Brahmastra has been in development longer than the careers of many celebrities. Despite being officially announced in 2017, the film has been in the works as early as 2014. Over 5 years of filming that includes production shutdowns from two COVID-induced lockdowns, the promise of something new in Bollywood and a humungous ₹410 crore ($51 million) production budget coupled with multiple delayed releases and an extensive marketing campaign kept the movie circulating in public eye as well as news cycles. Of course, that sort of weight brings in massive expectations and consequently, a sterner judgment on part of critics and audiences. And while Brahmastra delivers on the spectacle and ambition it promised, it suffers from a serious lack of imaginative writing and dialogues that hold it back from becoming a truly groundbreaking Bollywood movie.
Ancient sages are rewarded for their meditation with divine powers or astras, each holding a unique ability. The deadliest of them all, the Brahmastra, has the potential to be both, a force for good or cataclysmic evil, depending on which side it falls on. Through centuries, the sages vow to safeguard it and their own astras, passing them down from generation to generation, until an evil awakens with the intent to wield it for ultimate power. In a fight between two astras, the Brahmastra is splintered into three pieces, each held safe with prominent individuals. 30 years later, in present-day India, our protagonist Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) sees visions of the evil, Junoon (Mouni Roy) attempting to seize the broken pieces and reunite them in hopes of unleashing the destructive power of the Brahmastra.
Director and writer Ayan Mukerjee (Wake Up Sid, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) borrows heavily from western literature and Hollwood, a fact he does not shy away in the behind the scenes featurettes. The film itself is heavily Marvel-ized; commencing quickly without the typical promotional acknowledgment slides and reserving the obligatory credits for the end, accompanied by pieces of concept art, an elaborate end-title sequence as well as a mid-credits scene. Whether its the Scarlet Witch inspired look of Mouni Roy’s Junoon, the uncanny similarities between Brahmastra‘s 3-piece and Justice League‘s three Mother Boxes, the Terminator-esque relentless of a Bond-movie style car chase, or the X-Men like sanctuary of the Brahmans, inspirations are clear to behold. The depiction of the astras seeks inspiration from the Infinity Stones, the effects look to Harry Potter’s dazzling spells for influence and the Brahmans are a direct tribute to the Illuminati, a secret society of influential people guarding ancient secrets, that counted such powerful people as George Washington as its members.
Despite that, it all comes together beautifully as a cohesive, original whole. That’s where Ayan draws a line between inspiration and downright rip-off. Nothing is copied or lifted from anywhere; the name AstraVerse may be a direct homage to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or other shared universes, but everything feels fresh as Mukerjee spins out an original tale rooted in Indian mythology. This blending of different influences creates what is undeniably an unseen, unheard story in Indian cinema and makes for compelling possibilities. Add Amitabh Bachchan’s narration with his legendary voice to open the movie and you’ve got the trappings of something epic.
Where Brahmastra falters severely is in its quality of writing, something that has often plagued commercial cinema in Bollywood. Too much emphasis is laid on the one-note hackneyed love story of real-life couple and leads Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt which comes across as forced, stalky and dated. It’s borderline unrealistic and extremely cringe and the amount of screen time it gets bogs down the promising central conflict. The 5-minute prologue laying out the origins of the astras is infinitely more interesting than this horrid affair. Brahmastra also suffers from poor, juvenile dialogue throughout, with not one quotable line. Hussain Dalal goes overboard with childish insults and you’ll shudder with horror seeing a superstar mouth such lines in the action-packed opening sequence.
The screenplay ebbs and flows inconsistently. The good parts with action and emphasis on the history of the astras elevate Brahmastra to the heights of the Himalayas. The bad parts frequently intercut and ruin or slow the film in their bid for forced humour (which falls completely flat on its face). And despite the sturdy star-power and special appearances, any characterization is non-existent, leaving you with actors delivering their lines and serving as plot devices, saying or doing what the story needs them to. This makes it harder to connect with or root for anyone at the end, leaving you admiring the spectacle. A lot of it stems from inappropriate focus. For instance, I was particularly stoked to see the 30-year backstory of how the Brahmastra ended up being shattered into three separate pieces. And while Mr. Bachchan’s narration and the accompanying sequences do it justice, I suppose the details are being saved for a sequel. That said, having it be a core part of the narrative with the romantic subplot trimmed would’ve added a significant heft to the overarching storyline.
For what it’s worth, Brahmastra certainly delivers on the spectacle and remains a technically astounding film. Visual effects companies DNEG, Redefine and Prime Focus (also onboard as a producer) do a solid, commendable job of infusing every VFX-driven frame with the needed energy. Indian films almost always have a few bad VFX shots that can be called out but I can happily say I spotted none in Brahmastra. Despite employing as many as five cinematographers, the movie largely maintains a consistently vivid look; it doesn’t aspire for any particularly ambitious shots but captures the action and energy in a way that just works. The long runtime doesn’t help the lagging story as well and editor Prakash Kurup could have probably trimmed it down by another 20 minutes or so to get it to an under 150-minute runtime.
While it’s produced and marketed like a Hollywood movie, the unfortunate song-and-dance that’s so vital to Bollywood’s DNA remains an integral part of the film. It’s good that we just have three songs though, which are all good and original. Deva Deva holds the most promise and also accompanies the film in certain scenes, doubling up as Shiva’s secondary theme. Speaking of which, the background score by Simon Franglen is magnificent. The chants and chorus complement the VFX amazingly well, lending an epic feel to many sequences that involve Shiva unleashing his powers. For context, Franglen has assisted Hans Zimmer in scoring Spectre and The Amazing Spider-Man and is the lead composer for the upcoming Avatar sequels. Franglen also comes up with a central recurring theme for the movie that we heard a lot in the trailers and promotional material. I genuinely hope Dharma Productions releases Franglen’s original score for streaming as its own album.
The lack of characterization means a lot of actors and performances are simply monotonous or wasted. Ranbir Kapoor hits the right notes as Shiva, essentially playing the happy-go-lucky archetype hero – orphaned, caring, carefree, supports an orphanage, falls in love at first sight, destined for greatness, etc. Alia Bhatt does nothing more but be by Kapoor’s side, like Parvati (literally explained in the movie), which is disappointing after seeing her tackle much challenging roles in Darlings and Highway. Amitabh Bachchan is largely wasted, save for his gritty voice which adds a Morgan Freeman like weight to the film’s voiceovers. Nagarjuna on the other hand, does well in his limited role, delivering some much needed impact. Dimple Kapadia is the real “cameo” here, with a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance to cash-in on her Hollywood “stardom” with Tenet.
Speaking of cameos *spoilers in this section*, it’s a pleasure seeing Shah Rukh Khan return to action with parkour-esque fight sequences and a neat Swades tie-in, but hamfisted dialogue mars his cameo’s impact. And I’m sure we saw Deepika Padukone playing Kapoor’s mother Amrita a.k.a the Jal Devi, wielding the power of the Jalastra. Which means hubby Ranveer Singh shouldn’t be far behind; while not officially released, it seems like a near certainty that it was him playing Dev, Kapoor’s father, whose lust for the Brahmastra‘s power drew the couple into an epic conflict that didn’t end so well. If that was him indeed, it’s certainly a missed opportunity not revealing his face. *spoilers end*.
At its core, Brahmastra presents an original story ripe for potential, alongside some powerful spectacle aided by a strong background score. With some good writing, stronger well-rounded characters, tighter editing and a deeper dive into the promising world of the astras, it could have been a legit game-changer. Despite its flaws, Brahmastra remains an entertaining movie that’s worth seeing on IMAX. And despite some horrendous dialogues and an insufferable love story, I’d still recommend movie afficionados to check it out and rate it accordingly. And I sincerely hope that Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva succeeds giving Ayan the confidence to complete his vision and wrap up his trilogy while inspiring other directors to come up with similar big-budget adaptations, much like The Lord of the Rings birthed, inspired and set the tone for fantasy filmmaking in Hollywood. We’re living in a world where star power needs to be supplanted by characters and cinematic universes. Hollywood is onboard the journey, it’s time the Indian film industry embraced it as well.