Shah Rukh Khan climbed to the summit of Bollywood on a path trodden in the U.S. by stars like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant: playing mostly the same character in film after film.
Khan at his box-office best portrays a fast-talking, modern young man with raffish good looks who enchants the heroine and then reveals a respect for Indian tradition that charms her mother. When mum asks the couple to elope, our hero refuses and vows to win over the grumpy patriarchal father, thus capturing the hearts and rupees of every movie-going daughter and mother.
In “Ra.One,” India’s most expensive film which premiered in Dubai last week, he strays from the formula and pays the price. This time, Khan plays the roles of bumbling computer nerd Shekhar and the computer-game hero he invents. The movie, which Khan said cost the co-producers more than 850 million rupees ($17.4 million), is a dated video game dressed in the garb of an unoriginal film without a shred of the mystery, mythology, conflict or depth that characterize a good superhero movie.
While no one was expecting “The Dark Knight” from this film’s makers, they could potentially have matched the entertaining and goofy “Hellboy.” Sadly, Khan and director Anubhav Sinha fail to understand the idiom of superhero cinema.
Khan plays a Southern Indian stereotypically as a bumbling, nerdy simpleton with an ugly mop of curly hair and weak social skills. He is a video game designer, living in London with his gorgeous wife and young son, who cringes at his dad’s inability even to correctly pronounce the word “dude.”
Eager to impress his lad, who believes heroes are boring and villains are “kick-ass,” Shekhar develops a game where the evil Ra.One is more powerful than the noble G.One.
Ra.One, a play on Raavan, the villain in the Hindu epic Ramayana, inevitably escapes the video game and enters the real world, intent on wreaking havoc. It is now up to G.One, also played by Khan, to fight the villain and save the day.
You know how all this is going to end. The story, for which Sinha takes credit, consists of plot points and ideas from Hollywood movies such as “Tron”, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Virtuosity,” to name just a few.
Sinha’s direction is haphazard. The much talked-about special effects whiz past your eyes accompanied by such a noisy score that it makes Michael Bay’s Transformer movies seem serene. Characters are forced to mouth reams of expository dialog so banal that one couldn’t care less.
Khan, co-producer of the film, is gratingly unappealing as the father and seemed ill-at-ease as G.One, as if he were trying to channel Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Casper the Friendly Ghost at the same time. Kareena Kapoor, as his wife Sonia, has little to do other than look ravishingly clueless and display some dance moves.
The character of Ra.One gives Arjun Rampal as much scope as a wooden puppet. He growls a lot. The son, played by Armaan Verma, is a welcome break from the annoying, bratty kids that populate Bollywood movies.
Khan said he wants to make the first Hindi film that the whole world watches. Ra.One isn’t it. India has had much better contenders in movies, such as Anurag Kashyap’s “Dev D” and “Gulaal,” or Dibakar Banerjee’s “Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!”
And if you crave a good old-fashioned dose of Bollywood, rent “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” or “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” both of which star Khan in roles that helped cement his status as the “king” of the Hindi film industry.
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(Pratish Narayanan writes about Indian cinema for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)