Just like Vikram in Vikram Vedha, you draw a line. On one side, there is the massy, whistle-evoking commercial cinema, and the other has a more artistic, cerebral film with critical acclaim. As a maker, what will you choose? Pushkar-Gayathri chose to blur the lines and drew a circle where both types stood, facing each other. But is the circle big enough for them?
Vikram Vedha starts off with an animated retelling of the legend of Vikram-Betaal. In the tale, the just King Vikramaditya of Ujjain is given the task by a tantric to get Betaal, a demon hanging on a tree. In return, the tantric will relieve Ujjain from the famine it is plagued with. “Betaal will tell you stories and will ask you to solve a moral dilemma in the end. If you know the answer and choose to remain silent, your head will burst into a thousand pieces. If you speak, you will break the vow of silence and Betaal will fly back to the tree. Don’t get entangled in Betaal’s stories,” explains the tantric.
Now we know about the 25 tales, the loopy style of storytelling (centuries before Run Lola Run (1998)) where Vikramaditya keeps answering and going back to get Betaal. But how does the tale end? It is revealed that the tantric was evil and actually wanted to use Betaal to do a ritual which will gain him world-dominating powers. Part of the plan was also sacrificing Vikramaditya. It is a classic story of what is, may not seem. It is about perceptions—about the black, the white, and the grey. It’s about changing your inbred notions. Life-size cardboard cut-outs outside the entrance of any multiplex screen will tell you who Vikram and Betaal are in the film (Saif Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan, just in case). But you realise the ingenuity of the storytelling when you go back home and ponder that, although not explicitly stated, there were several tantrics too.
It is a smart move to piggyback a cop-criminal chase story on a mythological tale. For those who have not seen the 2017 Tamil original, Vikram Vedha is about a quixotic policeman who justifies encounters because that’s how you eradicate “the bad guys”. He is after Vedha, a dreaded gangster, who, in a turn of events, surrenders himself (in full Kevin Spacey-style from Se7en (1995), inside a police station, cops pointing guns, hands up, wielding a sinister smile). Now, Vedha tells Vikram a story, and the mystery is for us to unravel.
Vikram Vedha is a well-made remake. Pushkar and Gayathri have not merely copy-pasted the plot points of the original. They have tried (the keyword here) to root the film to North India. There are kidnappings, MLAs being bought, the Ram-Leelas, and burning Raavan effigies. But what should have been a deep dive is merely a pebble throw, hoping for some ripples. From the grey, grim lanes of Chennai, Vikram Vedha has been taken to the Nawabi chowks of Lucknow.
But the visuals swoon too much over the architecture of the city and resultantly lose out on the grittiness. Saif is convincing as the no-nonsense cop. He has the swagger, the slow-motion entry, but his manner lacks the necessary tiredness of R Madhavan in the original. Saif is vexed with the puzzles Hrithik’s Vedha presents to him, but not enough. The film is poured through the Bollywood filter and
appears too polished. It is not that the original wasn’t a bit guilty of hero-worshipping but the Hindi remake has Hrithik Roshan; can you really blame it?
Hrithik is both the peak and the downhill of Vikram Vedha. His bearded look, how he blazes some AK-47s, and the way he sports his shades while having the last word are a feast. But the camera loves Hrithik too much to let him embrace his dark side. He might have learnt all the ‘hums’ but his UPite accent is an unhappy reminder of his over-excitable, over-emphasised lingo in Super 30 (2019). His eyes are maniacal, his action is ably choreographed, and he plays all the notes but still, somehow misses the tone of Vedha.
The problem with Vikram Vedha is that it is so overburdened by its leading men that it forgets to focus on the side characters. Radhika Apte as Vikram’s lawyer-wife Priya is charming but forgetful. Rohit Saraf as Vedha’s brother Shatak leaves a mark but his death doesn’t hit home. Sharib Hashmi seems wasted as a stock paan-chewing drug dealer.
Vikram Vedha has everything: car chases, fist fights, sudden realisations, and Hrithik jumping between terraces, but it still feels dreary. If you can’t overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, draw a line between the Hindi-dubbed Tamil version and the remake. What will you choose?
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Saif
Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, Sharib Hashmi and Rohit Saraf
Director: Pushkar and Gayathri