The inside of Vikramaditya Motwane’s head probably looks like a clean, compartmentalised (made in Germany) kitchen. So organised, you’re hoodwinked into thinking it would be easy to navigate.
This is also the mind responsible for the agonisingly ambitious film that is, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero. A brave experiment that is equal parts Arjun/Batman Begins/Superbad – Motwane tries to offer his own two cents on Bollywood herogiri (where one man beats up 20 people in slow-motion) and marries it with a superhero-origin story. It has elements of Christopher Nolan’s Batman where ‘anyone can be a hero’. And in a plethora of terrible desi superhero movies, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero could have been a game-changer. Unfortunately, even his biggest devotees couldn’t fully get behind the film.
Has enough time passed for him to be objective about the film, to see the flaws in it? “I’ve been objective throughout man,” Motwane shoots right back during a phone conversation. “You do things for a reason, you make the kind of films that you want to make, there’s nothing to regret. No one put a gun to my head and forced me to do it. It’s an opportunity that you either take with both hands or you let it pass. Looking back, you always think maybe I could have done it later, but then you’ve already learned so much because of that opportunity – that after a point it’s all hindsight. What I learned on the sets of Bhavesh, the relationships I made… there’s nothing to regret.”
A film that exists between Amit Trivedi’s criminally-underrated background score (in a post-Hans Zimmer world), ambitious stunts featuring FOBs and local trains, and flat-out lazy exposition like the scene featuring the legend of Icarus – Bhavesh Joshi Superhero comes across as something that’s ‘too risky’ and ‘not risky enough’ at the same time. Save for a few purely original moments, like where the title character awkwardly sips chai from beneath a brown paper bag or when the antagonist stands in front of the hero (in disguise) and they break into an impromptu dance. “At no other point does Bhavesh Joshi risk looking this silly and at no other point does it feel like its own film” – reputed film critic Uday Bhatia succinctly put it in his review.
A critic’s darling, Motwane had to deal with mixed reviews for the first time in his short career of four films. “I think the ‘superhero’ in the title might have misled some of the critics (or the audience) into expecting a very different kind of movie, you know? A lot of the criticism was that this has ‘superhero’ in the title, and this is what the movie should be. And I’m like – there’s no such rule, and it’s all in your head,” Motwane recounted about how reviews play a major role in determining the footfalls for his movies.
Bhavesh Joshi Superhero’s soaring ambition can be boiled down to two choices that showcase Motwane’s ability to go with his gut. Picking Sharib Hashmi to lip-sync to Divya Kumar’s rustic vocals for Tere chumme mein chyawanprash hai in a bit-role, and Harshvardhan Kapoor’s still presence for a lead character who goes through the beats of being idealistic, cynical, devastated, confused to resolute. Instead, Kapoor just… exists. On one hand, where Hashmi shamelessly submits to the crude setting amidst the raining currency, Kapoor’s staid presence ends up looking the opposite of cinematic. It’s not exactly ‘bad acting’, but Kapoor’s outburst (in the second half) provokes as much of a reaction as a ‘still life’ portrait.
Asked what he would do differently if he could go wind the clocks back a few years, the director says – “If you’re talking about going all the way back to the drawing board, then I would change a few scenes here and there. I feel the title of the film is wrong. I think the film’s marketing was too generic. And that’s the problem with Hindi film marketing, that it always tries to hit the largest chunk of the audience. But, sometimes I think it makes more sense to be a bit more focused with one’s approach. I think Bhavesh should have targeted younger boys, the YA (Young Adult) population. I think we could have targeted the 15-year-olds, and we could have built the audience from that. It wasn’t too simple and at the same time not too complex for them.”
Vikramaditya Motwane somewhat redeemed himself from Bhavesh Joshi’s failure, with Sacred Games that came out only a month later. A breakout hit, if the number of Internet memes are a measure of success, Sacred Games managed to become the director’s biggest hit. “See the kind of films I make, they’re not the opening weekend kinda’ films. So whatever traction my films are getting over time, not many of them have watched it in a theatre. They pick up the DVD, see it on a streaming service or on TV. Not just months, but over years, I still keep getting messages about Lootera, Udaan, and Trapped. Back in 2010, when Udaan released my film was in theatres for eight weeks. Now, a film like Sanju runs for eight weeks” – at this moment you begin to see the producer in Motwane.
With the success of Lust Stories, Sacred Games & Love Per Square Foot, Motwane agrees that the web audience isn’t unknown like it was a couple of years ago. So would he entertain thoughts about the reaction to Bhavesh Joshi Superhero if it released on a streaming service? “I would have probably approached it in a different manner. I may have made it with a little more edge actually. I think there’s a certain amount of safe playing in this film – to make it a big-screen experience, and the lead of the film is Harsh Kapoor so there’s a certain kind of expectation that comes with that. For Netflix, I think it would have been a very different film.”
Like his protagonist in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, Motwane has become somewhat of a Twitter vigilante in recent times. Taking on multiplexes for forcing intervals and slamming music apps for not crediting lyricists, the Lootera director is also getting some fan mail related to Bhavesh Joshi Superhero. “I think it’s kinda’ sweet that people are writing to me on Twitter, apologising for not watching Bhavesh in the theatre,” he says with a laugh.
After barely making it to a second week at the multiplexes, the film has found a home at both Hotstar and Netflix. “I had a blast shooting it, I think we did a lot of stuff that no one has attempted before, and there were a lot of things that we managed to pull off pretty well. But over the years, there will be things like the bike chase that will gain its own notoriety. Like Ronin (1998), everyone remembers the car chase but no one remembers which movie it is from. As long as people remember the bike scene from Bhavesh, that’s enough for me.”
It’s not difficult to imagine Vikramaditya Motwane’s silhouette against Bollywood’s many ivory towers. He’s Insaaf-man and his fight to tell interesting stories will not be deterred by failure. In the world of rigid idealists like Motwane, the story isn’t over until justice prevails. That box office hit, is only a matter of time.