Dir: Nikhil Advani. With: Sooraj Pancholi, Athiya Shetty, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Aditya Pancholi. 145 mins. Cert: 15
Curious times for morality and moviestars in Bollywood. Summer megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan saw barrelling tough guy Salman Khan repositioning himself, after multiple High Court appearances, as India’s sweetheart – a development as unexpected as, say, Woody Allen now winning a People’s Choice award. Hero, an update of Subhash Ghai’s 1983 melodrama, sees Khan playing producer-starmaker, and attempting to hustle his buff protégé – the scarcely less controversial Sooraj Pancholi – onto the Young Bollywood A-list. Where BB strove to portray Khan as a protector, Hero intends to demonstrate that rough-diamond Sooraj is still the kind of boy even police chiefs might trust with their daughters. The title’s what it wants to transform its leading man into; the rebranding, in this case, never takes.
In part, that’s down to a decidedly superficial idea of heroism. As a low-level hood himself named Sooraj – underlining the proposed link between movie and real-life – Pancholi gets a hell of an introduction: straining his every stomach muscle to turn a handstand on a bed of nails, before surfing a JCB through the brick wall of a rival’s lair. (Hey, Derek Jacobi: top that.) The director, Nikhil Advani, offers us plentiful scope to admire his lead’s liquid-eyed, hard-jawed physical prowess throughout. Whether laying into thugs in a nightclub or a punchbag in the snow, Sooraj’s every move is tracked in lingering slo-mo; we’re meant to goggle at this kid’s superhuman ability to halt time while maintaining such marvellous hair and abs.
Pancholi couldn’t have asked for a better showreel, yet the plot lurches forward erratically, at triple-speed: the producer reportedly made his presence felt in the editing suite, and you sense the ham fist clamped to Advani’s shoulder. The film’s riddled with narrative shortcuts: Khan’s impatient to get to the fights and songs that might elevate his boy, and entirely indifferent to the building-up of credible connecting tissue. We’re not initially sure why Sooraj’s crew should be posing as a security detail to capture Radha (Athiya Shetty); it hardly helps that this turn prompts one of the cinema’s more bucolic kidnappings – the goons’ ski lodge lair recalling Wham’s “Last Christmas” video – lest any undue menace be attached to the sainted Sooraj.
So many scenes have been yanked out of the second half as to reduce Hero to abject nonsense. The kidnap plotline is abandoned, leaving a reformed Sooraj plenty of time to open up a gym; a cackling gambler is thrown on to serve as the real villain of the piece; at one point, Sooraj and Radha are seen participating in a lavish stage production, despite the fact neither has expressed any interest whatsoever in the dramatic arts. Advani brought a certain slickness to his previous forays into romance (Kal Ho Naa Ho, Salaam-e-Ishq) and adventure (Chandni Chowk to China); here, everything appears forced and synthetic, from Khan’s self-sung theme song (think Autotuned Dennis Waterman) to the entirely one-sided love affair.
Your sympathies go out to Shetty, an evidently graceful dancer having to work against the film’s ungainly conception of Radha as all selfies and hair extensions held together by lipgloss – a party girl who needs the privilege shaken off her by the right bit of rough, a pretty prize for an individual never more than the sum total of his shirtless setpieces. Hero may earn Pancholi many other admirers impressionable enough to swoon over his six-pack and the speed of his fists, yet being a hero surely takes more than a personal trainer; it requires heart and soul, a degree of consistency, and rather less cynicism and contempt for your constituents than Hero displays in its every dispiriting frame.
Hero is now showing in cinemas nationwide.