J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Baadshaho: An Emergency Caper

Given all the sky-is-falling media coverage of the Trump Administration, you would think India’s Emergency Period would suddenly be a hot topic. From late June 1975 to late March 1977, the world’s largest democracy essentially put its democratic government on hold, instituting something very much like martial law. Of course, PM Indira Gandhi was a socialist, more or less. She was complicated and the media can’t handle that. From time to time, Indian pop culture sizes up the Emergency Period and finds it rather odd. Evidently, they have reached the point when they can use the era of widespread human rights abuses as the backdrop for an action movie (that sounds like progress to us). Government stooges have plundered the ancient family treasure of a beloved Rajasthan princess, but her loyal bodyguard and on-again-off-again lover intends to hijack it back in Milan Luthria’s Baadshaho (trailer here), which is currently playing in Los Angeles.

Maharani Gitanjali always knew she could rely on strong, silent Bhavani Singh and that up-and-coming politician Sanjeev is total pond scum. She rebuffs Sanjeev’s advances, so he nationalizes her gold (meaning he will deposit it in his own coffers, for the sake of the “public good”), so Singh will assemble a colorful team to steal it back. Sounds simple, right? Wrong, complications are aplenty, starting with the transport truck, a veritable bank vault on wheels, and the multiple combination locks to be cracked therein.

Fortunately, Singh knows the crankiest safecracker on the subcontinent. He will also recruit his self-styled lothario pal Dalia, and Gitanjali’s trusted rep, Sanjana. Ordinarily, those four could easily handle all the cops and military personnel from Jodhpur to Delhi, but Major Seher Singh is also on the case. That one will be trouble, even before the double and triple crosses start coming fast and furious.

Surely, the Emergency Period was nowhere near as much fun as it looks in Baadshaho. For one thing, Dalia gets a suggestive Bollywood number with a dancer played by Sunny Leone in cameo that doesn’t exactly stretch her screen persona. There is a bounty of action involving barrel-chested Singh the bodyguard climbing over the roof and under the chassis of speeding flatbed fortress. However, the real pleasures of Baadshaho are the courtly intrigues swirling around Gitanjali.

As the dueling Singhs, Ajay Devgn and Vidyut Jamwal have mucho action chops and are quite evenly matched when it comes to swaggering screen presence. However, neither of them can lay a finger on Ileana D’Cruz, who burns up the screen as the femme fatale Mahrani. Man, is she ever formidable, just you wait and see. She basically owns the film, but it is also nice to have Denzil Smith onboard as Seher Singh’s commanding officer Rudra Singh, because his baritone voice can make even the most prosaic lines sounds like “now is the winter of our discontent.”

Screenwriter Rajat Arora largely sidesteps the bitterest controversies of the Emergency Period, but his screenplay certainly makes the cops and military of the era look venal and sadistic. It is mostly about meatheadish pedal-to-metal action, but Luthria and film editor Aarif Sheikh cleverly keep cutting back and reframing a pivotal scene that will eventually have viewing chuckling in anticipation. Mostly just good, clean, Indian-censorship-office-approved fun with the added weird fascination of its setting, Baadshaho is now showing in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Town Center.

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