Reimagining a mythological epic for the times that we live in is a perfectly permissible exercise as the long as the filmmaker is aware that there is a huge difference between adaptation and distortion. Writer-director Om Raut clearly isn’t. Adipurush, a bloated and vacuous cinematic version of a part of the Ramayana, does the epic or its civilisation-defining characters no justice at all.
The story of Lord Rama is an intrinsic part of Indian life, culture and religion and any attempt to bring it to the big screen demands both rigour and reverence. The veneration is all here – nothing wrong with that except for the fact that much of it does not ring true – but it isn’t backed up with firm creative integrity and storytelling acumen.
The ambition is mammoth but the imagination that the makers of Adipurush bring to the table is no bigger than the size of the computer screens that have been used to give the film its final shape. Neither the jungle where Raghav (Prabhas) agrees to be exiled for 14 years in deference to his stepmother’s wish, nor Lanka, the kingdom that Ravana (Saif Ali Khan) lords over, resemble any part that could be on the Indian subcontinent.
Adipurush is part Planet of the Apes, part King Kong, and part all the Hollywood superhero movies that the director and his ilk have been weaned on. It presents Lord Rama (Prabhas) as a comic book hero with a bow and a quiver that never runs out of arrows, Sita (Kriti Sanon) as a whimpering damsel in distress, Ravana as a cross between Thanos and Voldemort, and Bajrang/Hanuman (Devdatta Nage) as a mighty acrobat barely aware of his incredible powers until somebody reminds him that he can leap across a sea.
Watching Adipurush is not unlike watching a Marvel or DC movie. It is, to draw an analogy from within the film and the epic that it adapts, like the Swarna Mrig (golden deer) that the exiled Raghav chases at the behest of his consort. The creature is only a mirage. It isn’t what it pretends to be.
Adipurush is full of magic and miracles, but no trick that it rustles up over the three hours that it takes to peddle its wares can offset the consequences of the trivialisation of a great epic. The film makes a complete hash of a wonderful legend about the triumph of good over evil that has inspired Indian storytelling since time immemorial.
The world that Adipurush builds around the cottage that Raghav, Sita and Shesh/Lakshmana (Sunny Singh) occupy, is pretty as a picture. Ravana’s palace in Lanka, too, is mind-numbingly imposing. But neither of the two spaces look habitable, let alone lived-in.
It is easy to see from the word go that Adipurush is going to be a difficult film to wade through. With each passing minute, it gets more and more tiresome as the bag of sleights at its disposal is not only limited in range but also lacking in uniformity.
A movie like Adipurush would be nothing without its computer imagery. Its makers have spared no effort to pack it, end to end, with the most excessive of visual effects. That is tantamount to a terrible artistic choice especially given the fact that the VFX on show barely passes muster. The visuals look like they have been yanked out of a hyperactive child’s overly-coloured drawing book.
As a consequence, nothing on the screen looks real or believable. This revered story of men and monkey gods should have been marked by far greater attention to detail, and more painstaking execution. The human characters do not walk like real people. The gait of the talking primates is probably more human.
All of them seem to float in the air when they aren’t actually flying. The film does neither. It hobbles and crawls in ways that are neither particularly watchable nor narratively purposeful
Adipurush is weird blend of fantasy and fallacy – the result of an overkill of the sort of technical wizardry that Hollywood has mastered and done to death. In any case, the VFX that the film uses is hardly suited to the cinematic retelling of an Indian epic. If the film was going to be so derivative in terms of its visual design and its spatial dimensions, it should have gone in for a story that isn’t as rooted in the Indian ethos as the Ramayana.
What Adipurush thinks of women is made amply clear in the cavalier manner in which it places them on the periphery of the saga and deprives them of the power to intervene in a meaningful manner when push comes to shove. Be it Rani Mandodari, Ravana’s neglected wife, or Surpanakha, the demon king’s sister who seeks vengeance after her nose is chopped off by Lakshmana, they can only whine and complain.
Saif Ali Khan towers over everybody else in Adipurush and in a very physical sense at that. On the battlefield, when he squares off against the actor embodying the titular hero, he stands much taller. The actor revels in fleshing out the arch-villain although the performance would have gained appreciably in impact hadn’t the lines that he spouts been as stilted.
That is true of Prabhas’ performance, too. He has strong screen presence but it appears to be wasted on an undeserving film.
If there is anything worse than what Adipurush passes off as dialogues, it is the film’s sound design. Not only is it ear-splittingly loud, it is shockingly unimaginative. But why complain when virtually everything else in Adipurush is as just as phenomenally slapdash?
Prabhas, Kriti Sanon, Saif Ali Khan, Sunny Singh and Devdatta Nage