The year ends as it began, with an unhinged Ranveer Singh performance in a film that really needs it. While ‘Padmaavat’ (review) was built around his character’s reputation for corrupting virtue, ‘Simmba’ turns on his being moved to defend it. Spare a thought for the women in these films, whose excellent options are: burn yourself alive to preserve your honour from the marauding Alauddin Khilji, or be raped and brutalised so that Sangram Bhalerao might realise his true calling.

Before ‘Simmba’ turned, I found myself dangerously close to enjoying an entire half of a Rohit Shetty film. This is not a position I’m accustomed to finding myself in, and I blame Singh and his knowingly ludicrous performance. We first see “Simmba" Bhalerao in Shivgadh, chasing a couple of goons through a dhobi ghat. Even with the usual stop-start Shetty action, it’s a lovely sequence, brightly coloured clothes flapping and water splashing in slow motion as Simmba hands out beatings and wisecracks. Afterwards, the young cop cheerfully accepts bribes from the thieves and from the trader whose jewellery he’s recovered. It’s a part of the Singham universe, but the tiresome moral clouds of the Shetty-Ajay Devgn films are already receding.

Simmba is transferred to Miramar, Goa, a lucrative posting for a crooked officer. His first move is to seek out the local don, Durva (Sonu Sood), and promise not to interfere in his business. For a while, everything goes swimmingly, Simmba helping Durva bully people out of their property while turning a blind eye to his drug-running. He also finds time to fall for Shagun (Sara Ali Khan), a café owner who supplies lunch to the police station, and become de facto elder brother to Aakruti (Vaidehi Parshurami), a medical student who teaches underprivileged children.

If you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you know something horrible will happen to Aakruti. Part of the perverseness of Simmba is how much silly fun it is before this incident. Singh preens and pouts, mixes Hindi and Marathi and broken English. He has the ability to play a broad-chested hero and still seem like he’s in on the joke. When he shouts “Uff, taana" at a disapproving cop, or performs a jealous pantomime when Shagun appears interested in another man, the playacting is a level removed from the outright spoofery of Quick Gun Murugan (review). Like all Shetty characters, Simmba is a cardboard creation, but in Singh’s playing, his macho bluster has an underlying sweetness that renders it more winsome than the humourless masculinity of Devgn’s Singham.

The film quickly comes apart when a couple of Aakruti’s students go missing. Her search leads her to Durva’s drug-packing den, where she’s discovered by his brothers. They first try and take her phone; when she fights back, they assault and rape her. When Simmba visits her in hospital the next day, she’s barely alive. He vows revenge on Durva and his brothers, changes his corrupt ways, and that’s the rest of the film.

Even for Hindi cinema, where rape-revenge is a thriving subgenre (there were four films on the subject last year), this is pretty dire. Sexual assault is not just a plot device here, it’s the catalyst for Simmba to go from bad to good. Put more plainly, a minor female character has to suffer so that the male lead may evolve. For all its outrage over the safety of women, the film can’t help but reveal its obsession with male pride and how this is linked with the ‘honour’ of women they protect. Durva’s brothers are goaded in jail, called napunsak (impotent) and namard (unmanly), incapable of rape. There’s a lot of talk of ‘desh ki betiyaan’—daughters of the nation. Time and again, male characters are asked, how would you feel if this happened to your sister, your mother? One has to wonder whether Simmba would be this affected if the victim had been someone he didn’t know and not the girl he considered his sister.

The ridiculousness piles up as Shetty and writers Yunus Sajawal and Farhad Samji barrel headlong into an issue they seem to have no deep thoughts on. A courtroom scene has Simmba asking the judge, a woman, if one ‘desh ki beti’ can help out another. Later, a friend of Aakruti asks, “Desh ki betiyaan padh toh rahi hain par desh ki betiyon ko in haivanon se bachaega kaun (daughters of the nation are studying, but who will save them from these savages)?"—a twisting of the government’s “beti bachao, beti padhao" slogan, but to what end? The film’s idea of including women in the conversation about safety is, I guess, when Simmba asks a group which includes Aakruti’s mother and Shagun what they think should happen to rapists. Each responds with some variation on “they deserve to die". At least Shetty’s consistent: both ‘Singham’ (review) and ‘Singham Returns’ (review) ended with vigilante killings by the police.

Shagun is largely absent after the intermission; she’s extra baggage in a film that has more use for women as sisters and mothers than as lovers. Her best moment—and a rare instance of female agency—is when she tells Simmba that she likes him and demands to know whether he has feelings for her (that the cocky Simmba turns out to be a shy wooer is a nice character beat). But she’s clearly an afterthought—a few hastily written lines and a back story about a dead cop father that goes nowhere.

Singham turns up, which should surprise no one. To hear Devgn grunt his lines is to become grateful all over again for Singh’s fleet presence, even if it’s weighed down by the cartoon violence and endless posturing that make Shetty such a popular, if critically reviled, director. As a late scene makes clear, the Shetty-verse isn’t done growing. But more than expanded universes, what commercial Hindi cinema needs right now is broadened world views.

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