There’s a sequence in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero that seemed almost unbearably stupid at the time I was watching it, but later struck me as the kind of crazy risk this film could have done with more of. It unfolds in a dance bar in Mumbai, where Sikandar (Harshvardhan Kapoor), wearing a partially bald wig, is spying on a group of corrupt officials. As if to distract from the awfulness of the hairpiece, the song that’s blaring has a chorus which goes “Tere chumme mein Chavanprash hai"—a contender for the un-sexiest thought ever voiced in a Hindi film. To top it all, when Sikandar and his quarry come face-to-face on the dance floor, there’s no confrontation. Instead, like Pran and Kishore Kumar in Half Ticket, hunter and hunted end up dancing together.
Between “muscle waala majnu, Kolhapuri Schwarzenegger" and Sikandar’s decision to almost get himself killed waiting for a green light before breaking every conceivable traffic rule over the next five minutes, this sequence represents a film, and a director, ready to go out on a limb. At no other point does Bhavesh Joshi risk looking this silly—and at no other point does it feel like its own film. Instead, Vikramaditya Motwane’s film is depressingly templated, hitting all the expected vigilante-hero beats but bringing little that’s original to the table.
The film begins in 2011, with Sikandar and his friends Rajat (Ashish Verma) and Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyuli) fired up by the ongoing anti-corruption movement. They start a rebellion of their own, putting paper bags over their heads, accosting low-key law-breakers and posting the videos on their “Insaaf" website. The stakes are fairly low, and Sikandar eventually tires and takes up an office job as a coder. Bhavesh continues, investigating a case of a colony suffering from chronic water shortages. The film turns into Chinatown for a spell, complete with water-siphoning scam, corrupt cops, city officials and politicians, and bandaged broken nose.
I won’t reveal what happens next—though a hop and skip of logic should get you there long before the narrative catches up—but Sikandar returns to fight the good fight, assuming his friend’s full name, Bhavesh Joshi, as his superhero moniker. He trains in karate and parkour and stick-wielding—the same hero-prepares montage that’s there in every vigilante movie ever made. There’s a girl he likes—a character so perfunctorily written and incidental to the story that I was surprised the film checked in with her in the second half—but nothing else to tie him down emotionally or distract from the urgent business of crime-fighting. It’s a good setup for a home-grown no-strings lone wolf hero. There’s only one problem.
Harshvardhan Kapoor has none of what they call game face. He has precisely one face—pleasant, unperturbed—that he wears to every occasion, whether he’s looking at a corpse or eating dinner or awaiting almost certain death. It’s a bold move, to cast an actor this mild as a superhero and hope he’ll fill the screen. It never happens; even when Sikandar speaks to criminals from behind his nifty-looking mask, the voice that emerges is measured, inquisitive. You don’t need every masked hero to cough up gravel like Christian Bale, but who expects a reasonable-sounding vigilante?
After Udaan, Lootera and Trapped, it’s hard to begrudge Motwane a misstep. One of his strengths as a director is his economy, the ability to convey in a few scenes what other directors would take a dozen to explain (the burgeoning romance in Lootera, for instance, or the build-up to the lock-in in Trapped). But Bhavesh Joshi is 155 minutes long, and you feel it, especially in the farcical first half. The writing, by Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Koranne, can’t quite find the hard-boiled tone it‘s attempting. Neither Sikandar nor his friends are compelling characters, their activism progressing unconvincingly from vague discontentment to investigative journalism to vigilantism. The antagonists are only handed crimes, not personalities, though Nishikant Kamat, playing a corrupt MLA, chews and spits out his lines with relish.
As the film progresses, it comes alive visually, with Motwane and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan pulling velvety images out of the black of night. There’s more space to play with than there was in their last outing, Trapped, but this is Mumbai after all, where even the outdoors can be cramped. Perhaps to counter this, frequent (and excellent) use is made of the overhead shot, the god’s-eye view appropriate for the genre, even if Bhavesh Joshi is still getting his wings (while being told the story of Icarus, whose wax feathers melted when he flew too close to the sun).
Bhavesh Joshi is caught in a peculiar bind: it’s a bit too competent to be dismissed, but not original or striking enough to dispel the feeling that it’s all been done before. It isn’t aimed at the kids who watched Ra.One or Krrish; it’s too violent and self-aware. If I was reminded of Daredevil and The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass and Street Hawk, chances are its intended audience will be as well. And if it can’t do anything new with the genre, how far will being India’s first un-embarrassing superhero film carry it? Motwane does his best to set up a franchise, keeping several character fates hanging in the balance and even throwing in post-credits scenes. To borrow a phrase, he’s playing in a corner of a foreign field.