East is West: Ra.One

This week, coinciding with the Indian holiday of Diwali, the long-awaited, massively-hyped science-fiction blockbuster Ra.One was released. To put things in perspective for readers in America or other places outside the sphere of the Bollywood hype machine, imagine that one of the biggest movie stars in the world (in this case, Shahrukh Khan) was making the most expensive movie in the history of your country, and was going to nearly unprecedented lengths to publicize it. That’s Ra.One, an Event Movie if there ever was one.

Shahrukh Khan stars as a video game designer working for a company engaged in some highly fictional science, involving technology that can basically render three-dimensional holograms corporeally. Shahrukh’s son (Armaan Verma) daydreams a game in which a character, played by a much cooler version of Shahrukh than his dad, has a massively cool boss fight against Sanjay Dutt and saves damsel in distress Desi Girl (the lovely Priyanka Chopra), but in real life he’s a bit embarrassed by the old man. And not without reason; Shahrukh plays the hick/nerd so broadly and does so many embarrassing things (a full-costume Michael Jackson routine in front of his friends, among other car crashes and accidentally knocked-over furniture) that it’s no wonder the kid’s gamer tag is “Lucifer” and he’s obsessed with villains.

Taking note of this, Shahrukh decides to impress the kid by designing a revolutionary new video game, featuring a nearly invulnerable villain, whom he names Ra.One (a play on words referencing Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana.) Shahrukh programs his villain with artificial intelligence so he can learn and adapt to the player. SF fans see where this is going, especially when combined with the whole corporeal three-dimensional hologram stuff or whatever that is. Ra.One eventually learns how to leave the video game world and manifest in the real world. It’s only through some quick thinking by Shahrukh’s son that the hero of the game, with similar if slightly less impressive powers, G.One, is able to manifest in the real world as well, and spends the rest of the movie protecting the good guys and preparing for the ultimate showdown with Ra.One.

What makes Ra.One so much fun is certainly not the complexity of its plot, it’s the star power of Shahrukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor (in an underwritten role as his wife that she nonetheless absolutely kills because she’s Kareena Kapoor and that’s what she does: be awesome) and their chemistry with the very talented young Armaan Verma, who goes above and beyond the First Commandment of Movie Kids (“Don’t Be Annoying”) and actually turns in a good performance.

And, of course, the action sequences. At approximately $40 million US, Ra.One is not an expensive picture by Hollywood standards even if it’s the biggest-budget movie in the history of India (beating out last year’s Endhiran, to which it pays an extended and awesome homage just after the interval). Still, the CG effects are very slickly done, and the action scenes skillfully shot and edited. The movie, in general, makes very good use of its London and Mumbai locations, but most especially in the action sequences, which are about as good as good gets.

The songs are pretty good; two of them are great, catchy dance tracks, but there are a couple clunkers, notably one appropriation of the classic “Stand By Me,” that the song recovers from as it goes along, but there is, admittedly, a bit of an “are you kidding me?” factor to the opener. That being said, the good outnumber the bad.

Which, as a general note, sums up not just the music but the movie as whole. Writer/director Anubhav Sinha invests the movie with a narrative drive and sense of wonder that recall Steven Spielberg at his best (while still being a straight-up, legit masala picture), but the story elides a couple uncomfortable moments of casual sexism and ethnic stereotyping—Shahrukh’s unsophisticated Southern character is the rough equivalent to him playing an unsophisticated American Southerner in a Hollywood movie—that recall Spielberg at his more unfortunate. It should be noted, though, that these moments are occasional false notes in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable experience rather than jarring moments that break the spell.

Ra.One may not be perfect, but it’s damned enjoyable. As SF, it’s not terribly rigorous, but as a big blockbuster with bright colors and flashing lights, car chases, cool boss fights, and charismatic movie stars, it’s fantastic. And like a proper blockbuster (not to mention a proper masala picture) it’s got something for just about everyone. Hailing it as a classic or one of the year’s best might be taking things a bit far, but it certainly is fun, which is what we ask of a big holiday weekend blockbuster.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.


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