“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great. It’s a quote I half-expected to stream forth from the mouth of Dr Aryan Kulshrestha (Akshay Kumar), an atheist archaeologist obsessed with ‘facts’ and ‘hard evidence’ in Abhishek Sharma’s Ram Setu. No soap.
Aryan has no use for the Hitchen’s razor (or any razor, given his splendidly fuzzy white whiskers). He’s an atheist in the same way certain Amitabh Bachchan characters in the 70s and 80s were atheists: as a set-up for a turnabout further ahead.
This film about the origins of the Ram Setu—a 48-km chain of shoals between India and Sri Lanka that many believe is the eponymous bridge mentioned in the Ramayana—opens, befuddling, in Afghanistan, after Taliban forces have destroyed the Bamyan Buddha statutes. Aryan, joining a crack team of foreign archaeologists, is researching there when they’re set upon by more terrorists.
Aryan escapes — but not before retrieving a chest of ancient coins linked to the reign of Dahir of Ahor, the last Hindu king of Sindh. “Religion divides but culture unites,” he later says, sagely, at a press conference. How wonderful! How secular! Surely the headlines back home will agree?
Returning to India, Aryan wades into controversy, and, to make matters worse, is made the Director General of the Archeological Survey of India. There he prepares (or is forced to prepare) a report challenging the historicity of the Ramayana.
The government, we gather, is working with a greedy private corporation to expedite the Sethusamudram project, which involves dredging around the Ram Setu to build a shipping canal. This is vehemently opposed by religious, political and environmental groups.
Aryan’s report causes a furour — as had happened in 2007, though I doubt any of those ASI members were ever invited back, airdropped into a swanky research vessel, assigned teammates named Sandra Rebello (Jacqueline Fernandez) and Gabrielle (Jeniffer Piccinato), outfitted with a bulky exosuit that looks like a child’s action figure and told to prove their earlier theory all over again.
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Anybody who loves the Ramayana—as story, myth, history, whatever—ought to dislike a film like Ram Setu. The ancient epic is one of the greatest adventures ever told, with thrilling characters, breathtaking set-pieces and intricate moral standoffs. Abhishek, while riding the wave of Hindu revivalism in mainstream Hindi cinema, can’t even deliver a smidgen of that experience.
The underwater scenes inspire yawns instead of awe. Aryan and his crew—now helped by a tour guide named AP (a memorable Satyadev Kancharana)—get into chases and gunfights, yet any excitement is marred by the broken camaraderie of the group and the sheer strangeness of their mission. Unable to complete his actual mission, Aryan concludes, “Proving Ravana’s existence will prove Lord Ram’s”.
Whatever you say, doc. They travel from tea estate to lake to cave to the mountaintop, checking off landmarks like ‘Ashok Vatika’ and ‘Sone Ki Lanka’. From a contained, sea-bound thriller, Ram Setu morphs into an extended commercial for Sri Lankan tourism’s Ramayana Trail (It’s funny to see Jacqueline, a Sri Lankan national, keep a straight face).
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Akshay puckers his face in an odd squinch like someone constantly smelling conspiracies in the air. It’s unexplained why his character—a reasonably skeptical, well-esteemed researcher—would undergo such a sudden change of heart, or extract grand theories from filmsy, incomplete evidence.
The finale devolves into a shouting match of WhatsApp pronouncements, in the Supreme Court no less (the scene hits such a fever pitch the makers have to add a separate ‘work of fiction’ disclaimer). Once it’s over, Gayatri (Nushrratt Bharuccha), Aryan’s wife, congratulates him, telling him that “Shree Ram couldn’t have found a better lawyer than you”.
Ram Setu attempts to prove the verities of the gods. All it confirms is the presumptuousness of mortals.
Creators: Abhiskeh Sharma
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Jacqueline Fernandez, Nushrratt Bharuccha and Satya Dev