “good son” David (Akshay Kumar), a fighter-turned-teacher returning to the ring to fund an operation for his sick daughter.
In this version, there is, in fact, a fourth major character: the absent wife and mother, mere backstory in the original. As embodied by Shefali Shah, she makes fleeting appearances throughout the first half – as a photo in a shrine, then as a ghost haunting pa – before taking centre stage in an extended pre-intermission flashback. Trilling the haunting lullaby “Gaaye Jaa”, she’s a nurturing presence being ground down by the relentless roughhousing of the men around her, and eventually falling victim to domestic violence in the kind of blood-and-thunder scene no Western filmmaker would dare attempt lest their fragile handiwork be laughed off the screen.
Considerable energy has gone into counteracting the whiff of jockstrap that may have alienated some Western viewers: the inevitable midfilm training montage is intercut with anightclub number where Malhotra shoots guest star Kareena Kapoor Khan as though she were Rita Hayworth’s Gilda. In both locales, you could conceivably sit back and admire the choreography, not to mention the physiques. Yet the Kapoor number – isolated razzle-dazzle, connected to nothing in particular – indicates just how prone the film is to distraction, grabbing for instant spectacle over longer-lasting effects: it’s the movie equivalent of a fighter setting out on the tiles when he should be hitting the bag.
Almost all the second-half drama feels sketchily conceived; that canvas of narrative and thematic groundwork O’Connor set down before his brothers-in-arms went head-to-head simply hasn’t travelled. Monty’s inherited alcoholism comes down to a single locker-room glimpse of shaky hands, and some of the detail is wrong: we’re told one fighter won a bronze in the 2009 Olympics. (If you can’t win gold in a year when there isn’t an Olympics, hang up your gloves.) Malhotra’s rushing towards the fight scenes, which are functional enough, but stripping them of their emotional scar tissue risks leaving them no more meaningful than the ABCD movies’ comparably energetic dance-offs.
Kumar, a goonish figure in his recent action-comedies, demonstrates a new-found maturity that becomes him, but these characters never feel like the flesh-and-blood human beings they were in the original; they’re really just Weebles, to be knocked down and reset as the narrative template demands. The Malhotra version connects occasionally – I admired the sucker-punching shamelessness of the final bout, where David envisages Monty as his younger, helpless self – and it may usefully redirect viewers to the overlooked original, but in and of itself Brothers feels puny and underdeveloped: an at best light-middleweight, dancing round in the shadows of a super-heavyweight.
Brothers is now playing in cinemas nationwide.