I could sense it coming, but it was still a shock when Ram Setu went there. About 20 minutes into Abhishek Sharma’s film, archaeologist Aryan (Akshay Kumar) is reeling from the backlash to his report that concludes Ram Setu, a long stretch of shoals in Indian and Sri Lankan waters, was not a bridge made by Ram himself. The unhappiest response is from his wife, Gayathri (Nushrratt Bharuccha), who compares doubts about the bridge to the Ayodhya temple issue (it’s 2007, years before the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a trust to build a Ram temple). “That was a land dispute,” Aryan argues. “It was a matter of faith,” she replies, adding, “Some people made the mistake of asking for Lord Ram’s birth certificate.” She doesn’t elaborate, but it’s a chilling line.
You can see why Gayathri uses this example. Ayodhya was a court case for decades before it was settled; Ram Setu has also been the subject of several appeals, including a recent one to declare it a heritage monument. The unspoken implication is that the Ram Setu movement will be vindicated the same way the Ram temple movement was in 2019, and that asking for proof for something that may or may not have happened thousands of years ago is an attack on religious beliefs. This combative tone is reiterated when a holy man interviewed on TV again mentions Ayodhya in context of Ram Setu and asks which Raavan will pay the price.
By casting Kumar as an atheist and self-described 'man of facts', the film teases its payoff from the start. Aryan will not be won over by appeals to faith. He questions the factual basis of the Ramayana. He’s Robert Langdon with better hair. You can see why shady shipping magnate Indrakant (Nasser) would hire him to lead a mission to prove conclusively that Ram Setu is naturally occurring, thus allowing it to be dredged through for a deep-sea project (this mirrors an actual stalled project). At Aryan's disposal is a ship with a state-of-the-art lab and a team of scientists. Also, a gigantic diving suit that looks like a fitter Michelin Man.
There are three dives, each funnier than the last. In the first, Aryan—which is to say the disembodied head of Kumar pasted onto the atmospheric diving suit—has to collect a rock sample. As he approaches the shoals, the soundtrack starts echoing with sonorous namahs, like he’s literally swimming into holy waters. The sample seems to confirm that the canal is older than Ram (which is 7,000 years ago, as per the film), but Aryan wants more proof. So he dives again, this time to bring a whole rock back. The cable attached to the ship is pulled away at the last moment by Indrakant's man Bali (Pravesh Rana), but an empty suit turns up. A few seconds later Aryan surfaces, walking across the barely submerged bridge, carrying the stone on his shoulder. “Woh sea pe kaise chal raha hai?” asks Sandra (Jacqueline Fernandez), environmental scientist apparently.
The suit is sadly shelved for the third and final dive, with Aryan, Sandra and carbon dating expert Gabrielle piloting a submarine in a terrible storm, another of Bali’s not-suspicious-at-all ideas. Gabrielle, who doesn’t like Bali’s vibe, carries the stone with her—it's been revealed to date from about the time of Ram. Things go south, so very south. In the space of 10 chaotic minutes, they are saved by the stone (it floats), then by a deus ex machina tour guide played by Satya Dev, and finally by rebel fighters in a helicopter (there’s a civil war on in Sri Lanka).
Abhishek Sharma isn’t known for a particular kind of film—his past work includes Tere Bin Laden, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran and The Zoya Factor. But the presence of Chandraprakash Dwivedi in Ram Setu’s credits—as ‘creative producer’—seems significant. Earlier this year, Dwivedi wrote and directed the Akshay Kumar historical Samrat Prithviraj: a resounding failure. There is some kinship between that film’s vision of India as essentially a Hindu nation and Ram Setu’s more subtle assertion of the same. When Aryan (not exactly a name pulled out of a hat) argues that if we can protect the Qutab Minar—“a symbol of India’s defeat”—then we can protect Ram Setu, I was reminded that Dwivedi’s film ends with a note that Prithviraj’s death kicked off 755 years of Indian enslavement.
Can one ignore all this and enjoy Ram Setu as a fantastical adventure in the National Treasure mould? I suppose anything’s possible if you try hard enough. I haven’t even mentioned the final twist, which is so outrageous I’m ashamed to say I guessed it. One scene towards the end comes with its own fact-check, which is fitting. Because when you get down to it, Ram Setu didn’t really need to be a film. This could have been a WhatsApp forward.