There’s a tradition of stupid-smart action cinema that ranges from the John Wick trilogy to Katheryn Bigelow’s Point Break and John Woo’s work in Hong Kong, all the way back to the Sergio Leone’s bloody arias. Characters in these films are often ridiculous, the scenarios outlandish, but directorial control is so formidable that it’s easy to overlook the narrative crudity. And there’s that winking tone, an invitation to the audience to regard itself as smarter than the film.
Saaho isn’t stupid-smart – it’s smart-stupid. You can see from the way it parcels out information – setting up a big reveal in the first 15 minutes and completing it hours later – that it believes it’s a step ahead of the viewer (which is far from the case). With its rogue agents and double- and triple-crosses, Saaho seems to be aiming for Mission: Impossible. But there’s no wit to the proceedings, just an endless series of twists that make no sense, accompanied by the dull pounding that is Prabhas onscreen.
The Baahubali star plays Ashok, a lone wolf police officer brought in to catch a master thief working for (or against—it's barely clear) the shady Roy syndicate. The first thing he does is hire junior officer Amritha (Shraddha Kapooor) after taking one look at her photograph; he proceeds to say things like “What’s a beautiful girl like you doing in the police?" Kapoor and Prabhas haven’t the slightest chemistry, and it’s something of a relief that their relationship, such as it is, only functions as filler between protracted action sequences. There’s a big twist around halfway through – if you don’t see it coming, this must be your first Hindi film – followed by interminable set-pieces interspersed with revelations about the Roy family that no one cares about.
Saaho has been shot simultaneously in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, but Prabhas’ delivery is so unsure and the lines so leaden it plays like a dubbed film (Abbas Dalal and Hussain Dalal did the Hindi dialogue). “Opening the vault is impossible," Amrita says. Ashok’s reply: “Let’s make it possible." “Any news of our hero?" she’s asked. “Not hero, villain," is her devastating reply. Ashok’s catchphrase is “It’s showtime". “Solid jam," an officer says about the Mumbai traffic. Badshah, perhaps inspired by all this wordplay, chips in with: “I stay fly like helicopter/Baby I’m so sick, koi bulaao doctor."
In theory, Saaho could have been a guilty pleasure. Seldom have so many consummate scenery-chewers been assembled in one place. Jackie Shroff, Mahesh Manjrekar, Chunky Pandey, Prakash Belawadi, Tinnu Anand, Neil Nitin Mukesh – all capable of taking corny lines and making them cornier. This never happens, though there is comic relief in other places. It’s not always intended – when Ashok is wooing Amrita on a boat, the pink of the flamingos in the foreground is extended to the sky, the water and Kapoor’s lipstick. But the fight in a Mumbai building introducing Prabhas, which becomes an obstacle course complete with bodybuilders, butchers, a panther and a python, has a minor-key Jackie Chan quality which the film could have used more of.
At the end of the 20-odd-minute climactic action scene, the jet-powered hand glider Prabhas has commandeered malfunctions. He shrugs it off and flies without its help, intercepting and grabbing hold of a falling Shraddha midair. The two of them hurtle towards the ground. There’s a cut. Suddenly we’re underwater as they crash through the surface. The next shot is her on land, wrapped in a towel. No one bothers addressing how they could survive a fall like that, or how he'd escape. On the evidence of such extreme silliness, Sujeeth might have a future directing Fast and Furious movies. And maybe Hollywood could lend us Chad Stahelski.