Ten years after Haasil, the curse of Ashutosh Rana returns to haunt Tigmanshu Dhulia. In that 2003 film, the rivalry of Ashutosh Rana and Irrfan Khan is brought to a screeching halt around half-time when one half of the equation is eliminated. It was a bold move, but cost the film a good deal of intensity. Something similar happens halfway through Bullett Raja, and again, it proceeds like all the air has been let out.
Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and Rudra (Jimmy Sheirgill) are political commandos – in reality, mid-level thugs who roam around Lucknow providing political protection and intimidation. They’re a Hindi heartland Butch Cassidy and Sundance, outlaws who’re more concerned with their legend than their mission, wisecracking as they shoot, mistrustful of what women might do to their dynamic. When they’re both onscreen, the film has a genial crackle. When it’s only Saif, however, Bullett Raja isn’t too much different from Dabangg or any of the others that have followed in its wake.
In interviews leading up to its release, Dhulia explained how Bullett Raja was his version of a commercial Bollywood film. Unless you’re looking too carefully – and because it’s Dhulia, people will – it might seem like anyone’s idea of a typical masala entertainer. Even when Bullett Raja subverts, it does so by degrees. The heroine doesn’t simper or fawn over the hero, but her “honour” is still the driving force behind a key scene. Ravi Kishan turns up as a contract killer in drag (which leads to a fun scene with two sari-clad figures canoodling on a bed), but becomes a stock villain after a while. At least Sheirgill’s dry asides act as a deflator for Raja’s boasts.
Dhulia seems to be enjoying himself doing all the silly stuff he doesn’t get to indulge in in his more realistic films. A song sequence in Kolkata has glass exploding in slo-mo, rows of choreographed yellow taxis, and Raja and his Bengali girlfriend Mitali (Sonakshi Sinha) going through about six wardrobe changes. The fight scenes are loud and explosive – and completely incoherent. If the action movie is here to stay for the foreseeable future, can directors please construct sequences that honour spatial geography, if not the laws of gravity and common sense? Bullett Raja’s shootouts and fight scenes are, essentially, cheating – cutting from Raja and Rudra jumping to their opponents flying through the air is neither a thrill, nor an explanation as to what happened.
Khan does a reasonable job of making Raja less of a showboat than Chulbul Pandey or Tees Maar Khan, but Langda Tyagi he ain’t. Sheirgill, who usually reserves his best for Dhulia, is a blast. Chunky Pandey’s brief cameo is amusing, if really strange; Gulshan Grover’s is nostalgic in its hamminess. Vidyut Jamwal, whose Kalaripayattu-inspired fighting skills adds another layer of unreality to the action sequences, turns up as a super-cop. If there’s something important to be said about Sinha’s performance, I’m not sure what that is. In fact, the film left me with roughly the same feelings. Like Kishan’s assassin, Bullett Raja – despite an amusing first half – is a Dhulia film in commercial drag.
This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.