Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Brothers: Review

Brothers is an official remake of the 2011 film Warrior, in which Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play estranged siblings who enter a mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament. As Hollywood projects go, it seemed like a good one for Bollywood to adapt. We’re nothing if not familiar with warring brothers, alcoholic fathers and people getting the shit kicked out of them so that they can pay for their daughter’s open-heart surgery—changed to kidney trouble in Brothers, presumably so Akshay Kumar can tell an unfeeling moneyman: “She has kidney failure. It’s you who has the heart problem.”

Brothers, directed by Karan Malhotra (Agneepath), doesn’t have the heart problem; if anything, it exposes a bit too much of its heart. It does have the script problem, the acting problem and several other problems besides. However, not many of these are apparent for the first 40 minutes or so, during which the film is a pretty faithful facsimile of Warrior. Younger brother Monty (Sidharth Malhotra) fights for a living and is trained by his father, Garson (Jackie Shroff), a former alcoholic who just got out of jail. David (Akshay Kumar) is a physics teacher who moonlights as an underground brawler to support his family. He resents his father, and Monty resents his father’s concern for David, but we’re not sure why. Then, in an extended flashback, the film tries to make everything clear.

Everything goes to hell in this flashback. Monty turns out to be Garson’s illegitimate son. Garson is revealed to have caused the death of his wife (it wasn’t enough to just make him an alcoholic, like the character in Warrior). Shefali Shah has a thankless cameo as the wife—she cries, laughs through her tears, runs in slow motion and dies. Shroff, who’s just about held it together before this, gives up the ghost, launching into his version of drunk acting, which is everyone else’s version of hamming. Strangest of all, David, who has been a perfectly nice elder brother to Monty, turns on him after their mother’s death. This resentment fuels Monty’s subsequent fighting career, but no explanation is given as to why the reasonable-seeming David would go on blaming his stepbrother for something that was clearly his father’s fault.

In a way, it’s good that the film embraces its inner Indra Kumar. The first 40 minutes were competent but repressed; what the flashback does is free Brothers up to be the kind of sentimental, over-the-top film it wants to be. And boy, does it embrace this freedom. David and Monty set off on a collision course in India’s first MMA tournament. Raj Zutshi turns up as a commentator, channelling Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire; of his many gems, I especially loved the one where he reveals that Monty’s dad went to jail for killing his mum and then says, “I hope this angst works for him.” David is asked before a fight by his sick daughter, “I will pray for you, will you pray for me?” The writing—never too smart to begin with—is reduced to inanities like “fighter ka want uski jeet ka formula hai”.

That’s all fine, you may say, but this is a film about MMA—how are the fight scenes? The short answer: not that bad. There’s a minimum of slo-mo, and none of the logic-defying Telugu and Tamil cinema-inspired rubbish that’s dominated Hindi action film-making in the last few years. The differences in the brothers’ techniques are delineated well enough: Monty is a brutal finisher, David is more of a strategist. But they can’t compare with the fights in Warrior, partly because we simply don’t direct action as well but also because Malhotra keeps cutting away from the action, making the scenes less punishing, and less believable.

Sidharth Malhotra is impressively bulked up, but there’s a lost look in his eyes that doesn’t go with the fearsome reputation he’s building up in the ring. The greying Kumar, on the other hand, makes for a terrific David; beneath the low-key intensity, there’s a sadness that’s very moving. Shroff is entertainingly bad—I only understood 20% of what he was saying, but it isn’t exactly a stoic performance, so I got the gist. Yet, any sins the actors commit are nothing compared to the rank sentimental choices made by the director. When David has Monty in a clinch during their climactic face-off, we cut to a childhood memory of the two of them hugging. It’s difficult to imagine anyone making mixed martial arts cheesier than it already is, but Malhotra manages that here.

This review appeared in Mint.

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