It sounded like a cool pairing – the darkly fun Tigmanshu Dhulia, coming off Paan Singh Tomar and Saheb Biwi and Gangster Returns, in collaboration with Saif Ali Khan as a pulpy goonda. It pains me to say that despite a few isolated fun moments, Bullet Raja is a stale and forgettable movie.
I love Tigmanshu Dhulia. I love that he'll go to any extent to craft a funny line, and he really knows how to construct Virat Hindu Villains. Having said that, his latest movie has a crossroad. On one hand you could call Bullet Raja better than most Simbly South remake style movies because it avoids the grating visual tackiness of that genre. On the other hand you could call this film the worst Dhulia flick because it takes a clever concept and does nothing with it.
Here the hero Raja is an Uttar Pradesh ka goonda, a bearded, henna dyed, Bullet-riding, chick magnet macho man. Raja sucks at love, plots revenge, and well, let's just say Bullet Raja doesn't exactly work as a throwback or as a dark comedy thriller. And as pulpy entertainment it fares even worse. The movie is called Bullet Raja and the hero never does anything awesome with his Royal Enfield or his revolver’s bullets. Saif plays the cocksure swaggerer, with Jimmy Shergil as his bestie, together they are a UP goonda gang and they wander from place to place, perpetually doing gangstergiri. On paper this should work, but it doesn’t. Saif and Shergill are forever mumbling and snoring their way through the movie, and it doesn’t help in making us care for this unexciting duo. There’s Ravi Kishan who dresses up as a woman while having sex with another woman in a saree - and stuff like this fails to both funny and pulpy. Every UP-wale-daakoo character waddles onto the screen and snoozes through the set pieces.
At times we'll be offered doses of Dhulia’s clever one liners, but they’re offset by the wearisome look of the film. Lensed in bland shots (in which some characters speak directly into the camera with grim faces), Bullet Raja is one hell of a dry looking movie. Combine the dreary visual style with a deafening tone that pretty much reeks of Prabhudeva’s masterpieces, this movie is the textbook definition of a stillborn action comedy. It has no rhythm or panache or any trace of the naughtiness found in Dhulia’s earlier films. There's a superficial backbone about Raja trying to find a job and being forced into goondagardi but it exists only as a coat hanger on which to hang a random and disjointed series of skits. Toss in an excessively horrendous score by Sajid-Wajid and you're looking at one hot mess of a movie.
Did I laugh a few times? Absolutely. There’s a scene where Saif escapes his chaser by jumping through a glass window and people around him stand and clap. Give Dhulia a word document and put Saif on the camera for two and a half hours and you're bound to find a few giggles from the footage. But the laughs delivered in this film are painfully few and far in between. For the amount of entertainment that Bullet Raja has to offer I'd say it's more worthy of a lazy TV watch. Once all the boring ‘backstory’ bits are dealt with in the first half you'll be treated to a short series of dialogue baazi that doubles as action sequences – Saif vs Chunky Pandey, Saif vs Raj Babbar, Saif vs Vipin Sharma. And after Sonakshi Sinha’s Bong actress moves in with Saif and Shergill after having met them once, the film gets all deep and serious as if it expects you to find and extract one sincere drop of emotion from these terribly written characters.
Saif struts through the movie under the impression that acting is optional in this movie. We’ve seen what he is capable of in Omkara, and he was pretty darn good in Ek Haseena Thi – he is miscast in this role because he just can’t pull off a showy gun trotting slightly OTT gangsta without going into the farcical zone. As for Sonakshi, after seeing her nuanced performance in Lootera it looked like she was moving beyond the cash grabby roles but Bullet Raja marks her worst performance to date. The very pretty Vidyut Jamwal wanders through the film doing Kung Fu Karate kicks, careful to never take the spotlight away from the camera-hogging superstar hero. And if there's one universal rule of filmmaking it is this - when you get Gulshan Grover in your movie, you better give the guy some good material to work with. Bullet Raja manages to make even Gulshan Grover seem tedious, and for that I dislike the film even more. But it'll take more than one disaster before I wash my hands of Dhulia. Let's just call this one a small mistake and wait for his next great film.
(First published in Firstpost)