Bholaa review: Ajay Devgn’s ‘blockbuster’ formula leaves little room for invention

Bholaa review: Ajay Devgn’s ‘blockbuster’ formula leaves little room for invention

It takes a special kind of film to be able to cast a talented actress like Tabu and reduce her to a mere spectator in her own movie. It’s not enough that you ‘flip’ the gender of a character earlier played by a man (Narain in the original, Kaithi), you also have to rewrite the part to make it less-passive and give the actor something to do.

Barring a set-piece at the beginning, which one imagines Ajay Devgn describing as a ‘high-octane chase sequence’ in his pitch to Tabu, she looks on with fear, helplessness, trash-talks the protagonist, and sheds a tear for him during the rest of the film. It’s the kind of ‘old school’ role we had hoped Tabu had left behind, and one that makes you grateful for Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan — a film wherein he recognizes the fatigue around him being in the spotlight in every scene, so he cedes the stage to Deepika Padukone every now and then.

A vehicle for Devgn’s slow-motion macho routine

It surely makes you wonder about the legacy that Ajay Devgn, as a star, has left behind. Like Akshay Kumar, Devgn has been a rigid, traditional male superstar in most films — wherein the plots revolve around his pursuit of justice, his desire for revenge, his grief, and his ability to crack jokes with his trademark deadpan. It’s all about him. Compare this to a scene in Pathaan, where Padukone single-handedly takes on a room full of bad guys as Khan watches in admiration. Devgn’s stardom is so tightly bound to his alpha masculinity that there seems to be little room for anything else.

It takes a special kind of film to be able to cast a talented actress like Tabu and reduce her to a mere spectator in her own movie.

Bholaa is yet another star-vehicle for Ajay Devgn’s slow-motion macho routine. With Devgn also directing the film apart from being its centre-piece, there appears to be little room for invention in a film stacked with one set-piece after another. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing — like we saw in last week’s release John Wick: Chapter 4.

Also read: John Wick Chapter 4 review: Keanu Reeves kills and thrills in this grand action spectacle

I’m not saying action films need to have something to say, but even in a thinly plotted movie like John Wick, the makers find the time to philosophise about a man challenging status-quo, a man grieving his wife, his dog and infuse just about enough emotion about loyalty and honour between two friends. On the other hand, Bholaa rests its entire emotional quotient on our protagonist setting out to see his daughter at an orphanage. The track is clunkily woven into a film that seems to have a machete in its place of a heart, and the softness, therefore, feels like an abrupt interruption for the rest of the film.

Deepak Dobriyal shines in limited role

The premise is simple enough — as it should be in good action movies. The cops, led by Tabu, have confiscated cocaine worth Rs 1,000 crore somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, and they’ve stored it under a colonial-era prison facility. In the midst of corrupt law enforcement officials, it’s only a matter of time when the local goons track down the consignment.

Tabu’s team needs to hold onto the contraband through the night before announcing it to their superiors and the world. Throw into this a few turncoats, an undercover cop working within the cartel, and, of course, our man from nowhere, whose face we only see properly only in the fourth scene after being fed with close-ups of him until then. The classic ‘man from nowhere,’ who, when he strides across a room, people whisper about his legends with a mix of awe and reverence in their voice.

Deepak Dobriyal — arguably one of the most underutilized actors in Hindi cinema today — is given another thankless role. Playing the role of Ashwathama — the second in command in the drug cartel — Dobriyal has a standout moment when he’s called away from an item-song, where a young actor is subjecting herself to the indignity of gyrating to a garish Kanika Kapoor number. As he’s informed that the consignment has been caught, the music briefly stops, and he glares at the man responsible for the mess.

Bholaa is yet another star-vehicle for Ajay Devgn’s slow-motion macho routine.

Also read: Family review: A sinister portrait of Kerala’s Christian community’s moral decay

Suddenly, the music resumes, and Ashwathama gyrates like the young woman did, and stabs the culprit in front of him, quickly and incessantly. It’s a fine masala moment, and this is the closest the film ever comes to being inventive. For the remainder of the film, Dobriyal plays the volatile henchman, who snorts coke with a long nail on his pinky finger, displaying the subtlety of a Subhash Ghai ‘villain’ from the ‘90s.

The lack of self-awareness

If not for all the real estate occupied by its ‘star’, Bholaa could have made for a decent action film. The original film it is based on, Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi (2019), was at least cognisant of the inherent silliness of the action film genre. The self-awareness is vital in such films, but Bholaa lacks it, and as a result, the film broods from beginning to end. The self-serious filmmaking makes the viewer look for ‘realism’ in gravity-defying action stunts or, at the very least, a sense of plausibility that can anchor the experience.

One of the most agonising shortcomings of Ajay Devgn’s Bholaa is that there seems to be no stakes involved in the film at all. It doesn’t matter when 70 people surround Ajay Devgn, we know he’s going to kill them all. It doesn’t matter when Deepak Dobriyal is attacking characters we might feel slightly protective about, the action is so convenient, cosmetic and banal that I even stopped caring beyond a point. I know, I know — Ajay Devgn is going to come and save the day in slow-motion. We’ll get a close-up of a few strands of hair falling on his eyes, and the sound of bones crunching as he thumps them one after the other.

The film ends with a scene hinting at a larger cinematic universe, with another actor coming on board to try and eviscerate Bholaa from the face of this earth. More corpses coming our way. Let’s hope there’s a little bit more thought next time around.

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