There are many ways to make masala movies. You can serve them straight up, the way Prabhu Dheva does. Or you can distance yourself and refract the whole thing through a po-mo prism, the way Anurag Kashyap did in his Gangs of Wasseypur diptych. But in Bullett Raja, Tigmanshu Dhulia is after something else altogether. He wants to make a “realistic” masala movie. This put-everything-in-a-blender genre of cinema derives from our myths, and is, therefore, inevitably the stuff of far-out fantasy – but here, Dhulia asks: “What if I rooted my story in the real world, in the midst of real issues? What if I want to stage, say, Haasil, with masala flourishes, making the everyman hero something of a superman?” This is not a bad idea. The masala movie is about the only kind of commercial Hindi cinema that acknowledges the world beyond the cities, and if you can invest that kind of story with the texture, the layers that a director like Dhulia brought to Paan Singh Tomar, then we could have the best of both worlds, a movie that appeals to the audience member who wants only to be entertained as well as the audience member who wants to be entertained sensibly.
The plot of Bullett Raja is pure masala – its narrative motor is revenge. The constituent elements are pure masala too. There’s a 40-plus hero (Raja Mishra, played by Saif Ali Khan) posing as a “young man,” still looking for employment. His family includes a younger sister who exists simply to be harassed by rowdies and thus provide her hero-brother just cause for flexing his muscles. And there’s his friend and sidekick Rudra (Jimmy Shergill) – as he puts it, the “Shashi Kapoor” to his Amitabh Bachchan. And this bromance is compared to the one in Sholay, speaking of which, the leader of a gang of dacoits requests a dance by Bipasha Basu, presumably a Mehbooba-like number. Then there’s the entirely expendable heroine (Mitali, played by Sonakshi Sinha), whose character, for a while, resembles that of Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, another bromance that had little use for a “heroine.” More masala reminders come from lines that carry the heft of myth – like the one where a villain says, “Isi roop mein lautenge aur pralay macha denge,” or when Raja says, “Brahman rootha to Raavan” – and from the action scene set around the cyclist going round in circles in a local competition, the way Manoj Kumar did so memorably in Shor, singing Jeevan chalne ka naam.
That’s the era of cinema that’s being referenced here, but there are aspects in Bullett Raja that are quite distant from that era of cinema. At the end of an action scene (nicely choreographed) at a construction site, the workers applaud as the hero bursts out of a pane of glass and walks away. (Along with that glass pane, it’s the fourth wall that’s broken here.) And instead of one extravagantly outsized villain like Gabbar Singh, Dhulia gives us a hierarchy of smaller-sized villains. There’s Lallan Tiwari (Chunky Pandey), who does some fourth-wall-breaking of his own by referring to a “filmi bandook,” the kind of gun in those earlier movies that kept pumping out bullets with no apparent need for reloading. Slightly higher up the ladder is a financier named Bajaj (Gulshan Grover), and above him we have Sumer Yadav (Ravi Kishan, in good form), who isn’t as powerful as Bajaj but commits the more heinous deed. And finally we have the shady politician Ram Babu, played by Raj Babbar. (And no, that’s not a spoiler. There’s no such thing as a “good politician” in these movies.)
New, too, is the label affixed to Raja and Rudra (even these names seem on the verge of making love) when they begin to carry out henchman-like assignments for Ram Babu. They’re not gundas, but “political commandos.” And the revenge plot kicks in because of the politics surrounding the lucrative opium fields in Uttar Pradesh. This is a more specific and low-key playing ground that the ones in the older masala movies, which unfolded in more melodramatic environments – and this specificity extends to the detailing of the characters and even the country. Raja isn’t just a generic “North Indian,” but a UP Brahmin, wearing the sacred thread. (Though the fact that this thread isn’t all that sacred is emphasised in an action scene where it is used as a garrotte.) Mitali is a Bengali, and she’s a migrant in UP like many others. Ram Babu says, “India is a country of migrants,” and when Rudra realises that the bellboy in a hotel in Mumbai is a Maharashtrian, he speaks of the number of Maharashtrians who have settled in UP.
The country (along with its masala cinema) has changed in other ways as well. The item song (performed by Mahi Gill; is this the only role she can find these days?) goes “Don’t touch my body,” and the backup dancers are all Caucasian. A “Word Power” dictionary is prominently featured in a scene just before the interval, and when Bajaj speaks in English, Sumer Yadav reprimands him, saying he’d prefer to speak in Hindi (he goes as far in the other direction as possible, using the word “vartalap”) – but eventually, he too ends up speaking in English. And there are excursions to metros like Mumbai and Kolkata. Dhulia emphasises the provincial nature of Raja and Rudra by showing us how scared they are when flying for the first time – and yet, they fit right into posh hotels and swank night clubs. (A film from the 1970s would have used these moments to stage fish-out-of-water scenarios around these bumpkins who find themselves in the city. At least in the movies, that species apparently doesn’t exist anymore.)
With so much that’s so fascinating at a conceptual level, it’s surprising how dull Bullett Raja is – and that’s because Dhulia, in his attempts to imbue his material with layers and texture, forgets what made those masala movies work in the first place. Those films had a moment-to-moment vitality. The characters, scenes, lines had punch. Maybe those films erred too much in that direction, and maybe they forgot to be anything outside the moment, but this was a realisation we had only later, when we thought about the film as we walked out. Inside the theatre, though, we were too entertained to notice that this wasn’t adding up or that wasn’t “realistic” or reflective of how India really was. Sholay doesn’t work because it is real but because it feels real, because the characters and their motivations are worked out in ways that draw us in – and without that emotional investment, what good is a masala movie?
We can overlook the secondary characters – say, the artist who wants to join Raja and Rudra but is advised to stick to his creative pursuits. The point, seemingly, is that the dynamic duo of Raja and Rudra has made such an impression on the youth of UP, and everyone wants to be them. (We don’t really sense this.) But how does this artist pick up a gun, later on, and land up at the exact spot where Raja needs him? Is this a reference to the older films where, sometimes, things just happened, and we weren’t supposed to think about how or why? But every film defines its own levels of plausibility, and given Dhulia’s detailing elsewhere, these lapses are frustrating. This artist’s journey should have been more convincingly plotted, and his turnaround should have packed a jolt. Sumer Yadav’s cross-dressing should have provided a lot more entertainment. Rudra’s anger upon losing a friend (who takes a bullet for him) should have exploded with more charge. But, as I said, these are minor characters, minor failings, easy enough to overlook.
The bigger problem is that Raja is so randomly written. It’s no sin for a character to be both serious and light at once, but how about giving us a scene or two showing how Raja made his peace with killing people for money? A fundamental pillar of the old masala movies is the moral uprightness of the hero, or else, as with the Bachchan characters, he was an antihero (though still possessing some sort of backstory as to how he came to be so) – but here, Raja is a murderer we’re supposed to root for simply because he is the central character. There’s nothing more to him. We’re meant to laugh when he delays a killing because he wants to break the existing record for shooting from a distance. (Unsurprisingly, in this pissing contest, Rudra ends up with the ruler and the measuring duties.) But later, after tragedy strikes, Dhulia gives us the visual of Raja passing by a street-side self-flagellator. That’s presumably how much he’s hurting. We don’t buy it for a minute.
And we don’t buy Saif Ali Khan. He looks drained. Raja’s scenes with Rudra are perfunctory, and his romance with Mitali is worse. An early exchange between Raja and Mahi Gill’s item girl – he asks her her name, and she asks what he’s going to do with it; he says no girl seems to stick around long enough, and she says she’s not there for a long-term commitment either – packs more heat than the entire love angle with Mitali. She’s given a ridiculous scene where Raja discovers she’s carrying a gun, and she says she’ll do whatever he says. But for that, she needs to be around. She just vanishes for long stretches. The only person at home in these proceedings is Vidyut Jamwal, in the Shatrughan Sinha/Vinod Khanna role of good-hearted opponent. He’s no actor and he’s too lightweight (and possibly too pretty) a presence, but he gets the film’s best masala moment, an action sequence amidst dacoits. In that stretch, we see what fun Bullett Raja could have been in the hands of a less ambitious filmmaker. You can’t advertise a film with a lurid and whistle-worthy tagline, Aayenge to garmi badhayenge, and then get all thesis-paper serious about it.
Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.