Vikram Vedha is occasionally a director’s film. It is frequently one actor’s film. But above all it’s a screenwriter’s film. Pushkar-Gayathri adapt their own 2017 Tamil film of the same name; Benazir Ali Fida and Manoj Muntashir contribute Hindi dialogue. It’s the sort of script where one could say: shoot what’s on the page and you’re home. It’s an action film with the plotting of a whodunnit, as twisty and interlocking as The Usual Suspects was in its day.
From the start, you can sense the presence of a writer pulling the strings. A special unit of the Lucknow police is about to embark on a raid. Their leader, Vikram (Saif Ali Khan), greets them one by one on his way to kicking in the door and starting a gunfight with a group of gangsters. We learn a little about each through the skirmish and after—two brothers have just paid off their father’s long-standing loan, another has a fondness for sex workers. This kind of detailing is good writing period, but even more so when, deep into the film, the idle talk assumes a significance. Then we realize how little is wasted, how every joke, every gesture is bait to catch a larger fish.
Vikram and his team are ‘encounter’ cops, summarily executing gangsters in their efforts to catch the notorious Vedha (Hrithik Roshan), wanted for 16 murders, including a prominent MLA. In a witty sequence (a possible nod to Se7en), Vedha comes to them, surrendering himself at the station even as preparations to nab him are in full swing. He won’t speak to the others in the interrogation room, but when he’s finally across the table from Vikram, Vedha asks if he would like to hear a story.
This is, of course, a modern version of the Vikram-Betaal fairytales, stories told by a ghost to a king, all of which end in a moral dilemma. Vedha’s first story is about how he killed a higher-up when he was just a runner in a gang. The question he poses Vikram is: did he kill the man who ordered an attack on his younger brother, or the one who actually did the maiming? Vikram guesses correctly—he punished the one with the power, not the one carrying out commands. Vedha is then sprung from jail—one of his lawyers is Vikram’s wife, Priya (Radhika Apte). But the pattern has been established. Soon there’ll be another meeting, and another story.
It's been three years since Hrithik Roshan walked across a tarmac, transformed into a golden god by the ardor in Tiger Shroff’s eyes. His Vedha is a darker creature, unkempt, bushy beard, with a teasing tone and a casual brutality. Roshan is magnetic; it’s difficult to take your eyes off him, even if you’ve seen the excellent Vijay Sethupathi in the Tamil version. He's entirely at ease, now mocking Vikram, now pushing him to see things more clearly (Khan is adequate without being imposing). War had felt like a corner turned for Roshan, and his total command of the screen in Vikram Vedha bears this out.
One sequence, in the flashback of the first story, is especially beautiful. In a field with tall grass, Vedha and his men find the kidnappers they’ve been looking for. ‘Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe Ho Nisar’ plays on the radio, and the action matches its lackadaisical rhythms. Bodies fly in unhurried slow motion. It’s funny and somewhat abstract, a fight like a dream.
The other action scenes aren’t quite as good, but Pushkar-Gayathri and cinematographer P.S. Vinod have a useful rule of thumb—if you don’t have anything special to offer with your choreography or fight skills, keep the setting pretty. And so we get a sequence with Vedha and Vikram facing off in the pouring rain, boxed in by giant red containers, the (overenthusiastic) score veering towards spaghetti western. And a later shootout in an under-construction building, with the framing taking in the surroundings as much as the action. Or the climactic scene where the wild fancies of the plot are grounded by the drab practicality of a factory floor.
Does every bit of cleverness hold up? Maybe not. Priya being Vedha’s lawyer feels like an attempt to tie every possible thread together. Why don’t Vikram’s superiors intervene, even when he lets Vedha go free? Why does Abbas (Satyadeep Mishra), Vikram’s friend and fellow cop, have a change of heart? The central mystery—why Vedha gives himself up in the first place—holds less interest than seeing these two men, so good at their jobs that they’ve gotten rather bored of them, try and trip each other up.
Vikram Vedha chips away at the halo usually handed to the police in Hindi films. Vikram starts off believing he’s essentially doing the right thing as an encounter cop (“We are the good guys,” he tells his subordinate). But with every Vedha story, this conviction is rattled. It ends with cop and criminal staring each other down, mirror images, separated only by circumstance. Vikram says early on, “There’s only right or wrong, nothing in between.” By the end, it’s clear everything is in between, and right or wrong are just stories we tell to make ourselves feel better.