In life, as in cinema, timing is everything. A couple of geniuses in my early morning screening of Adipurush were there for the express purpose of shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’. As the ads finished and the lights went down, they started to yell, then abruptly stopped. They’d wasted their breath on the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie.
Of course, the shouting started again and continued through the film, mostly calls to Ram but also Bajrang Bali and Mahadev. Such are the joys of cinemagoing in India today, trying to focus on frequently awful films over loud celebrations of Hindu identity. It’s a self-sustaining cycle of dangerous mediocrity: terrible films pandering to majority groups, people flocking to see them, filmmakers doubling down on overtures to an increasingly radicalized audience.
It's because of Hindi cinema’s transformations over the past decade that we’re now seeing something like Adipurush in theatres. Mythology has traditionally been the domain of the small screen in India. It’s a good fit: epics lend themselves to episodic TV, and cheesiness isn’t an issue there. To adapt the same classics for the big screen, to make them cool enough for a generation raised on Western superheroes, that requires some creative leeway—which is hard to come by in India. Yet, there’s been so much religious-mythological allegory and symbolism in popular Hindi films in the last 10 years that the idea of a straight-faced adaptation seems not just possible but the next logical step.
From the start, it’s clear that Adipurush is going to be a greatest-hits version of the Ramayan. All-powerful Lankesh (Saif Ali Khan)—weirdly, all the primary characters are identified by their alternate names—unsuccessfully tries to abduct Janaki (Kriti Sanon), wife of the exiled prince of Ayodhya, Raghav (Prabhas). His next attempt works, with Raghav and his brother, Shesh (Sunny Singh), off chasing a fake deer. He flies her to Lanka; Raghav sets out in pursuit with his army of monkeys. Jatayu, vaanar sena, Ram Setu, Lanka Dahan, Kumbhakarn… you know the drill.
Adipurush is Ramanand Sagar on steroids. Raghav, Shesh, Bajrang—everyone’s buff as hell. Lankesh is a huge bruiser who—I can’t make this stuff up—gets a massage by placing himself in the constricting coils of giant snakes. The CGI is either grungy imitation-Snyder or tacky wall calendar brightness. In their happier moments, Raghav and Janaki float in slo-mo in front of backdrops resembling Windows screensavers. One peacock won’t do, I can hear Raut saying, I want dozens of them in the frame.
It's not that all the CGI is tacky—but it's too often that in a film which stakes everything on the visual. In Raut’s last film, the historical Tanhaji (2020), the effects bordered on kitsch but were sustained by some inventive fight choreography. Here, the images are weightless, unmoored, the physics of the universe left vague. What is possible for Raghav and Lankesh, and what is beyond even their supernatural capabilities? It seems to vary from scene to scene. Unlike Rajamouli, Raut doesn't generate a stream of original visual ideas. Lankesh’s foot-soldiers resemble orcs. His son zips around like The Flash. The monkeys are like the ones in the new Planet of the Apes series. Prabhas even does a Baahubali slide-and-shoot.
The writing is amusingly ornate, your local Ramlila script but without the fun. For some reason, Raut and co-writer Manoj Muntashir are worried their audience won’t get 2000-year-old plot points. Which leads to scenes like this:
Vibhishan: Indrajit is invincible but he has one huge weakness. His powers are useless in water.
Shesh: We should kill him in the water.
Raghav, a minute later: You must kill him when he’s in the water.
On the few occasions the film speaks in a plainer tongue, it nods to a certain kind of politically charged language. “Jali na? (burns, doesn’t it)”, Lankesh’s general asks Bajrang as he lights his tail on fire—a common provocation on Twitter. “Jo hamaari behenon ko haath lagayega, hum uski Lanka laga denge (we’ll end anyone who touches our sisters)” is prime Hindutva rhetoric. Raghav’s big speech before they cross the sea includes a mention of bhagwa dhwaj—saffron flag. You can read as much as you want into Saif Ali Khan having to play the biggest villain in Indian epic literature as a Muslim stereotype: long beard, kohl under his eyes, handling meat, taking another woman even though he has a wife.
Prabhas—solid, manly, boring—is an apt, if not very interesting, Raghav. Sanon is all wrong for Janaki. Singh looks like he needs a hug. Khan is the only one having fun—as was the case in Tanhaji. Despite the wonky effects and the squareness of it all, there’ll probably be takers for a Ramayan that looks like a bad DC film; what effect this has on a creatively flatlining Hindi film industry I can’t even imagine. In an interview, Raut mentioned as one of his inspirations a 1992 anime version of the epic. I’m not surprised he was taken with a tacky cartoon Ramayan. He’s made one himself.