The thing about trying to appeal to several lowest common denominators at once is it often turns films into cinematic fast food of the highest order. Low barrier to entry, high calorie count. That’s why it’s called broad entertainment. But man alive if it doesn’t go down a treat on a Friday or Saturday night. I’ve been pining for the 80s heyday of Hong Kong action-comedies of late, the kind of movie where the plot is an excuse to cram in as many humourous sketches and physical set pieces as possible, and I think I may have found a new way to sate that appetite in Bollywood blockbusters. (And they come with musical numbers to boot.) It was there all along, I just had to darken the doorway of a different filmic fast food joint to my usual.
Baaghi (meaning rebel) is a diverting pastiche with which to whittle away a few hours — a grab-bag of a movie so stuffed with, well, stuff, it’s hard to know where to begin. To open, actress Siya (Shraddha Kapoor) is kidnapped from her father’s film set and taken to a high-rise tower in Bangkok. Ronny (Tiger Shroff) is recruited to rescue her. Introduced doing a handstand on a thumb and forefinger, he’s clearly fit for the task, if he can overcome the emotional baggage of his past history with Siya. The first rainfall of the film then switches the audience back in time to see the two meet cute and follow their growing relationship as well as Ronny’s apprenticeship to a martial arts master (Shifuji Shaurya Bhardwaj). The wrench in the works is the master’s son Raghav (Sudheer Babu Posani) who also has his eye on Siya and is anything but cute in his pursuit. A few more flashes back and forth along the timeline build to Ronny’s arrival in Bangkok, where the action really gets flashy.
On that scaffolding are draped all sorts of popular movie trappings: the statuesque male and female leads, a cornucopia of colourful locales and travelogue-worthy vistas, villainous scheming and romantic swooning, kicking and punching, singing and dancing, oddball comedy and maudlin melodrama. With such a mix-and-match approach it’s unsurprising some elements feel a little loose.
Ronny’s initial motivation to take the rescue job is to earn money for an operation for Subbu (Aryan Prajapati), a young boy who has a speech impediment. Subbu’s father also lives at the martial arts school, but disappears from the story without explanation, making it seem as though Ronny has adopted the boy. But once Ronny goes to Bangkok, Subbu is never seen again either. It’s a shame, because the lad is a fun side character and really well acted, rising above the easy emotional manipulation of putting the well-being of a kid with a disability in jeopardy, as happened with Rumble in the Bronx. On the other side of the character sheet, another fellow also vanishes from the story without his scummy actions being addressed. None of these roles are bad, they just don’t get resolved.
Thankfully, the stars of the show shine as well. Shraddha Kapoor was the more experienced of the two at the time, but Tiger Shroff is not just coasting off the fame of his film-star father Jackie Shroff. The two leads play well off each other and both are accomplished dancers to boot. The first song, a singing-in-the-rain dance on a train station platform chockers with colourfully attired extras is a delightful start. It’s catchy and sets up the conflict between the leads and the villain. The several romantic ballads later in the film were less engrossing, plagued as they were by soulful staring, bad lip-synching and excessive auto-tuning. The pretty people and places were something to watch at least.
The feel-good romance is coupled in the first half of the film with Ronny’s service at the martial arts school. When it comes time to get into the serious training, Shifuji Shaurya Bhardwaj is a master of the ancient Indian style of kalaripayattu (or kalari for short), and seems like he is basically playing himself, as well as filling the role of chief action consultant. He gives a mini history lesson on kalaripayattu in the course of the film and schools Ronny and the viewer in some of the training methodology and unarmed forms. Some weapons are shown off elsewhere, such as the sword and round shield seen when Ronny first arrives at the school and the urumi whip sword wielded by Raghav in an early exhibition of his prowess, but the bulk of the combat is hand to hand, blending the kalari moves with Tiger Shroff’s acrobatic aerial leg flexing, courtesy of his background in tae kwon do.
It’s heartening to see kalaripayattu get some homegrown exposure, following its resurgence after being suppressed under British rule in India. (Further afield, Reign of Assassins touched on the Indian origins of martial arts as part of its back story — and also featured a romantic pairing aided by providential downpours).The downside is that mixed with the celebration of kalaripayattu is an undercurrent of disdain for Chinese kung fu practice, which made me bristle a bit, since Hong Kong martial arts and action films were my first genre love. Pride in the foundational heritage of Indian martial arts is justified, but there’s no need to belittle those who built upon it. Even if kung fu has faded in esteem and sometimes been the subject of ridicule in recent years, those who practice it still deserve respect. Ronny’s final line to a tough opponent, played by Kazu Patrick Tang with a terrible hairdo, hammered the point hard enough to provoke a wince.
It also seems a bit contradictory to take another martial art down a peg or two, while at the same time being highly derivative of other martial arts movie classics. Ronny’s early training feels like a cross between The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Karate Kid and a moment where he has to wipe up as powdery footprints are traipsed around the training area is a staple straight from the likes of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Once Ronny reaches Bangkok, it’s time to call back to Ong Bak, with a visit to an underground fight venue and a chase through backstreets complete with bumbling comedic support that both feel extremely similar to Tony Jaa’s breakout hit. The final assault on the high-rise where Siya is held compresses The Raid into about fifteen minutes, with multiple moments directly mimicking that influential 2011 action landmark, except without being set up as clearly.
It’s all still fun to watch, but with such a talented team on the film, it’s a mild disappointment Baaghi doesn’t blaze its own trail more often. Despite an overuse of speed variation, the action is top notch in execution and Tiger Shroff is an amazing performer. Sabbir Khan directed his debut film Heropanti and the duo have upped the action ante significantly with Baaghi. Special mention for one fantastic scene change cut on the reaction to a punch that packs a real wallop.
Tiger is far and away the more accomplished martial artist, but out-takes show Shraddha Kapoor getting some training in for her couple of action moments. Siya claims at one point she could have escaped from her gilded cage at any time, but it’s not quite believable. Quick editing is required to lend a helping hand in her brief moments of biffo, but it’s nice to see hero and heroine walking hand in hand to the final confrontation, even if Ronny does most of the fighting when they get there.
This film was such a hit there are two sequels already, but from checking out the trailers it seems like they go way over the top — which is saying a lot given how bonkers Baaghi is to start with. It’s not clear whether Tiger Shroff’s character is the same Ronny, but in any case, it looks like the series follows the trajectory of the Rambo films’ escalating silliness, as by Baaghi 3 he’s fighting what appears to be the whole of Syria, and at one point stands victorious atop a pile of wrecked helicopters. Regardless of the quality of these follow-ups and despite its flaws, Baaghi is a rollicking good time and pegged as an instant purchase for this fan should it ever get a local DVD release.