The Macbeth quote, a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, could have been coined for Karan Malhotra’s cinema. As with his earlier Agneepath, his new film Brothers is immaculately mounted – some of the frames could be hung in the living room of the Dil Dhadakne Do family. But there’s a big hollow at the centre. We don’t feel that the things the characters do come from deep inside – their motivation is simply “the screenplay told me so.” Take Gary Fernandes (Jackie Shroff). When we first see him, he’s in prison. His back is towards us, and he seems to be chipping away at a wall. Then the camera pulls back and we see it’s a giant cross. It’s a breathtakingly operatic reveal, but nowhere in the film do we see what religion means to Gary. Yes, he’s got crucifix tattoos all over him, and he’s seen walking in and out of church – but all this tells us is: “he’s religious.” But surely that Gothic prison shot demands more of a payoff. It’s like showing the Niagara Falls to suggest the man likes to take a shower.
This bigness is everywhere – but it’s only on the surface. Brothers is a remake of the Hollywood drama Warrior, which I haven’t seen, but the film also reminded me of the Deol-family boxing movie Apne – only, the “sport” in this case is mixed martial arts (MMA). As in Apne, Brothers deals with a sportsman-father and his two sons – a distant older one (Akshay Kumar’s David) and a puppyish, eager-to-please younger one (Sidharth Malhotra’s Monty) – but the older film led us into the head of the father. He was a silver medallist at the Olympics, but he lost it all when framed under doping charges. So he drives his sons to fulfil his unrealised dreams. Gary has none of that specificity, that prickliness. He’s a collection of character traits – a drunk, an adulterer, a remorse-filled lost soul – that never cohere into a character. We’re given a number of reasons to care for Gary, but those reasons remain in the head – they never enter the heart.
I think the problem is Malhotra’s tendency to aestheticise suffering. He’s part of a small group in Bollywood that includes Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Mohit Suri – the scale may vary in their productions, but what unites them is their commitment to melodrama as a genre and not just a setting in the film’s emotion-meter. They’re “old-fashioned” filmmakers, in a way – and I mean this as a compliment. You find in Brothers things you don’t usually see in Hindi cinema anymore – like the “symbolism” in the scene where Gary visits David and things go horribly wrong, and Gary’s disappointment is scrunched into a shot of his shoes trampling over the flowers he brought along for the occasion. Younger viewers may roll their eyes and laugh, but this red-flag-waving fearlessness in the face of sentimentality is the very essence of the older arts like the opera (and older Indian cinema). The flower-crunching moment itself isn’t wrong, but Malhotra’s lingering on it is. He’s a slo-mo filmmaker. He wants to draw our attention to his aesthetics, but melodrama means you also have to rub the audience’s face in the mud. He’s too classy for that.
None of the big emotions work. When Gary gets out of prison, Monty is an aspiring fighter. He’s got the basics, but something’s lacking – he needs to channelize his anger. But all we see is sullenness. This may be partly due to Sidharth Malhotra’s performance – his idea of acting is to mimic a very good-looking deer caught in the headlights. But instead of showing us Monty’s gradual transformation, we slip into gauzy flashbacks (Jackie looks like a dissolute rock star in these portions) that tell us why this anger came to be. Like everything else in the film, it all makes sense if we connect the dots in our head, but we feel nothing – and what’s melodrama without feeling? Scenes that should make us weep – the one where Gary sets eyes on his granddaughter for the first time; the one where Gary prays for David’s success in the MMA tournament, despite being on Monty’s side (both brothers are participants) – leave us dry-eyed. What a waste of a handkerchief.
Malhotra tries to frame this brother-versus-brother conflict in terms of the Mahabharata, but that, again, is just bigness for the sake of bigness. If you really want to invoke the epic, you make something like Deewar, which isn’t just about brother versus brother, but about a brother on the side of Good versus a brother on the other side. There’s another hitch – the friction between this Hindu epic and the film’s explicitly Christian background. It’s like the dissonance between the chaste poetry in the songs (Sapna jahan dastak na de, or Sooraj tera gardish mein hai) and the casual dialogues. (Gary, upon release from prison: David nahin aaya? Monty: Main aaya kaafi nahin tere ko?) These little things matter. We’re not immersed in a world as fully realised as the ones in, say, Julie or Bobby. Even the freeze-frame end looks like a splice-in from some other film, a less sentimental one.
One feels a twinge about picking on a movie made with so much craft and care, by a director who errs on the side of too much in the midst of many who do too little, but strip away the pretty wallpaper and you’ll see how generic Brothers is – with a generic mother (Shefali Shah, who weeps wonderfully), a generic wife (Jacqueline Fernandez), and a gobsmackingly generic item number by Kareena Kapoor. Even the opponents in the MMA rounds are generic – beefy caricatures bearing names like The Great Luca, which sounds like a villain from an unfinished Subhash Ghai screenplay from the 1980s. But despite some dreadful commentary from Raj Zutshi, the tournament portions work. The fights are tightly shot and edited, and the action is convincingly choreographed. And Akshay Kumar keeps us watching. He’s physically right, of course, but even as an actor, he brings to mind the down-on-their-luck protagonists of dime-store novels like A Stone For Danny Fisher, whose plot outline has a lot in common with this story. His final fight carries the kind of emotional charge the rest of the film should have had. At last, that handkerchief saw some use.
- Agneepath= see here
- Dil Dhadakne Do = see here
- Warrior = see here
- Apne = see here
- A Stone For Danny Fisher = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.