Harshvardhan Kapoor shuffled his way into Hindi cinema with the reincarnation romance Mirzya in 2016. The blandness and diffidence that define Kapoor’s screen persona make him a good fit for Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, but these qualities also ensure that his character gets more interesting only when he puts on a mask and hides his identity to ensure justice through vigilante methods.
The movie isn’t even named after Kapoor’s character, but after that of his collaborator. Bhavesh Joshi (Priyanshu Painyuli) and Sikandar (Kapoor) are friends who want to do something about the rotten state of affairs in Mumbai. Inspired by an India Against Corruption-type social movement, they set up a YouTube channel called Insaaf TV. Their faces concealed by brown paper bags, the friends target indiscriminate tree cutting, public urination and drivers going down the wrong way on no-entry streets. Sikandar outgrows the channel and gets ready to relocate to America, but Bhavesh remains committed to the cause. When a resident tips off Bhavesh about water being pilfred from the municipal supply line, Bhavesh stumbles onto a racket that goes all the way to the top and involves a state minister (Nishikant Kamat).
Sikandar gets tangled in Bhavesh’s mission without wanting to. Sikandar’s ambivalence towards and gradual acceptance of Bhavesh’s zeal allow Motwane and co-writers Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Koranne to deconstruct the mythology of the comic book superhero. In one nifty scene, a police sketch of the masked avenger who has attacked a water theft centre serves as shorthand to establish how the Bhavesh Joshi mythos is being built, one blow at a time.
Another reference to a classic Hollywood production nicely ties Bhavesh Joshi Superhero to the film noir genre. Sikandar acquires a bandage on his nose after a brawl, which is a visual homage to Jack Nicholson’s fumbling detective from Chinatown (1974). A more obvious element links Nicholson’s character Jake Gittes to Sikandar – Gittes is investigating a scam that involves the diversion of water supply and lucrative real estate.
Yet another tribute, however, undermines Bhavesh Joshi Superhero’s ambition to be a vigilante movie that is rooted in realism and at a remove from previous fantasy-laden endeavours. The Dark Knight (2008) casts a long shadow over Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, especially in the debates surrounding the ethics of vigilantism and the efficacy of taking on a well-entrenched criminal enterprise. But the local production is far less effective in creating a template that future movies could follow.
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero works beautifully until the interval point before gradually losing its way to laboured plotting, implausible twists and banal moralising. Motwane sets up his characters and themes with tremendous economy and intelligence up until the point where Sikandar has embraced his inner Bhavesh Joshi. As Sikandar stumbles along in his attempt to get to the source of the water mafia, the 153-minute movie moves further away from the cold logic that powered the pre-interval section and collapses into a hodge-podge of training montages and unconvincing acts of payback.
The absence of any actual superheroic qualities in Sikandar combines with his social isolation to make his achievements questionable, if not a flight of fantasy. For all its attempts to root the events in the problems facing Mumbai, the movie exists in the same kind of vacuum in which superheroes and vigilantes from graphic novels thrive. The Insaaf TV activists have no engagement with other civic or political movements in Mumbai. The news media that usually exposes scams and corruption plays the role of background noise in the movie. The vigilantes function in solitude, without the benefit of a family or the semblance of a community to make their activism meaningful.
Bhavesh and Sikandar seem to be orphans who share an apartment and are soldered together in a bromantic relationship. Sikandar does have a girlfriend, Sneha (Shreiyah Sabarwal), but she is ornamental and disappears from view soon after entering the frame.
Even as the movie leaps off the cliff, Motwane comes up with some bravura set pieces, including a chase sequence involving motorcycles, a local railway train and some nifty stunts. Siddharth Diwan’s striking cinematography – much of which unfolds in the night-time and in the rain – captures Mumbai in all its grimy glory. The recurring motif of the colour red enlivens the unrelenting darkness that threatens to swallow up Bhavesh and Sikandar.
The movie puts Mumbai’s locations to excellent use, but the city itself fades into the background as an inspiration for righteous law-breaking. For all its promises of looking at Mumbai’s seemingly intractable problems with a fresh eye, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero offers solutions that are far removed from reality. The film moves away from common sense as it descends into genre territory. It doesn’t help that its leading man fails to take audiences along.
The story’s real superhero isn’t Harshvadhan Kapoor’s dull Sikandar, but Priyanshu Painyuli’s passionate Bhavesh. Painyuli plays Bhavesh with real feeling, and the exact moment of the film’s descent can be pinpointed to the moment when his character cedes ground to Sikandar. The myth takes over the man, but Painyuli ensures that the man matters too.