Ayushmann plays the action hero in his inimitable style. First-time director Anirudh Iyer’s dark comedy subtly condemns the mob mentality that is out to demean Bollywood.

Rating: 4 / 5

Friday, the second of December sees two intriguing films. One on OTT, the other lined up for a theatrical release. Despite their different worlds, both Freddy [2022] and An Action Hero [2022] have one thing in common. Kartik Aaryan and Ayushmann Khurrana are stepping foot into unchartered territory. The jovial, chocolate boy Aaryan plays a reticent, lovelorn Parsi dentist in and as Freddy whereas Khurrana gets to be ‘An Acton Hero’.

He’s made a career out of breaking taboos, essaying characters that were unimaginable for leading actors of the yore. Despite a successful career thus far, one thing that has perhaps eluded Ayushmann is that classic Bollywood action film. One wouldn’t be human if that view didn’t bother him.

So, we have Khurrana playing Maanav, an action hero. In an opening scene, Maanav fears that he’s unable to bring that requisite aggression for the action scene. The disgruntled hero tells his manager Roshan [Harsh Chhaya], “Gussa nahi aa raha hai.” (The anger is missing]. That temper rises when Roshan bluntly tells him, “Sorry, but your [new] car will not be arriving till one week.”

Khurrana though isn’t the only one brimming with anger. Out on the set in Mandothi, Haryana, Vicky Solanki, brother of local Municipal Councilor is livid that he’s waited over two hours to get a photo with the superstar, who then simply walked out on him, driving away in his just arrived Mustang. Roshan’s lie did the trick for Maanav, but an egoistic Haryanvi [Vicky] is not one to take the snub lightly. A freak action leaves Vicky dead. Now big brother Bhoora [Jaideep Ahlawat] won’t rest till he kills Maanav with his bare hands. Our action hero flees to London, but Bhoora has vowed to hunt him down from any paatal lok [hell] too.

Neeraj Yadav [screenplay] and writer-director Anirudh Iyer’s film rides on this Maanav versus Bhoora conflict. The trailer lulled us into believing that Ayushmann Khurrana’s Maanav might be an antithesis to Bollywood’s action heroes. The name Maanav [Hindi meaning human], too, suggested that Ayushmann and Iyer are trying to humanise the larger than life action hero. Maanav craves for that human aspect, but An Action Hero [2022] is not out to bust any larger than life image. The bhasad [chaos] here is such that Maanav has no option but to fight for his life in a foreign land.

Khurrana’s made a career by often playing the ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. An Action Hero sees him play the extraordinary guy in an ordinary situation. No larger than life, but a Maanav gives rise to the ActionMann Khurrana.  Maanav, too, acknowledges that it’s not the reel, but the real-within-reel action that has given birth to the true action hero in him.  Khurrana doesn’t pull back any punches, but Maanav is not your cliched action hero. Khurrana often brings a certain individuality to most of his characters. He carries off Maanav in his own inimitable style. His life maybe in danger, but Maanav still longs to strike a truce with the raging bull Bhoora. The popular actor makes a statement with his action moves, but it doesn’t come at the cost of sacrificing his realism for any over-the-top drama. 

Haryana’s Jaideep Ahlawat has had limited opportunities to stay true to his roots. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar [2021], Paatal Lok [2020] each brought out the different Haryanvi in him.  A shrewd, scheming cop in the former, while he played the righteous cop in the latter. An Action Hero brings out the rugged, lath-maar Haryanvi in Ahlawat.

What do you make of a man who wants to avenge his brother, but doesn’t have the time to be there for the final rites? There’s no place for any sentiment for Bhoora. His brother’s death has unleashed the demon in him, one who will decimate any life that comes in the way of his vengeance. He didn’t really love his younger brother. As it turns out, Maanav must be killed to honour the Khap-pride. Bhoora is the rabid wolverine who wouldn’t stop till he has dismembered his prey. Ahlawat doesn’t need any brawn, that natural killer intensity is enough to strike fear. This performance is a sheer tour de force.

It is fascinating how two of the modern Haryanvi representation in Bollywood has come from two directors of South Indian origin. Sanker Raman aced that in the hard-hitting Gurgaon [2017] and Love Hostel [2022]. Now Mumbai-born Tamil guy Anirudh Iyer taps into Haryana through his black comedy. His characters are not funny, but it’s the conflicts that bring out the innate Haryanvi humour.  Bhoora and Maanav’s tussle feels like a boxing bout where each pugilist throws their punches – both physical and witty.  The two funniest guys are Roopkumar [Jitendra Hooda] and one local humble reporter Tillu Mandothiya. The overconfident cop [Roopkumar] tries too hard to impress Bhoora by proclaiming that if needed, he would drive his police van over the moon to capture Maanav. The silly suggestion [joke] is met with a tight slap. Then there’s Tillu exposing the daroga’s [cop] incompetence in a hilarious press interaction. It compels Roopkumar to unleash the lath-maar Haryanvi in him.  Though incompetent, but Hooda’s Roopkumar has you in splits.

The sleek writing, fine pacing keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s not all high-octane screenplay. Iyer is mindful of giving the viewer, and his leading characters some relief that only humanizes them. The super star is not pleased to be served a solitary dosa. However, one bite and it makes him cherish his only meal for the entire day.  Having begun from Haryana, then moving to London via Mumbai, Iyer adds the South Indian flavour to his film. Maanav is temporarily shielded by one South Indian geek Sai in London. We’re also presented with an unusual scenario where an Indian is dependent upon a Chinese hacker to save his ass from the British police. 

Perhaps the lone contentious thing about the film is the introduction of a most unexpected character. The d-day mention is funny, but Iyer runs the danger of evoking mixed reaction to having such a character. It adds a whole new dimension to the principal conflict. But as Maanav later says, “Kahani hi toh hai” (It’s only a story). The final treatment to the unexpected character should be enough to assuage any nexus/glorifying fears. However, the character is needed to capture the zeitgeist around Bollywood – both old and new.  The last few years has seen Bollywood at the mercy of ultra-nationalist trolls who accuse the Hindi film industry of being anti-nationals, anti-Hindu, an immoral lot who promote sleaze, drug culture.

Amidst the unending #BoycottBollywood calls, a frustrated Arjun Kapoor had told in an interview that such trolls have got stronger because the industry didn’t retaliate. Phew, strong words but art can make its point through art only. If no riposte, An Action Hero [2022] presents the Bollywood side of the story, reminding the society that while they make them stars, but it doesn’t own them. A Bhoora subtly epitomizes that mob mentality. This mob mentality can make one star or break him/her in one moment.

The overzealous news [broadcast] media often feeds on the film industry’s vulnerability. We are sick and tired of the cringeworthy media portrayal. However, it’s not below the belt as Iyer simply looks at the lighter side of certain media (characters). Mind you, the film is not seeking any validation for the genuine evil that plagues Bollywood. It only discourages generalization of any industry. Maanav, too, possessess the cocky side when he brags about the big pockets. But desparate times call for desparate measures.

The Aap Jaisa Koi remake is average, but the theme instrumental track and the end credit Jehda Nasha song are highly gripping. Rising composer Parag Chhabra does his reputation no harm with the original compositions. More than the soundtracks, the film banks on its riveting background score by Sunny MR.

The Indian mess creates a ruckus in London, but as often it is an Indian jugaad that wriggles the desis out of it. No prizes for guesses as to who stands tall among the ruins. Don’t take it too seriously. Kahani hi toh hai (It’s just a story). Let’s give it up for Anirudh and Ayushmann’s action hero.

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