“Bhavesh Joshi – Superhero”… A sombre not-quite-superhero tale whose flaws don’t make it any less fascinating

Posted on June 5, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

One half of the title of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi – Superhero is true: the protagonist, a masked crime-fighter, does call himself Bhavesh Joshi. The other part, however, is debatable — for this hero is anything but super. In his first mission, he engineers an explosion and while the clock is ticking, he remains frozen, as though unsure what next. His face is hidden behind a mask, so it could be anything from “Now, how do I flee?” to “OMG, what have I just done?” A few seconds later, we get the triumphant image of this hero silhouetted against flames twice his height, but he’s still not a god. Note the sudden change of accent when he addresses the man he’s just beaten up. The so-far neutral Hindi is now salted with a tapori tang. He’s not just a Mumbai superhero, he’s a local superhero. His “superpowers” are equally commonplace, like the ability, in a later scene, to scour a house for a weapon and emerge with a pair of… kitchen tongs. Is this Marvel or Masterchef?

The fight that follows, in an upper-floor flat, is a beauty — the fluidly un-choreographed moves suggest that the action director’s brief was to imagine Salman Khan performing Swan Lake. Bhavesh Joshi stumbles. He falls. He doesn’t anticipate that more men will land up, and he’s ill-equipped to fend them off. He sees some cables dangling outside the apartment, and he thinks he can swing over to safety — but unlike comics, real life has to contend with gravity. Some level of incompetence is usually par for the course in a superhero’s first outings, but in Bhavesh Joshi (written by Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Koranne), the hero keeps struggling, keeps making mistakes. He forgets about CCTV cameras. His turbo-bike refuses to cooperate at a crucial moment. The general question in a superhero movie is how the superhero will stop the villains. Here, it’s whether he’ll stop them.

The affably Clark Kent-ish Harshvardhan Kapoor plays this would-be superman. Say what you will about his acting (a howl of existential rage and despair, both at once, comes off more like he was late to Karan Johar’s birthday bash and couldn’t find an Uber), this is the second straight time he’s picked a high-concept project on the fringe of the mainstream. What Mirzya did with the love story, Bhavesh Joshi does with the superhero movie. It’s not for all tastes, and it’s not always successful, but the experimental rigour is fascinating. This is, in many ways, an anti-superhero movie, one that keeps questioning, at every point, how reasonable is it to expect one man, one very ordinary man, to take on the onus of wiping out crime. At least in terms of this ordinariness, the leading man fits right in. There’s nothing remarkable about him, and that’s the point.

His extraordinarily mythical given name, therefore, is a knowing joke: it’s Sikandar. You could take it to mean, as the word does, “defender of humanity,” as applied to Alexander. Or you could recall a larger-than-life screen myth, like Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Muqaddar ka Sikandar. This Sikandar, though, admits, “Main jaanta hoon main hero nahin hoon.” (I know I am not a hero.) Worse, the name is shortened to Siku, neutering its power even more. The alias Sikandar adopts, too, is far from heroic. Think about it for a second: Bhavesh Joshi! It’s a name you’d find on the electoral list of Malad. This commonness pervades everything from his mask (looks like a bike helmet with a frown emoji; call him The Incredible Sulk) to his hideout (a pitifully low-tech lair). Rather than wondering how a superhero manufactures a web or manages to fly, Motwane asks, with a wink, “How does a masked avenger have a cup of tea?” But this is no Deadpool. It’s not mocking. It’s just a wink.

One of the funniest scenes in Bhavesh Joshi has an indignant do-gooder in a cab asking the driver to reverse the vehicle because he crossed a red light. The mess that ensues punctures a nice-sized hole in the holier-than-thou attitude of people who wear their social consciousness like a virtue, but it also shows that we have to keep going, despite the occasional embarrassing failure. This is superhero vigilantism redefined as a form of grassroots activism. It’s hard, thankless work: you’re, basically, NGO-Man. And there’s no need to wait for Uncle Ben to die because inciting incidents are all around us. The vigilante work is actually begun by Sikandar’s friend (Priyanshu Painyuli, who takes you deep into his frustration with the state of affairs), continued by Sikandar, and then — in a way — by another friend, Rajat (Ashish Verma). One man can’t do it all, Motwane says. At best, we can do our bit, but others have to chip in — not just in Mumbai but around the country. One Bhavesh Joshi isn’t enough. You need a Gurmeet Chadha, a Karthik Sundaram, a Bikram Sengupta…

To coin a label, then, Bhavesh Joshi is a neo-superhero movie, the way Chinatown is referred to as neo-noir. Where older noir films were filled with dramatic lighting and gun-toting gangsters, Roman Polanski’s masterwork pared down the stylistic flourishes and concerned itself with something as mundane as water scarcity. (In an homage, Sikandar ends up with a bandaged nose, like the Jack Nicholson character.) Bhavesh Joshi, likewise, distances itself from the traditional concerns of the superhero movie, and focuses on the manufactured water scarcity in a Mumbai suburb. This isn’t about saving the planet. It’s about washing your ass. This rootedness, both in terms of social issue and Mumbai-centricity, brought to mind another Joshi from an angrier filmmaking era. The protagonist of Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! took refuge in the law. The protagonist of Bhavesh Joshi takes the law into his own hands.

These films share a sense of both forward motion and futility. They exist midway between “Nothing can be done” and “But if everyone thinks this way, if we don’t step up to protect our interests, then what’s going to happen to us!” Under the facade of a superhero movie, Bhavesh Joshi can be seen as an extension of 1980s parallel cinema, filled with life-sized angry young men with life-sized names like Albert Pinto. The life-sized dimensions make you see the other side of being a saviour. You cannot have relationships. You may not be able to prevent the bomb from going off, even in the final stretches. Your actions are going to result in collateral damage, like we see in the scene of a havaldar’s funeral, with his wife and children standing by. Siddharth Diwan’s cinematography furthers this sense of nihilism. This Mumbai is drenched in shadows and the sickly yellow of streetlights. There’s not a happy colour in sight. The rare occasion the film surfaces to the light, it isn’t during an optimistic morning but in the dying rays of the sun, a “doobta hua suraj.”

There are, thus, uncomfortable tone shifts when Bhavesh Joshi tries to become the other, more traditional kind of superhero movie, with a training montage and an imaginatively conceived bike chase that reflects the Mumbai spirit by using the local trains — but Motwane, to his credit, keeps pulling back. The action is mostly garden-variety karate and parkour, not some near-mystical sacred art, like the one the Liam Neeson character demonstrated in Batman Begins. Even when Bhavesh Joshi sets out on his final mission, Amit Trivedi downplays the strap-yourself-in-for-the-big-climax triumphalism – the deep cello tones and high violins make you fear more for the hero’s safety than the villain’s. The latter is played by a dry Nishikant Kamat, who gets to spout a tone-deaf speech about Icarus. That’s too… mythological for this movie, which is closer in spirit to Rang De Basanti or Yuva, in its very practical emphasis that you cannot hope to solve this country’s problems by running away to the US, and instead of whining about how dirty everything is, just pick up a broom and start sweeping.

Bhavesh Joshi is a sobering superhero movie, and perhaps it shouldn’t have had that last word in its title. It makes you expect something more familiar, a film where the death of a beloved character induces more primal cries of grief instead of an internalised resolve to pick up the baton and soldier on. The film isn’t perfect (though the filmmaking is, right from careful infusion of the colour red into the frames). The girlfriend character is awkwardly shoehorned into the proceedings. The masala moment at a stoplight (which harks back to that internalised resolve) is absolutely superb, but it belongs in a different movie. The occasional bouts of purple dialogue (like one about “parivartan ki lehar,” wave of change) made me wince. But I bought the film’s be-the-change sincerity.

There’s a sense of portent in the writing — whether at the beginning (which shows a bit of the end, and then segues into a chat between friends) or when Sikandar, in the police station, bumps into an old man his friend has been speaking to (and whose cause he will pick up). This isn’t just shoulders colliding but worlds. The mythical final image may be a mistake — again, a nod to the kind of superhero movie this isn’t. But I walked away recalling Bhavesh Joshi’s smaller achievements, the more doable changes that can become the building blocks of a great city, or country. A corrupt cop doesn’t transform into a remorseful crusader — merely into a man whose humanity has been nudged awake. He doesn’t become entirely uncorrupt, but even a lessening of levels of corruption is a small win. Even better is the white-collar corporate seat-warmer who draws up listicles for a living. He moves from “21 Ways to Be Like Ranveer Singh” to “10 Ways to Change Your Life.” As I said, Bhavesh Joshi doesn’t save the world. He saves a few souls around him, and that’s super enough to be considered a hero.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi