Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. 2021. A bearded man and his wife are serving customers at their local restaurant when they are greeted by a woman expressing her gratitude over the meal she just enjoyed. She asks to take a selfie with the restaurateur couple. They agree.
Huge mistake. Thanks to tenuously established selfie facial recognition technology, the male owner is revealed to be notorious Pakistani terrorist Riaaz Hafeez, a Lashkar-e-Taiba sleeper agent who has been living in India since 26/11 under a Hindu name and has committed the cardinal sin of marrying a Hindu woman. But fear not. A guttural scream that could only sound like it came from a failed thrash metal vocalist is heard, and a 54-year-old police officer awkwardly gallops into action. Poorly choreographed fighting and RDX explosions ensue until Riaaz Hafeez admits defeat and is captured.
Above is a microcosm of the action sequences that define Rohit Shetty’s latest film Sooryavanshi, starring Canada’s finest, Akshay Kumar.
The first major Hindi cinema release since the end of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Shetty’s Sooryavanshi is not only the fourth film in his ‘Cop Universe’ series but also opened to Rs 26 crore domestically, dominating the Diwali season.
The excitement was indeed palpable, as both the PVR outlet I went to, as well as the audience themselves, dropped all pretences that we are still living in a pandemic. The hall was attended in 100 per cent occupancy and was full of whistling Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif fans, while I was the only one in my section wearing a mask.
A Rohit Shetty classic
Those looking for a turn-your-brain-off, action-packed follow-up to Ajay Devgn’s signature slaps (in Singham) or Ranveer Singh’s so-awful-it’s-funny accent (in Simmba) will be disappointed because Shetty and writer Yunus Sajawal have decided it’s time to try some societal and political commentary.
Indeed, the film spends far too much time on Akshay Kumar and other titular characters’ clumsy monologues about the difference between well-groomed nationalist Muslims, who unquestionably worship and serve Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS); and the bearded, Nehru jacket and skull cap-wearing Muslims, who must be viewed with suspicion.
Any pretence at showing actual police work, a coherent plot, discernible action or memorable characters are quickly chucked by the wayside in this marriage between a directorial style that poorly rips off an already questionable Michael Bay, and a brand of heavy-handed nationalist themes that have come to define the majority of Akshay Kumar’s output in recent years.
Be it glorifying torture for a lazy orgasm joke, using your Muslim subordinate staff as a shield for bigoted remarks or putting your own son in the line of fire to catch a suspected terrorist, all actions in Sooryavanshi are justified by the greater good of saving India from dangerous Pakistani Muslims.
The nationalist propaganda
Blatantly blurring the lines of fact and fiction about Islamic terror attacks in India, Shetty and Sajawal lay it on thick with the pro-ATS fearmongering by portraying the 40-strong LeT sleeper agents as the most stealthy, cunning and nefarious enemies, who have crossed the border illegally and are hiding in plain sight under Hindu names. That is, until these genius terrorists make stupefying decisions like travelling to Mumbai on a whim for four hours and staying in a posh hotel room undisguised.
Frequent nationalist imagery includes playing ominous music as one of the terrorists puts on his skull cap and prays on his mat behind closed doors in his car repair shop at night, as well as a climax montage of Jackie Shroff’s terrorist mastermind character reciting a prayer from the Quran, as his sleeper agents gather in Mumbai to plan their big attack.
That’s not all. Within its 145-minute runtime, Shetty and Sajawal also managed to tack on a marital problem B-plot involving Katrina Kaif with flashbacks and all. They also called in Ajay Devgn and Ranveer Singh for extended cameos in the film’s climactic, explosion-laden action sequence.
Yet, unlike its predecessors, Sooryavanshi can’t even be called aggressively bad and unintentionally hilarious, because its biggest crime is that it takes itself far too seriously. This results in a propagandised action film with the least dramatic tension I have experienced since Tiger Shroff and Hrithik Roshan’s War (2019).
Amid all this injection of chest-thumping nationalism and failed attempts at subtle differentiation between Muslim beliefs, Shetty and Sajawal forgot to add some real attempts at humour. It was all saved for a tired running gag of Sooryavanshi forgetting people’s names, an ill-advised torture prank, and Ranveer’s Simmba offering his own xenophobic take on the breakdown of cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan.
What’s the priority?
The film underpins its moral centre on the phrase, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” yet it is Rohit Shetty’s directorial vision that deserves to be diagnosed more than anything else.
This has perhaps always been the fundamental problem. Not just with Shetty’s Cop Universe but with mainstream Hindi cinema’s police-centric films of this day and age.
Humanising the main characters is not a priority. Providing meaningful backstories to the antagonists is not a priority. Having a compelling reason for the next big action set piece or on-location shoot is not a priority.
Instead, it’s all about the same tired lofty goal every single time — saving India from the clutches of Pakistani boogeymen.
Sooryavanshi is nothing more than Shetty and Kumar on autopilot, going through the motions in their laziest uber-patriot cash-grab yet. And they’re going to continue doing this as long as audiences pay to see them.
One can’t help but ask — is it too unreasonable for the Hindi film industry to balance these problematic films out with some nationalism-free realistic work that gets mainstream releases instead of being relegated to an OTT?
Views are personal.