Writers: Pushkar–Gayatri/Benazir Ali Fida and Manoj Muntashir (Hindi adaptation/dialogues)
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, Rohit Saraf, and Sharib Hashmi
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.”
Although a retelling and reimagining of the folklore of Betaal Pachchisi where Vetal, a rather wise, old, and dead Casper-meets-Batmanish wise but sinister creature, torments the King of Ujjain, Vikramaditya with 25 stories, each ending with a moral conundrum—a complex riddle Vikram needs to solve to move forward in his journey—the story of Vikram Vedha can well be summarised by this pregnant line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (in fact, the premise of the story might even remotely remind one of Bergman’s Seventh Seal).
Plot (on) Point
Vikram is an honest and moralistic encounter specialist whose kill count has reached a whopping 18. But his conscience is clear as he is certain that he is killing only baddies. He divides the world into two clear sides—the good and the evil. He believes to clean the pond one needs to get down and dirty and sift through the muddy waters.
Vikram is part of the task force created to apprehend the dreaded gangster Vedha. Interestingly, his body count is lesser than that of the cop trying to bring him to justice. While Vikram makes elaborate plans to nab Vedha, one day he pays a surprise visit at the police station and peacefully surrenders. But Vedha has some plans of his own. And that is to simply turn Vikram’s world upside down and make him question the one thing that is most dear to him—his morals.
Vedha, like Betaal, narrates three stories that end in a moral conundrum that Vikram needs to resolve. As he tries to do so, his idea of right and wrong, of good and evil takes a hit. Are these terms absolute or relative? Does changing sides turn the right to the left? Are the fair and the foul two sides of the same coin? His black-and-white worldview gets a technicolored twist.
A near-faithful remake of the 2017 Tamil thriller by the same name, written and directed by the duo of Pushkar and Gayathri, the makers of the Hindi version, Vikram Vedha, sees the best of both worlds—the brilliance of South storytelling and the saucy suave of Bollywood. The lead pair of Saif Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan brings in their A-game– as actors and as stars–and their chemistry together is electrifying (the same cannot however be said for Saif and Radhika, who play husband and wife). But the hero of this movie is the director duo Pushkar–Gayathri and their brilliant edge-of-the-seat storytelling. Kudos to them for envisioning such a taut thriller based on the age-old children’s story of Vikram and Vetal.
Making one compelling movie that the critics can’t fault and the masses love is no mean feat, and making two out of the same story, is quite an achievement. Not only the director duo has made amends, added scenes, changed the location from Chennai to Lucknow, and polished off the rough edges (at 159 minutes, it is longer than the original), but their masterstroke is to not try to make Saif or Hrithik follow in the footsteps of R. Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi who had left no stones unturned to make the two characters iconic in the original. Yes, comparisons between Saif and Madhavan’s Vikram are unavoidable, and more so between Hrithik and Vijay. But the two Bollywood actors not only bring in their own interpretation of the characters but also imbue them with their own unique style without tainting them with their star personas.
Two to Tango
Although this is not a patch on his Omkara act, Saif is sharp and suave as Vikram. Also, even though they inhabit a similar cop universe, he makes it a point to make his Vikram distinctly different from his Sartaj, the disillusioned cop haunted by his past in Sacred Games. While he might look a bit stiff in the initial scenes, those are also a reflection of his rigid personality. Saif is good as Vikram, but evil Saif is always better than ‘good’ Saif and one can’t help but wonder what if he got to play Vedha instead? The actor shines in the scenes with Hrithik. It is a treat to see two very different (and very handsome) actors join forces. Their highly stylized action sequences together are the reason films should be watched in theatres. But it is in their less flamboyant moments, where the duo is just talking to each other, that their on-screen chemistry really comes through. These are two self-assured actors, who are embracing their age on screen and are at the top of their game. There is no one-upmanship, no attempt to overshadow each other; instead one acts as the perfect foil to the other. And together they dazzle.
However, it is a shabby-looking Hrithik Roshan, with his unkempt curls with a few grey strands, crow’s feet, and a scraggly beard, who probably gives his most flawless performance to date as the deliciously evil and intense, Vedha. There are zero instances of overacting or melodrama, there is no Jadoo hangover in his voice modulation, there is no anger-induced twitching of facial muscles, and unlike Super 30, his Awadhi accent isn’t cringey; in his 25th film Hrithik Roshan the actor is at his realistic best but also adequately larger-than-life. He carries his swagger with casual ease and his superstar vibe has a lived-in quality to it. Hrithik Roshan of Vikram Vedha merges the star and the actor seamlessly.
Interestingly, his equation with his brother Shatak reminds one of the bond Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai’s (his debut film as a leading man) Rohit shared with his younger brother Amit (also, there is a dialogue that almost literally translates to Khali haath aaye the hum, khali haath jaayenge…the lyrics of the famous Lucky Ali song from the movie…coincidence? maybe).
Radhika Apte plays Priya, Vikram’s wife and also the devil’s advocate. Her romance with Vikram doesn’t create the desired impact and her story arc is possibly the most implausible. Also, she repeats the same intense/irritable/agitated expressions and one hopes the actor gets better opportunities to reinvent herself and showcase her versatility.
The one who gets to show his versatility in this film and does a superb job of it is Sharib Hashmi. As Babloo, he unleashes a side that comes as surprise. In order to not give out any spoilers, we have to stay away from discussing this character further. But, watch out for him.
Rohit Saraf as Shatak is effective as well. However, one of the most pronounced weaknesses of Vikram Vedha is the lack of depth and nuance in the side characters. It seems the writer-director duo had put so much focus and effort into creating Vikram and Vedha that they forgot that the other characters inhabiting their worlds also need some attention. While Vikram and Vedha plot to checkmate each other, the rest are just treated as pawns in this game of chase.
Sound, Camera, Action
Unlike most South remakes by South directors, here the Hindi dialogues get the love and care they deserve. Manoj Muntashir and BA Fida’s writings are massy, witty, and sharp. In fact, the dialoguebaazi ensures that when not drowned by the thumping BGM, the crazed cheering, clapping, hooting, and whistling of the audience make a thunderous return to the theatres. The Kanpur-Lucknow dialects add authenticity. It is interesting how the dialogues give Vikram and Vedha their distinct voices.
The stylized action sequences make the film a delight to watch especially the absolutely stunning and absolutely over-the-top scene where Vedha jumps and kills the politician; and his trigger-happy tango with Vikram. There are some clichéd sequences as well but they are given a fresh twist thanks to P. S. Vinod’s agile and fierce camera, which is undoubtedly the other star of this movie. He seldom keeps it at eye level and uses it not just to capture the goings on but makes it a part of the action. You have bodies flying and falling towards the camera during a fight sequence, you have the camera spying on conversations of the characters, and even the done-to-death flying car sequences are shot in a manner that makes them look fresh. The story unfolds in Kanpur and Lucknow. But it is not yet another small-town Hindi belt story. It is a stylized and vivid world that is seen through exquisite frame-within-frame shots. Most of the initial scenes of Vedha are low-angle shots that make his character stand tall. Vikram is often shown standing between walls, reflecting the walls closing in and giving a sense of getting trapped.
The movie is also remarkable for its music. The robust original background score by Sam C. S. is retained and is possibly one of the best that has been heard in Bollywood in the last 5 years, if not a decade. The use of old songs as a backdrop to slo-mo highly-choreographed action sequences isn’t anything new (one of the best such examples was Khoya Khoya Chand in Shaitan), but is done effectively and adds adequate irony to the situations. However, Vishal–Shekhar’s dance track Alcoholia, doesn’t add anything to the film and is at best an item number to once again showcase Hrithik’s flexible limbs and dancing skills (the song sequence is definitely one of the weakest moments of the film).
If one has to make a remake, Vikram Vedha is how it should be done. For a person absolutely smitten with everything that is/was quintessential Bollywood, this is a return of the native. For those raving about the storytelling and cinematic vision of the South, this is deeply satisfying. It is what pan-Indian cinema should truly look like. It is also how mass entertainers should be treated. This is the larger-than-life star-spangled OTT cinema that can save cinema from the OTTs and bring the audience back to the theatres.
Watch it as a standalone film and not as a remake to fully enjoy the ride.
Avoid, if you hate Bollywood or if you are expecting Hrithik Roshan to metamorphose into Vijay Sethupati. It is about murder, mayhem, and shifting morality, NOT magic.