Nine minutes into Sadak 2 comes a scene that’s disconcerting on multiple levels. Ravi (Sanjay Dutt), the troubled taxi driver from Sadak (1991), is now grey and desperately unhappy. His wife, Pooja, is dead, and he’s given up on life himself, tying a noose to the fan and trying unsuccessfully to hang himself. If the death of Sushant Singh Rajput makes the sight of a near-hanging in a film difficult to watch, Dutt's recent announcement that he's taking a break for medical treatment (it was rumoured, though not confirmed, that he has cancer) renders it even more distressing.
The cross-currents don’t stop there. The first time Ravi lays eyes on Aryaa (Alia Bhatt), he looks like he’s seen a ghost. Perhaps this is the film's way of acknowledging the strangeness of the situation, for Alia is the half-sister of Pooja Bhatt, who starred opposite Dutt in Sadak almost 30 years ago. Mahesh Bhatt, father of Alia and Pooja, directed both films. Both he and Alia have been targeted in the vicious—and seemingly never-ending—smear campaign that began shortly after Rajput’s death. And now they’re out with a film that’s full of people talking about ending their lives.
Ravi’s second suicide attempt is interrupted when Aryaa knocks on his door one night (that Hum Tere Bin Kahin is playing as he prepares to asphyxiate himself in the garage is a clear sign that Bhatt doesn’t mind weaponizing our memories of the 1991 film). It turns out that before her death, Pooja had taken a booking from Aarya for their taxi service. Though Ravi just wants to get on with his efforts to join his late wife, Aryaa manages to convince the old man to drive her to Kailash in the mountains. She’s on the run; her industrialist father (Jisshu Sengupta) is under the influence of an evil godman, Gyaan Prakash (Makarand Deshpande), who she suspects killed her mother with the help of her aunt (Priyanka Bose), who's now her stepmother.
Ravi and Aryaa pick up her boyfriend, Vishal (Aditya Roy Kapur), fresh out of jail and carrying a pet owl in a cage. We get their backstory in a mercifully short flashback: Aryaa is an anti-godman activist, Vishal a reformed troll. Further flashbacks reveal their ties to Gyaan Prakash, and Aryaa’s twisted family history. As Ravi takes it upon himself to protect the kids, Sadak 2 strays far from the film it might have been—a genuine look at loss and hurt—and turns increasingly violent and ludicrous.
Mahesh Bhatt was one of the leading directors of the 1980s and early '90s, making bruising dramas with big stars and hit soundtracks. But it’s been 21 years since he directed a film, and it feels like his head is stuck in the past. There’s an action scene in Sadak 2 with a strong whiff of the '90s, involving a one-armed Gulshan Grover and Vishal's owl attacking on command. Gyaan Prakash is a throwback to the kind of campy villains who populated Hindi cinema for decades (Deshpande gender-ambiguous look is likely a nod to Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s antagonist in in Sadak, trans woman Maharani). The first time a clip of Dutt and Pooja Bhatt from Sadak flashes onscreen, it’s a jolt to the heart; by the seventh or eighth such usage, it looks like a trick repeated for lack of better ideas.
The sadness in Dutt’s eyes now seems engraved on his entire face, but the film squanders what little pathos there might have been by making him play action hero. Bhatt does what she can with a script that would almost certainly have landed on the rejected pile had it not been handed to her, one assumes, over family dinner. No script is beneath Kapur, though perhaps the line about his “khoobsurat aur masoom chehra (beautiful and innocent face)" is beneath the director of Arth and Saaraansh. By the time an unarmed, unaccompanied Ravi is laying waste to a private militia while chanting Ram naam satya hai, I could almost hear the film say, as Vishal’s friend does when he betrays them, “Sorry yaar guys".
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge on 20 August 2020.