A still from Vikram Vedha trailer. (courtesy: T-Series)
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, Rohit Saraf, Yogita Bihani
Director: Pushkar and Gayatri
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)
A remake is a remake even if it overruns with style and swag. Banish that thought and calibrate your expectations accordingly and Vikram Vedha, Pushkar and Gayatri's reshaping of their own 2017 Tamil smash hit of the same title, is a meaty mass entertainer that packs quite a punch.
Working with a screenplay that has yielded dividends before and banking on a pair of Bollywood stars who give a solid account of themselves, the directing duo cash in handsomely on the film's intelligently assembled resources.
Minor tweaks in the story, a drastic backdrop change and Hindi dialogue that alternates between the conversational and philosophical enable them to craft a movie that not only does not appear like a once-too-often exercise but also possesses the potential to pull the crowds in.
Saif Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan face off in a battle of attrition that is crammed with intrigue and energy, what with an array of characters orbiting around the cop and the criminal engaged in penetrating mind games. The two male leads, on their parts, deliver performances that stand out amid the orchestrated din.
Fleshing out characters that have been drawn from a centuries-old folktale and placed in present-day Lucknow, the actors are aided in rising above the stereotypical nature of the two men - one a policeman, the other an urban brigand; one on the side of good, the other against it - by the out-of-the-ordinary situations and the questions of ethics and emotions that the screenplay hinges on.
Senior superintendent of police (SSP) Vikram (Khan) is drafted into a special task force and pressed into an operation aimed at nabbing the sly and slippery Vedha (Roshan), who lords over the Lucknow underworld and keeps the law enforcers on their toes.
Vikram Vedha kicks off with a shootout in which a few gangsters are killed, which sparks off a round of violent confrontations between the STF and the vengeful Vedha. The end of violence seems nigh when the dreaded Vedha turns himself in to the police.
Vedha's surprise move is only the beginning. He has more up his sleeves than the cops anticipate. One of his trump cards is lawyer Priya (Radhika Apte), who happens to be Vikram's wife. A woman doing her job, her husband doing his and the two at loggerheads with each other - this recipe for marital discord adds a layer to the story that occasionally yanks it away from the hurly-burly of the police station and deposits it within the walls of domesticity.
Thrice in the course of the narrative, delivered as a series of flashbacks that spring out of twisted and protracted tales that Vedha narrates to Vikram, the cop is close to eliminating (or at least outwitting) the criminal. Each time, the latter convinces the former to hear a story rooted in his own life. Every story ends in the manner of a fable with a question of moral import centred on good and evil, the nature of crime, policing and culpability, and the dynamics of revenge and justice.
Inspired by the folktale Baital Pachisi in which King Vikramaditya sets out to capture a wily demon who repeatedly foxes the righteous ruler with riddles on whose answers their fate rests, Vikram Vedha transports the mythic tale to the capital city of Uttar Pradesh.
Lucknow, with its historic structures, has a key role in the film if only as a physical setting that gives the film a distinctive visual texture just as Chennai did in the original Vikram Vedha.
At three specific junctures, the police officer is forced by Vedha to confront an ethical dilemma regarding his role as a defender of the law and his firm belief that none of the encounter deaths he has caused was of an innocent man.
If you are among those that have seen the Tamil-language original, be warned that this is by and large a scene-by-scene, line-by-line reiteration that is 20 minutes longer than the Madhavan-Vijay Sethupathi starrer. The film's ability to startle and shock is therefore severely curtailed. But if you are unaware of the plot, Vikram Vedha has enough twists and turns to hold your attention all the way through.
Pushkar and Gayatri, perhaps the only husband-wife duo of directors in Asia, do well not to tinker with a successful construct. They fall back on not only the same Sam C.S. background score to shore up the action on the screen, but also on the director of photography (P.S. Vinod) and the editor (Richard Kevin).
While the cinematographer has to make significant adjustments to factor in a new location and a significantly altered production design, the editor is not required to do much that he has not done once before. But familiarity does not take anything away from Vikram Vedha.
Thanks to a new setting - Lucknow serves as a strikingly evocative backdrop to the fast-paced crime drama - and a fresh set of actors, Vikram Vedha has a colour palette of its own. Despite its length, it never feels stodgy or sluggish. The credit for that accrues as much to the technicians as to the writers (the directors themselves).
If comparisons are to be made no matter how odious they may be, Saif Ali Khan makes a far better Vikram. He inhabits the character of the tough cop with conviction and exudes the external toughness that defines the man and his mission.
Hrithik Roshan, who refrains from modelling his performance on that of Vijay Sethupathi, harnesses his star appeal and screen presence to deliver the goods and then some. It is well-nigh impossible to go one better on the inimitable Vijay Sethupathi. Roshan does not even try and that stands him in good stead.
With two major Bollywood stars powering the film, the actors in the supporting roles suffer just a touch. Be that as it may, Radhika Apte, stepping into Shraddha Srinath's shoes as Vikram's lawyer-wife, Satyadeep Mishra playing Vikram's police academy mate SSP Abbas Ali (replacing the Tamil film's Simon), and Sharib Hashmi in the role of Vedha's foe-turned-friend-turned-foe Babloo add their mite to the film.
The characters played by Rohit Saraf and Yogita Bihani - Vedha's younger brother and the girl in his life - somehow do not seem to make the impact that Kathir and Varalaxmi Sarathkumar did in the same roles in the 2017 movie. But these are but small blips in a power-packed, compelling action thriller that knows exactly what it is getting at and achieves its ends with aplomb.
Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, Rohit Saraf, Yogita Bihani
Pushkar and Gayatri