Without question, one of the most audacious cinematic undertakings in recent history begins with the new film “Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva”. From the creative mind of Ayan Mukerji, this Hindi-language epic is the first film of a sprawling blockbuster trilogy and the first installment in Mukerji’s vast extended cinematic universe known as the Astraverse. The filmmaker poured six years into crafting this original story and expects to spend ten years making his trilogy. Part One certainly gets things off on the right foot.
In more ways than one, “Brahmāstra” closely resembles a classic superhero origin story. And unlike the current state of the West’s biggest shared universe, the MCU, “Brahmāstra” gets back to larger-than-life storytelling, openly embracing the crazy and fantastical, and piquing our imaginations while Mukerji impresses us with his. The results are often thrilling, highly entertaining, a little cheesy, but always fun.
With Part One of his trilogy, Mukerji serves us a delicious cocktail of fantasy, action, and the supernatural. He builds his story on some rich mythology which he created from scratch – a mythology full of magic and mystique. But as with every origin story, we’re bound to certain inevitabilities such character introductions, rule-making, and exposition. In “Brahmāstra: Part One” we get a ton of each which makes sense considering what Mukerji is building. It’s a necessary convention, but a convention nonetheless.
But I have to admit, I didn’t mind it as much in “Brahmāstra” as I expected to. That’s because I often found myself enamored with the sheer creativity behind what Mukerji was piecing together. It’s undeniably silly, and it doesn’t always make sense. And its firm adherence to certain Bollywood formulas inevitably leaves a few segments feeling hopelessly contrived. But here’s the thing, that same Bollywood formula adds to the film’s charm. And when incorporated with Mukerji’s story, we get something that I found more exciting than redundant.
The backstory is too deep to fully explain here, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: There exists a secret society of empowered sages called the Brahmānsh who for generations have protected supernatural weapons known as astras. These astras draw from various energy sources from the earth (wind, water, fire, etc.), and they each endow wielders with unique superpowers. The most powerful among the astras is the Brahmāstra, a divine weapon capable of destroying the universe, which the Brahmānsh secretly keep hidden to this day.
As the movie’s title hints, “Brahmāstra: Part One” centers on a DJ named Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) who falls for the beautiful Isha (Alia Bhatt). But what’s begins as a fairytale love story quickly turns after Shiva begins have distressing visions. Combined with his strange connection to fire, it becomes evident that a great power is awakening within him. After receiving a premonition of an impending danger, Shiva and Isha set out on an epic adventure that leads them to a hidden ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. There they meet Guru (Amitabh Bachchan), the leader of the Brahmānsha who introduces Shiva to the secret world of astras.
Meanwhile a powerful dark force named Brahm-Dev has sent out his disciple Junoon (Mouni Roy) to seek out and obtain three fragments which when joined together will unleash the Brahmāstra. Junoon is a really fun villain (she would be right at home in the Mortal Kombat universe), yet her motivations are too opaque. Why does she follow Brahm-Dev? What’s in it for her? Despite her lack of detail, Junoon along with her two super-powered henchman, Zor (Saurav Gurjar) and Raftaar (Rohollah Ghazi), are key parts of the film’s very best action sequences.
One knock against the movie is the central romance. For clarity, there’s nothing wrong with Kapoor or Bhatt. Their performances are solid, and there is some genuinely good chemistry between them. But the buildup is incredibly shallow. Essentially, it’s your garden-variety ‘love at first sight’ scenario. He sees her across the dance floor, they eventually meet, and in a snap they’re in love.
The only potential tension between the young couple is their economic status. We’re told she’s rich, but we never really see it. We’re told he’s poor, but he certainly doesn’t look it. Of course, we do eventually learn more about Shiva’s past. After all, his self-discovery is a big part of the movie. But Isha isn’t given the same courtesy. We learn practically nothing about her. Bhatt makes Isha a character we enjoy rooting for, but a little more attention and detail would have helped tremendously.
Still, our first foray into Ayan Mukerji’s ambitious Astraverse turns out to be a truly fun-filled experience. The filmmaker introduces us to an inspired world full of imagination and heart. The visual effects are terrific; the action scenes are stylish and full of energy (especially the wild opening and a rousing chase sequence on a treacherous Himalayan Mountain road). And of course there’s always time for a musical number or two, with their impressive production and not-so-impressive lip-syncing. Together, it all gels into this pretty incredible adventure full of Bollywood flavor. And while it might stumble on some of the simpler things, Mukerji’s enormous vision left me dazzled and hungry for Part Two. “Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva” is now showing in select theaters.