Dir: Ayan Mukherji. With: Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Mouni Roy. 165 mins. Cert: 12A
Amid a woeful 2022, this feels like the Hindi mainstream’s last roll of the dice, and a return to first storytelling principles. A mythologically inclined franchise-starter modelled on the MCU’s money-printing early phases, it’s backed by über-producer Karan Johar, directed by selective crowdpleaser Ayan Mukherji (2013’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) and staffed by front-rank faces. Whether it can reunite never-more-divided audiences remains to be seen, but it’s far from the worst idea Mumbai has had of late, exhibiting appreciable degrees of craft, care and skill.
As is often the case in Bollywood, megastar Shah Rukh Khan sets the bar, turning somersaults in a housecoat and striking the right note of elastic levity in the prologue – albeit as the kind of franchise-martyr fated to go no further than prologues. Thereafter, the torch of righteousness passes to pin-up Ranbir Kapoor as EDM-blasting DJ Shiva, clueless modern scion of a long-secret society, obliged to save the world from Mouni Roy’s striking old-school villainess while solving the mysteries of his lineage and wooing rich girl Isha (Alia Bhatt).
Mukherji’s biggest achievement is getting this latter relationship to flourish unconditionally, Kapoor and Bhatt counting among the precious few real-life couples with palpable onscreen chemistry. She gives him class; he becomes touchingly humble before cinema’s most responsive young actress; and – voilà – we get something real and cherishable to cling to as the universe around this pair explodes in gouts of fantastical FX.
As that implies, the film eventually assumes the familiar shape of the pixelated beat-‘em-up, with Amitabh Bachchan outgrowling Patrick Stewart as a guru overseeing a Himalayan training camp. Yet the emphasis on light as a special power banishes the murkiness of certain Marvel and DC dispatches. Mukherji brings a peppy, wide-eyed spirit to the superhero-movie model, adorning tried-and-tested arcs and beats with workable Pritam songs, ravishing colours and gorgeous people. History suggests there are less effective ways of drawing a crowd come Friday night.
Brahmāstra Part One: Shiva is now playing in cinemas nationwide.