Vikramaditya Motwane’s new film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is a vigilante drama about a masked avenger who comes to the rescue of Mumbai residents in their never-ending battle against corruption. The June 1 release stars Harshvardhan Kapoor in the lead role. What the nation wants to know is this: where was this superhero when company executive Shaurya got locked into an apartment in Motwane’s 2016 survival movie Trapped?

Be that as it may. Both films reflect Motwane’s love-hate relationship with Mumbai, the city in which he was born and raised. If Trapped was shot through with dread and cynicism, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero remains hopeful, the director said in an interview.

This city is funny – on the one hand, there’s this love for the city because it’s your birthplace and it is where you grew up and so on, and on the other hand, there’s this huge cynicism where you’re wondering and lamenting about what is happening to it,” Motwane said. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to one question: who does the city belong to? It has become everyone’s bastard child, in a way.”

The metropolis that both endears and repels is also the subject of the Netflix series Sacred Games, which Motwane has co-directed with Anurag Kashyap. Based on Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name, the series revolves around Mumbai police officer Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) whose investigation into the death of gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) uncovers a conspiracy that involves politicians, gurus and a nuclear bomb.

“I feel that at this point, I’ve made three cousin films between Trapped, Sacred Games and Bhavesh Joshi,” the 41-year-old filmmaker said. “I feel like I’ve been shooting on the streets of Bombay for a long time.”

Bhavesh Joshi (2018).

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero stems from a host of factors – Motwane’s love for comic book characters (Batman and Superman in particular), Mumbai’s steady decline over the past few decades, and the possibilities offered by the vigilante genre.

“When there’s so much wrong around you, you need someone, at least in your fantasy or pop culture or literature, to go out there and do the right thing,” Motwane said. “That’s how Batman and Superman were born. That’s how the angry young man was born. And today, I’m trying to do the same as well because there’s a need for such a hero.”

For Motwane, a turning point was 1995, when Bombay was renamed Mumbai by the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. “Especially with the name change, one felt that the city that once belonged to us suddenly did not belong to anybody,” Motwane observed. “Things would get to me as I travelled around the city – the way people would drive, throw garbage on the streets. Some of my anger and cynicism came from there. At the end of the day, Mumbai belongs to nobody and it’s going to become everybody’s money-making machine in a way, which is sad.”

Motwane’s script was initially about “one guy on the street”, which then evolved into something “bigger, cinematic and more popcorny in a sense.” One version of the screenplay that was written between 2010 and 2011 was about land grabbing and the hold that builders have over development plans. “As time passed, the film, for whatever reason, got delayed, and when I revisited it in 2014, I realised those problems are not relevant anymore and we’ve got used to them,” Motwane said. “There are many corrupt builders and politicians in Bombay, it is part of life, and people have moved on. So I had to tweak the script a bit.”

Other developments had taken place in between – the Anna Hazare-led movement against corruption in 2010, in particular. “There was a lot of talk about uprooting corruption and the protests were widespread,” he said. “So, while there was anger, there was also a lot of hope – that okay, this world can change too. In fact, that spirit of the idea of change drove this film.”

Hum Hain Insaaf, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018).

The co-production between Phantom Films, of which Motwane is a founder-member, and Eros International also owes its existence to Motwane’s interest in the vigilante movies of the 1970s and ’80s. “My film is half-way between a superhero film and an angry young man film,” he said. “It’s got one leg in the Salim- Javed films of the 1970s and the Sunny Deol films of the 1980s, Shahenshah and others too, and one leg in the comic book culture. It takes its inspiration from everything – even reality.”

The allure of vigilante films stems from the universal desire for that one hero to come out and save the day when all else is failing. The genre isn’t realistic and is escapist, Motwane concurs, but also speaks to the times.

“Sometimes the easier thing to do is to take a stick or a gun and just solve the problem,” he explained. “It is the dream of every single writer of the vigilante film, whether it is Bob Kane with Batman or Salim-Javed with Amitabh Bachchan. The vigilante is a dream, a fantasy, about having someone who is going to do the right thing. That’s not a solution in the real world at all. In the real world, you need a justice system. It is because the justice system is broken that you have vigilantes in the first place. [There is the belief] that when everything is broken, one man will come to fix it.”

Harshvardhan Kapoor fit the director’s conception of the vigilante because of the similarities between the actor and the character. “Harshvardhan has that whole vibe of being a lost boy who finds his feet and calling,” Motwane said. “The film too is about a man trying to find himself.”

Bhavesh Joshi Superstar will clash on June 1 with another movie featuring Kapoor’s sisters, Rhea and Sonam. Veere Di Wedding, co-produced by Rhea Kapoor, directed by Shashanka Ghosh, and starring Soman Kapoor Ahuja, Kareena Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar and Shikha Talsania, is a female buddy comedy centred on a wedding.

“I don’t know if it can be called a clash, really,” Motwane said. “They are two entirely different films, and June 1 is a big enough date. Historically, it has been a date that has hosted some of the biggest hits of a year: Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani, Rowdy Rathore, to name a few.”

Bhavesh Joshi (2018). Image credit: Phantom Films/Eros International.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero also stars Priyanshu Painyuli, Nishikant Kamat, Ashish Verma and Shreiyah Sabarwal. Apart from talking the actors through their specific scenes, Motwane was heavily involved with production designer Aditya Kanwar and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan.

“We had to address questions about whether we wanted the city to look super realistic or make a little more cinematic – a kind of graphic novel sort of space,” he explained. “Bombay anyway has a very graphic novel-y vibe to it. When you watch the film, you will get the feeling that it looks a little like a graphic novel, but not in an obvious way.”

In its mood, tone and treatment, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero differs from Motwane’s previous films. He made his debut with the coming-of-age drama Udaan in 2010 and followed it up with the period romance Lootera (2013). The least optimistic film of the lot is Trapped, in which Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao) gets locked into an apartment that he wants to rent for himself and his girlfriend.

“Every film I’ve made has been, in one way or the other, about hope, but Trapped is the bleakest of the lot,” Motwane said. “But if you take Udaan or Lootera, they’ve all been about hope. And that’s how it should be. Till the point that you don’t get old and cynical, you’re waiting for a resolution and a revolution. There’s always hope that there’s a better world.”

Motwane says that he realised during the process of writing and directing Bhavesh Joshi Superhero that hope and cynicism are part of the same continuum. “The key is to find hope in cynicism,” he said. “With the Anna Hazare movement, there was a moment of hope which was then completely destroyed – whether because of internal or external factors. Then the Lokpal bill failed but still, one stuck on to some hope – yes these guys have formed their own party and this is going to be something good. In 2014, there was a new government and there was a lot of hope. But now people have started to become cynical about it again. This cycle is part of life.”

Vikramaditya Motwane.