Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana and Jaideep Ahlawat
Director: Anirudh Iyer
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
The title is absolutely apt. The fugitive protagonist of An Action Hero is indeed ‘an’ action hero and not ‘any’ action hero. And the film isn’t any old actioner. Writer-director Anirudh Iyer employs genre devices to create a movie that, in a rare cinematic osmosis, is at once visceral and cerebral.
The movie and the titular figure at its centre are both singular entities. They are, respectively, like nothing and nobody else that Indian audiences have seen in recent years.
Rarely has a Bollywood action film been this much fun and seldom has a Hindi movie parodied the genre with such flair and intelligence. It takes its job very seriously but never stops laughing at itself and the purveyors of big-screen thrills.
A RAW agent – he is one of two – who lands in London in the opening sequence to grill an on-the-lam Mumbai megastar Maanav (Ayushmann Khurrana) says at the fag-end of the story that the celeb narrates to the duo in the course of the interrogation: we are not sure if we should laugh at or be annoyed by the childishness of the yarn that you have spun.
We know the answer. There is little doubt that the audience will opt more for the former than the latter reaction, given the jaunty pace of the narrative, the high-spirited set pieces that An Action Hero delivers as it unfolds at a heady pace, and the constant flow of provocative and topical ideas about showbiz, justice and nationhood.
Anirudh Iyer deserves to be lauded for the acuity and candour with which he trains the spotlight on movies, television news channels, consumers of mass entertainment and the making and unmaking of heroes and villains in “the new India”.
The director couches many a pointed statement about the times that we live in and about the people that we collectively are in entertaining capsules that help the punches land with precision, power and palatability.
Maanav – the name, needless to point out, means ‘man’ and in one instance is rhymed with danaav (demon) by a shrill newscaster who presumes he is speaking on behalf of the entire nation – is an Everyman Superstar if that dichotomous term is even tenable when one is referring to a movie star with a mass fanbase and enormous clout.
In a tussle that he is drawn into, Maanav unintentionally kills a politically-connected Haryana fan who waits for hours to click a photograph with the celebrity and loses his cool when the star leaves the location without acceding to the man’s wish.
Maanav flees to the UK in panic. The victim’s elder brother, Bhoora Singh Solanki (Jaideep Ahlawat), the power-crazed councillor of Haryana’s Mandothi village, follows him to London with swift revenge on his mind. The script juggles with the established conventions of the genre and pokes fun at them as it gallops along at a nice and even clip, coming up with surprises at virtually every bend on the way.
The frantic chase leads not only to lively action sequences, chases and stunts staged across locations in the UK – Maanav fights for his life outside his London home, in the kitchen of a stranger’s pad, out in the countryside, on a boat sailing up the Thames – but also a range of revelations about the nature of stardom, movie fans, power dynamics, codes of honour and ill-directed masculinity.
An Action Hero has a hero and a villain but no character who can serve as no romantic interest for the former – a daring and fitting departure from norm that stands the film in good stead. It prevents it from straying away from its chosen course.
Not that An Action Hero is a single-track movie. Apart from its focus on a muscleman seeking vengeance, it probes the ways of the privileged and the powerful who care two hoots about what the world thinks about their wayward and destructive behaviour.
In a telling way, An Action Hero centres on a clash of entitlements. A movie star will not brook a week’s delay in the delivery of a Mustang that he has booked. A village-level politician will not take no for an answer from the officer in charge of the local police station after his brother’s lifeless body has been found.
A slippery, dreaded mafia don – yes, a character modelled on Dawood Ibrahim surfaces late in the film to take the plot in a startling new direction – will do anything it takes to prove that he has lost none of his relevance.
The assertion of power goes all the way up the pecking order and the eventual winner is not the one with the most strength and derring-do but the one who is the wiliest of the lot. An Action Hero is no ordinary mass entertainer. With his tongue firmly in cheek, Anirudh Iyer has crafted a smart film that harnesses familiar components to craft a piece of fresh and pertinent genre cinema that transcends the boundaries of the form.
At the outset, we catch Maanav shooting the climax of a movie in which the hero is out to avenge his brother. He muffs up the scene because he is unable to achieve the level of anger that he needs in order to pull it off. A delayed car delivery riles him enough and he plunges back into the scene, headlong and full-steam.
Using a mix of rap, remixed retro Hindi movie songs and the non-stop prattle of television news anchors as a key narrative device, An Action Hero provides a trenchant commentary that lays bare the ills of a TRP-driven electronic news media and the moral bankruptcy and impunity of semi-rural political chieftains.
An Action Hero bustles with coiled energy every time Jaideep Ahlawat is on the screen as a toughie responding to a rough, ready and rustic notion of justice and self-worth. An inveterate scene-stealer, the actor keeps the ‘action hero’ Ayushmann Khurrana on his toes. The two principal performers lend the movie some of the power and energy that it requires to keep firing on all cylinders. The rest is provided by the canny screenplay and the directorial panache.