An awkward medley
Imagine a superhero who epitomizes soppy and absolute virtue. His chivalry wins him the woman’s affection. His brutal physical strength is fuelled by a blue H.A.R.T (Hertz advanced resonance transmitter), also what the Iron Man wears. He can stop speeding trains with his bare hands. His maker quotes Mahatma Gandhi and V. Shantaram. Above all, he has a heart—ah, the maudlin heart.
Now imagine a film in which he is fighting a moral antithesis who is barely there—an apology of a villain who creaks his neck and flexes his sinews in the few perfunctory appearances he makes just before the climactic bluster. In Shah Rukh Khan’s mega-crore project, directed and written by Anubhav Sinha, Ra.One, the name, is inspired by the Ramayan’s Ravan, a complex amalgamation of malevolence and erudition. The H.A.R.T guy is G.One, a riff on the word jeevan, meaning life.
The references to Hindu mythology are a sham; they end with the nomenclature. The moral contrasts are not even sketchily developed.
The battle in Ra.One begins in a video-game console. Shekhar (Khan), a game developer, impresses his adolescent son Prateek, who has a penchant for villains of the virtual world, by creating Ra.One. Artificial intelligence brings Ra.One to life and he goes after Lucifer, Prateek’s virtual name for the game he played against Ra.One (Arjun Rampal) before he came to life. Ra.One’s only possible assassin is G.One, whom Prateek and his father’s colleague (Shahana Goswami) assemble. From London, where the family of two geeky men and a beautiful Punjabi woman, wife and mother Sonia (Kareena Kapoor), live, the film moves to Mumbai. On their arrival in Mumbai, the three of them are accosted by dark-skinned, moustached bullies whom G.One sends flying with blows. From now on, G.One, not Shekhar, is the new man of the family. For a good hour, we are witness to robotic inanities, some of them quite funny, as this new family dynamic develops. He is not a superhero with a cause to save the world, but more a bodyguard with supernatural powers, protecting this one family.
Sinha’s film is a haphazard medley of Iron Man, The Matrix, Superman, Terminator 2 and age-old disappearing and levitating acts we’ve seen over and over again in no-brainer Rajinikanth blockbusters (while on Rajinikanth, his appearance in the film, which Khan’s publicity team went hammer and tongs about, does not last for more than a few seconds). There are no ambiguities, nuances or uplifting asides to this modern-day morality tale. Producer Khan and his writers (Sinha wrote the film with four other writers) cling to the safe route of song, dance and weepy histrionics. The virtual reality is a thin foil, a flimsy sci-fi fantasy garb that attempts to contemporize the stale Bollywood credo. I am not a gamer, but it is obvious even to the unacquainted eye that game development is a hokey sport in this film. The earnest, pop-philosophical Shekhar creates Ra.One on a whim to satisfy his own fatherly inadequacies. Khan, known to be an avid gamer, obviously had the masses in mind when he decided to dumb down geekiness.
Clichés abound in this desultory, confused script, and none of them work. In what’s got to be the worst opening sequence in a sci-fi superhero film, Khan, resembling a CGI-boosted toy, encounters the three daughters of Bruce Lee for a sword fight: Iski Lee, Uski Lee and Sabki Lee—feline women with Mongoloid features and a deadpan glare. Shekhar, the Tamil scientist, breaks into awkward Tamil only when he is flustered or nervous. He mixes his Chinese noodles with curd and slurps them down. He has a limp mop of curly hair on his head. The Punjabi woman’s chutzpah is explained by her animated desire to invent Punjabi cusswords involving male body parts (tere baap ki…, tere bhai ki…). Kapoor has nothing to show in the film except the basics the limited role demands. Rampal is almost redundant. Khan hams his way through the role of the Tamil geek.
One-man show: Khan’s screen presence and charm are the only reasons Ra.One is watchable.
As the saviour, the chiselled and trim G.One has moments of quirky charm. Khan pulls it off despite the superhero’s banal virtuosity. He is possibly the only reason this 2 hour and 40 minutes drama is tolerable. His screen presence and charm have not changed flavour—and they work every time.
The special effects in Ra.One are impressive for Rs150 crore, the budget it is reportedly made in. For the best of Hollywood, say, the Iron Man films, Rs150 crore is an impossibly low budget. It’s unfair to compare the special effects work with Hollywood films of this genre. Some scenes in Ra.One are thrilling, but the thrill comes in small spurts. Although inconsistent, it is the best special effects anyone has seen in a Bollywood film. Sinha uses a gimmick common in Hollywood films of this genre: An iconic public monument is shown being devastated, enhancing the spectacle.
Why ape Hollywood’s extravagance and technical virtuosity with limited resources? Despite the largely thrilling ride, Khan’s ambition for Ra.One is misplaced. It is without real commitment to the art of storytelling or genre. The producer-actor is its only relentless, narcissistic showpiece.
Anubhav Sinha’s Ra.One is a spectacular disappointment.
Ra.One released in theatres on Wednesday.