Writer Deepak Kingrani and director Apoorv Singh Karki strike a balance between mainstream appeal and objective cinema. The film’s insider-outsider undertone should not be missed. Suvinder Vicky shines as the antagonist.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️💫 (2.5 / 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

Art mirrors life. The best cinematic works often emerge from unexpected sources. Years ago, Manoj Bajpayee was stunned by an article about a man who, mocked by his mother as a coward, killed half a dozen people to avenge a loved one.

Bajpayee casually shared this story with director Apoorv Singh Karki, known for his realistic dramas. Karki saw this as an opportunity to venture into mainstream cinema. The story itself came later. All Karki yearned for was to see Manoj Bajpayee in slow-motion. Decades later, the story of Bhaiyya Ji would germinate from that very article.

The first Bajpayee slow-mo shot is not action. In stead, the man is rushing to find a missing dear one at a Delhi mortuary. When he arrives, all he sees is the closed door of an electric crematorium. The one burning is his half sibling Vedant [Akash Makhija], who was inebriated when he was mowed down last night, as claimed by the local cop Magan [Vipin Sharma]. Back then Ram Charan Tripathi fondly called as Bhaiyya Ji [Bajpayee] was enjoying his pre-wedding celebrations in Bihar. Bhaiyya Ji finds it hard to believe as his young brother didn’t drink. As the truth emerges, Bhaiyya ji’s thirst for revenge intensifies.

Ah, this harks back to the classic Bollywood revenge sagas of yore, but with a twist. While the old-school tropes may not resonate with today’s mass audience, Kingrani and Karki infuse their own unique flavor to make it appealing. The first thing that grabs your attention is the film’s catchphrase: ‘Pratishodh ka nivedhan‘. It’s intriguing—why would someone request revenge? But that’s Bhaiyya Ji for you. The former bahubali from Bihar pleads with Chandrabhan Singh [Suvinder Vicky] to allow him to seek revenge by handing over his accused son, Abhimanyu [Jatin Goswami]. Ram Charan was once a feared Bahubali in Bihar, while Chandranhan is a dangerous Gujjar politician, criminal possibly from Haryana. Bhaiyya Ji may have won the verbal battle, but can he take down Chandrabhan in the latter’s den?

The odds are against Bhaiyya Ji, especially since he renounced violence years ago. However, a hurt, and later a wounded, lion is even more dangerous. Who really is Bhaiyya Ji? The there is fear in the enemy camp, with Chandrabhan’s Bihari pandit [played by Jai Hind] unnerving them with stories that have become part of Bihar folklore.

One such tale is how Bhaiyya Ji cared for a man in a coma for ten years, only to kill him the moment he regained consciousness. Political muscle, maneuvering, crime, justice, the system—Bhaiyya Ji embodies it all. “Is he Robin Hood?” asks Chandrabhan. “Nahi, in sab ka baap hai,” cautions Panditji. The action comes later, but it is these tales that build the larger-than-life persona of Bhaiyya Ji.

The Bollywood cop/ anti-hero transitioned from the city to the cowbelt with Salman Khan unleashing the ‘dabangg’ in him. For a Bihari man who shot to fame playing a Maharashtrian don (Bhiku Mhatre) in Satya (1998), it’s surprising that Bollywood never thought of casting Manoj Bajpayee in this naturally fitting avatar. Maybe it’s 20 years too late, but better late than never. Doing action at 55 has its challenges, but you admire Bajpayee for the intensity he brings to most of his characters. And Bajpayee grabs this opportunity with both hands to give a fairly competent performance.

The talented Zoya Hussain is initially unrecognizable in this sturdy Biharan avatar. You are lulled into believing that she might have an academic presence in this revenge drama. However, when the critical hour arrives, it is the woman who comes out all guns blazing. In fact, Mitali [Hussain] outshines her fiancé. Bajpayee, being a gentleman, is happy to play second fiddle in these moments. This is a far cry from the Bollywood revenge dramas of yore, where the woman merely played the love interest, often the damsel in distress.

For all the larger-than-life persona, Karki does well to humanize his Bhaiyya Ji. Having barely survived, Bhaiyya Ji doesn’t shy away from showing his pain when he is at the receiving end of a bullet. Mitali and his stepmother reprimand Bhaiyya Ji for trying to be a superhero. Earlier, Bhaiyya Ji urged his fellow villagers, all of whom have traveled to North India to avenge Vedant, to stay out of this battle. It’s in these moments that Kingrani and Karki bring objectivity to an old-school narrative.

Popular Punjabi actor Suvinder Vicky had stunned viewers with his stellar performance in “Kohrra” (2023). The Netflix series had a strong Punjabi flavor, but “Bhaiyya Ji” sees him in a brutal, cocky, Haryanvi politician avatar. Evil can never evoke empathy, but you are left in awe of Vicky with this stupendous act. His very first scene shows him as a butcher chopping up a human body. Phew, you fear this film will be a bloodbath. Thankfully, the gore is limited to this scene. Chandrabhan, however, never falls short of intimidating you. With his beard, designer shades, and traditional politician’s suit, Karki and his cinematographer Arjun Kukreja finely capture Chandrabhan in pensive moments.

Though a stepson, there is never any bad blood between Bhaiyya Ji and his stepmother (played by Bhagirati Bai). He loved his half-sibling more than anyone, almost acting like a helicopter parent. However, the scenes featuring Bhagirati Bai are often tinged with dull melodrama.

The big letdown in Bhaiyya Ji, though, are the average action scenes. This disappointment is compounded by the limitations of both the protagonist and the antagonist. Jeez, Jatin Goswami doesn’t even have the excuse of age. The jumps are unavoidable, evoking a sense of empathy for the editor, Sumeet Kotian.

Bhaiyya Ji has its moments, particularly in the wordplay and dark humor, but each time you think the film is gaining momentum, it’s followed by an average scene. There is scant regard for geography as travel between Bihar and Delhi happens too quickly. Also, is the Chandrabhan palace in Haryana or Delhi? However, Karki is mindful of maintaining political neutrality in what is essentially a personal feud narrative.

A maiden action revenge drama is an ideal fit for your 100th film. Bhaiyya Ji has its flaws, but Bajpayee would still cherish this 100th film. The term ‘Ji’ epitomizes respect, but in a multi-ethnic society, stereotypes are inevitable. In Northern cities, as well as places like Mumbai, the word bhaiyya became a subject of ridicule.

Karki’s film carries a subtle insider-outsider conflict undertone. Do not underestimate the significance of an old wound carried by a character named Chota Rajan in this film. Fortunately, the politics of Marathi manoos or any other identity have lost their appeal among citizens at large.

Those who still do, Bajpayee has the most civil reply, “Those who put others down only reflect their sick mindset”. Ahimsa is the best riposte in life. On the screen though, there is always a Bhaiyya Ji ready with his pratishodh ka nivedhan.

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