“Shivaay”… Some terrific action, but punishingly long

Posted on October 30, 2016

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Spoilers ahead…

Within its first few minutes, Shivaay makes a strong case for its existence. We see the eponymous hero (Ajay Devgn, who also directed), a mountaineer who escorts tourists on treks, driving a jeep. Beside him is Olga (Erika Kaar), a Bulgarian client. Not knowing that she understands Hindi, Shivaay decides to pay her a compliment: “Aasmaan ke rang aankhon mein liye utari hai yeh videshi apsara.” Shah Rukh Khan would imbue this line with the sense that he was hitting on each word – by the time he was done, the period would be blushing. Devgn sounds like he’s reading out the annual report of a public sector bank. Shivaay is modelled on Taken, and the Liam Neeson way is a good way to go when you can’t pretend to be interested in love stories anymore, and are too old to keep grinning at Tusshar Kapoor’s pratfalls in the latest Golmaal instalment.

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Shivaay is an ambitious film. The central dynamic between father and daughter can be established in many ways. You could – for instance – open the film with a father and daughter, and maybe weave in a backstory about the mother. Devgn, though, stages an elaborate subplot. He gives us Shivaay falling in love with Olga, whose presence in his life is determined by the date on her visa. When Olga gets pregnant, we get heated arguments about having the baby, which could make a whole movie. This isn’t just about one’s readiness to be a parent. This is about who’s going to drive the child to piano lessons when the father is in the Himalayas and the mother is back in Sofia. Is this too much emotion for what the trailer sold as an action movie? Perhaps. But these developments give us emotional purchase. We see how hard Shivaay fought for this child, and we know how much harder he’s going to fight to get her back once she is kidnapped.

There’s another reason for all this drama. Devgn wants to deliver not just a Hollywood-style thriller, but a thriller that looks like it was made in Hollywood. When the little girl (Gaura, played by the terrific Abigail Eames) learns that her mother lives in Bulgaria, she insists on meeting her. That’s where she ends up being, well, taken. And this allows Devgn and his cinematographer Aseem Bajaj to steer clear from the warm colours of India. The film’s look is chilly, a menthol blue. Bajaj does career-best work here. Any man with a camera can manufacture beauty from mountainside settings, but Bajaj does something we rarely see in our cinema. He shoots action in a way that makes us hold on to our seats. When Shivaay commandeers a taxi by crashing through its windshield, we feel like we’re speeding alongside. We want to swerve to safety. The first big action set piece is spectacular and relentless. It keeps going on and on, and just when we think it’s over, it goes on some more.

Unfortunately, so does the film. It runs a numbing three hours, with increasingly laughable characters. (Especially the bad guys. Among Shivaay’s shorthand for the depth of human behaviour is a passion for opera.) Thrillers need to be tight, focused – and Devgn keeps slowing the film down for sentimental stretches. But then, the Hollywood leading man doesn’t face the compulsions that drive his Indian counterpart. Neeson can just be a hero. Devgn has to display heroism. Shivaay is some sort of holy trinity all by himself – god, superhero, and father of the millennium. An Indian woman (Sayesha Saigal) who helps Shivaay in Sofia is saddled with a father (Girish Karnad), just so that he can tell her (and the audience) what it is like to have a daughter. Neeson’s journey felt like a single-minded mission. Devgn’s feels like a righteous crusade. Devgn doesn’t just save his daughter, but the daughters of many other fathers, when he liberates women held captive by the villain. The latter’s end comes not with a gunshot but through an icicle shaped like a trident.

There’s no rule that says you can’t overlay a Hollywood narrative with mythical overtones (Bolo har har background chants; larger-than-life references to oneself in the third person, as in “Shivaay Himalay ke siva kahin aur nahin reh paayega”). But you cannot expect an audience to care about the tenth drawn-out car chase as much as they did about the first, especially when they catch you preening in the rear-view mirror. Among the many narcissistic touches: European women looking at Shivaay and sighing, “He’s so hot and sexy.” The most unforgivable portions come at the end, when we think it’s all over. Olga entices Gaura to stay back with a roomful of stuffed toys. Her new husband tops this by giving Gaura a puppy. Devgn walks around with the look of a man who wants the audience to remember he’s not just an action star but a two-time National Award™-winning actor as well. Neeson, given these scenes, would have driven a piton through his eye.

KEY:

  • “Aasmaan ke rang aankhon mein liye utari hai yeh videshi apsara.” = This foreign goddess has the colour of the skies in her eyes.
  • Golmaal = see here; and here
  • Shivaay Himalay ke siva kahin aur nahin reh paayega = Shivaay can live only in the Himalayas.

Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi