It’s been so long since a plate of deep-fried Bollywood was served up in theatres that I was worried I might have forgotten how these things went. But it all came back: the hopeful glance at the runtime at the start; the baffling notes scribbled in the dark (‘KM prints inled in rots?’); counting the minutes to the interval so one can buy obscenely priced coffee. It’s like riding a bicycle. Into a tree.
In Rohit Shetty’s last film, Simmba (2018), inspector Sangram (Ranveer Singh) got some last-minute help from Singham, the hardnosed cop played by Ajay Devgn in two earlier Shetty films. It ended with a promise of a copverse—not a bad idea, since it’s easy to imagine characters wandering from one Shetty production into another—and the introduction of a third enforcer in khakhi in his next, Sooryavanshi. The film was supposed to open last year, but has held out till now, perhaps realizing its destiny as a barometer of audience willingness to return to theatres to watch things blow up in slow motion for two-and-a-half hours.
After executing the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993, Bilal (Kumud Mishra) and Riaaz (Abhimanyu Singh) escape to Pakistan, where they are met by Riaaz’s father, Omar Hafeez (Jackie Shroff), mastermind of the attack. We see snippets of other terrorist acts on Indian soil, all planned by him. His latest plan is to activate 40 Lashkar sleeper agents , who will use the leftover 600kg of RDX from ‘93 to decimate Mumbai. Standing in his way is supercop Veer Sooryavanshi (Akshay Kumar), whose helicopter work is a little worse than Ethan Hunt's and parenting a little better than Mrs Bates.
Singh made Simmba his playground, carrying the film until it became too heavy. With him as the joker and Devgn as the macho taciturn type, Kumar is left to occupy a somewhat boring middle ground: serious for the most part, comic relief when he mixes up people’s names. As a physical presence he’s as lithe and coiled as ever, but otherwise he’s a bland savior. The antagonists have more personality—which brings its own problems.
The sleeper agents are, of course, Muslim, something the film reminds us of constantly. At the start of the film, Jaaved Jaaferi’s veteran cop warns the force to be alert, saying, “They could be anyone—your employee, your building’s watchman.” This sort of statement—encouraging a largely Hindu police force to view any Muslim-seeming person with suspicion—is perilously close to fearmongering. The film’s argument seems to be that they’re depicting terrorists and that religion is incidental. But religion is a huge part of the antagonists’ portrayal—there’s a rabble-rousing maulvi, a garage full of scary-looking men in skullcaps, all of whom pray and reference god a lot (when Soorya says “Allah hafiz”, it sounds less than sincere). The cops just happen to be Hindu, the terrorists are inescapably Muslim.
These decisions colour the film’s blundering attempts at evenhandedness. Bilal is given a sliver of a backstory; his parents were burnt alive in the ‘92 Mumbai riots. But his ‘revenge’, and Omar Hafeez’s similar grudge, are compared explicitly to Sooryavanshi’s restraint: his parents were killed in the blasts but he has moved past all that. The film plays Good Muslim Bad Muslim in a scene where the maulvi laments the state of his community in India and Soorya counters by talking up the cops standing next to him, a Muslim father and son. “We hate Kasab but we love Kalam,” he says, in case someone wasn't getting the subtle metaphorizing.
The onus on Indian Muslims to be Kalams, to be a credit to their community, is there even in the film’s big show of national unity. A temple and a mosque are simultaneously starting prayers when the police announce a bomb threat. The Muslim devotees help evacuate a Ganesh idol as Chhodo Kal Ki Batein plays on the soundtrack, with its refrain of “hum Hindustani” (we’re Indians).
Singham and Simmba crash the party late, but Singh’s clowning in those few scenes is a reminder of the fun that’s missing from the rest of the film. Even the reworking of Tip Tip Barsa Paani with Katrina Kaif and Kumar packs only a small fraction of the original’s heat. The last 20 minutes is a mess of bombs, guns, rocket launchers, airborne vehicles and summary executions, which is to say it’s a Rohit Shetty film. A return is promised. Just what Hindi cinema needs—more cops, more terrorists.