An hour into Bholaa — the new film directed, produced and headlined by Ajay Devgn — a leopard is introduced. As a disclaimer in the opening credits informs, the animal was created entirely using CGI, though that’s not the tamest thing about it. As Ajay, playing our protagonist, Bholaa, swoops down from a truck and does so much as a short hero’s walk, the leopard retreats and bolts. Ajay’s heroism in the film is so grand it turns an apex predator into a literal (and laughable) scaredy cat.
The leopard is an addition, one of many that distinguish Bholaa from its source material. The film is a remake of the 2019 Tamil hit Kaithi. Written and directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj – undoubtedly, one of the most exciting action filmmakers in the country – the original is a lesson in delayed gratification, punctuating its pay-offs and big action set pieces with long stretches of buildup and dread. There is a wonderful way in which Kanagaraj, helped by his enigmatic leading man Karthi, keeps us on tenterhooks before piling on the madness in the film’s second half... where it belongs.
Bholaa, by contrast, is mad from the get-go. Ajay and his writers (four in total) forfeit any claim to restraint and then some more. The film is too masala, too eager to please; complete with animals, item numbers and balletic bike chases through the night. At times, it resembles a cross between Mad Max: Fury Road and K.G.F., neither register particularly suited for a lean, emotional story like Kaithi. After Bachchhan Paandey and Vikram Vedha, this is another Hindi remake that goes in for an over-the-top treatment. It gives Bholaa a distinct visual identity, if not much suspense or edge.
A drug bust has been successfully conducted and 900 kgs of uncut cocaine seized. Both the loot and its transporters are locked up inside the secretive Lalganj jail in UP. Police officer Diana Joseph (Tabu) thinks the worst is behind her when she finds herself in a fix; several of her colleagues have dropped unconscious after drinking spiked booze at a senior’s farewell party. Pressed for options and time, Diana enlists Bholaa, an ex-convict on his way to meet his daughter, to load the cops up in a truck and drive them to the hospital. It’s a two-hour ride, enough time for Ashwatthama (Deepak Dobriyal), the maniacal chief of the drug ring, to lay siege on Lalgunj.
Bholaa is two films at the price of one; an action road movie interspersed with a last-stand survival drama. Sanjay Mishra plays an ageing cop who must fortify the Lalganj station against the invading thugs. Simultaneously, a bounty is put on Diana and the knocked-out policemen, prompting miscellaneous gangs to chase after the truck and halt its progress. Editor Dharmendra Sharma smoothly cuts back and forth between the two tracks. The emphasis, though, is on the action, as Ajay’s Bholaa crunches limbs, pops bones, and bashes out teeth to protect his benefactors, on the promise that they will help secure his daughter’s future.
The chase sequences are admirably crazy. Ajay and his team spare no expense in the vehicular department, from bikes and police cars that explode with relish to a fleet of tractors that stand up on their rear wheels. His action choreography is brutal, unhinged. Yet, the dodgy VFX — including a fake waterfall in the final stretch — and excessive day-for-night shooting sullies the illusion of watching in-camera action. There are some jarring tonal shifts in the film; violence interrupted by comedy interrupted by melodrama interrupted by romance.
Trishul (trident) in hand, his forehead smeared in sacred ash, Ajay looks menacing when hacking up goons but otherwise struggles to convey the mythic qualities of his character. The film is full of nods to the actor’s earlier hits; the truck-based action of Kachche Dhaage and Badshaaho; the jungle mania of Kaal; a similar cop-and-criminal equation between Tabu and him like in Drishyam. “I understand your zakhm,” Diana says at one point, another inadvertent nod to a 1998 Ajay film.
A pan-India release, Bholaa comes attached with the usual trappings, including shows in IMAX 3D and 4DX and cameos by Amala Paul and Rai Lakshmi (there is another cameo, much spoiled in media reports, that made me sit up in delight). The film screams out its crowd-pleasing credentials, but will this be enough? “These days, movies do not work without a story,” says a character in Kaithi. The line isn’t repeated in Bholaa, which is smart. Here is a film that bets the entire farm on its frills.
Bholaa is currently running in theatres