“Bhavesh Joshi Superhero” begins with brief images of the titular character fighting some goons before he is (quite easily) summoned by them. The film then proceeds to show its title, BHAVESH JOSHI, in a big bold red font. Peculiarly, the “Superhero” is missing. So, even before a line of dialogue is spoken, Vikramaditya Motwane’s film easily distinguishes itself from the Marvel, “Ra. One”, or “Krrish” superhero template for three different reasons. Firstly, the introduction of the film ends with the hero being beaten up. Secondly, the name of the film and its protagonist is Bhavesh Joshi – as ordinary a name a superhero can get. And, thirdly it shies away from lording the tag “superhero” in its opening title. The emphasis here, then, is clearly on Bhavesh Joshi, the completely unextraordinary middle-class man working to make his broken country a better place than it currently is. The characters are similarly modestly drawn, their intentions, however, are grandly realized, and Motwane expertly pitches the Mumbai world in which all this takes place somewhere in between – creating a hyper-realistic alternate version of Gotham (call it “Motham”) in which both the action and character dynamics feel in sync with each other.
The film’s strengths, however, evidently lie more when it deals with the ordinariness of its characters intentions than when it becomes more traditionally superhero-y. The first half of the film nicely sets up both the friendship and eventual conflict between the two wannabe vigilantes – Bhavesh (an extremely enthusiast, passionate Priyanshu Painyuli) and Siku (an earnest Harshvardhan Kapoor). The two friends have an innocent, almost naïve approach to wanting to make a change in India by starting a not-so-popular “Insaaf TV” that aims to correct the “crimes” that people commit in society. These crimes generally range from peeing on a public wall to breaking traffic signals, and Motwane, an expert at using songs in his films to convey the film’s narrative ideas, captures this part of the film brilliantly. The director uses a montage (intelligently switching between aspect ratios to also underline the integral role that social media can play in bringing about change) aided by Amit Trivedi’s infectious “Hum Hain Insaaf” to convey the enthusiasm and seriousness with which these characters take what may seem like a trivial thing to the general public. Here, the director also gives the audience brief moments in which we get to know where the two friends get their physical training for becoming adept at hand-to-hand combat, something that becomes integral to them in the second half of the film. This detailing in setting-up these characters is key to informing both the emotional and logical decisions and actions that Bhavesh and Siku take during the film. The impressive thing is that Motwane manages to do this without comprising the mood of the film.
With the help of cinematographer Siddharth Diwan, the director captures Mumbai in its gloomy, almost noir-like glory to create a sense of tension that permeates even in the more talky bits of the film. The consistently dark, and rainy atmosphere combined with the washed-out color palette consisting of pale blues, greys, and blacks almost gives even the daytime scenes in the film a “darker, edgier” quality. The DC-comic-book-film inspirations (thankfully, more from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy,”) become even more apparent in the way Motwane both decides to shoot most of his film during nighttime and the way in which he expertly uses the street lighting, and shadows to create a sense of brooding mystery. The terrific confrontational conversation between the friends in the film also takes place in a restaurant lit by faulty neon lights, which not only accentuates the tension between the characters but also helps maintain the film’s hyper-realistic atmosphere. This consistency in creating a place that feels both true to Mumbai’s roots and fictional enough to allow for a suspension of disbelief during some of the action sequences proves the most rewarding when the first action-set piece in the film takes place. There is no jarring shift from drama to action. In fact, this terrific crowd-pleasing pre-interval set piece is possibly the film’s dramatic high point, providing a gorgeous final image that looks like it is taken directly from a graphic novel.
The common curse of the second half, however, strikes “Bhavesh Joshi Superhero” considerably. The mechanics of the story appear thin, the supporting characters feel grossly underwritten, and the filmmaking begins to feel noticeable, as opposed to how it was in the first half – noticeably effective. Siku’s investigation of the corruptive system headed by the spectacularly unremarkable villain, Rana (Nishikant Kamat, given very little to work with) intercut with the vigilante’s training montage never captures the same level of urgency that his conflict with Bhavesh did. The goons, and more importantly, Siku’s trainer and other friend, Rajat (a spirited Ashish Verma), get very little screen time, and minimal character to make much of an impression. When these characters do make some valuable contributions to the plot of the film, their input feels contrived and convenient, as opposed to genuine, which again is a departure from how the character dynamics and actions function in the first half of the film.
The subtler problem that I have with second half of the film is that I started noticing how impressive the film feels and looks, as opposed to being immersed in them. The action scenes, in particular, are very impressively mounted, with a motorbike chase scene, and a messy hand-to-hand combat scene with some corrupt thugs making use of their confined environments extremely well. The approach by Diwan, and Motwane to use Steadicams and tripods to film the action, with emphasis on wide-shots, some impressive overhead shots, and thankfully, a sane number of edits, makes all these scenes look particularly stylish, lending them with a Zack Synder-ish graphic novel look. This approach combined with the excellent use of Mumbai’s unique railway locations and narrow lanes, especially, in the bike chase scene, lends an inventiveness and authenticity to these action sequences that is sorely lacking in mainstream Bollywood fare. But, these scenes also feel oddly empty, without any emotional or physical heft, adding very little to the actual story or emotional arc of the protagonist of the film.
Despite its inability to entirely deliver on the promise of its strong first half, “Bhavesh Joshi Superhero” still manages to represent a rare breed of a film that’s come out of the commercial Bollywood space. It’s a film that could have so easily taken the easier route – cast a proven actor, thrown in a bunch of action scenes rendered by CGI, and hooted so much about the “superhero” part that the “Bhavesh Joshi” would have vanished into the ether. Instead, to my great admiration, it chooses to be the complete opposite. Its reward – a dismal run at the box office, and a (possible) cult following.