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Releasing on India’s Independence Day weekend holiday, traditionally a rich opportunity for box office success, Brothers may have an uphill climb due to its adult themes and realistic, intense violence. But viewers willing to embrace its skillful and emotionally real depiction of a man making impossible choices — and especially fans of Akshay Kumar ready to see him excel in a physically and emotionally challenging role — will be well rewarded.
Gavin O’Connor‘s critically acclaimed Warrior, which starred Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers and MMA rivals, earned raves as much for its performances as its satisfying storytelling.
Indian director Karan Malhotra (Agneepath) and his wife, screenwriter Ekta Pathak Malhotra, have given a uniquely desi spin on things, collaborating with producer Karan Johar, Endemol India and Lionsgate (which also produced Warrior) to set this tale of brother-against-brother within India’s fledgling MMA scene.
David Fernandes (Kumar) is a high school physics teacher devoted to his beautiful wife, Jenny (former Miss Sri Lanka Jacqueline Fernandez), and his daughter, who suffers from a kidney ailment (not the heart ailment of the original, the difference exploited in a witty turn of dialogue). To pay his daughter’s medical bills, David fights in late-night street matches, but when school officials find out, he’s fired from his job. Desperate to earn money, he decides to compete in the world’s biggest MMA contest, the fictitious Right to Fight championship.
In a parallel track, David’s father, Gary Fernandes (Jackie Shroff), a once-great fighter, is released from a 15-year prison sentence and is welcomed home by his younger son, Monty (Sidharth Malhotra, no relation to the filmmaker), who asks his father to coach him in MMA unbeknownst to David.
Many elements of the story remain close to the original, with some scenes nearly word-for-word re-creations. The local tweaks work, for the most part: for example, in India, where there is no national healthcare system serving the middle class, medical bills can bankrupt a family even quicker than they can here, so David and Jenny’s desperation is keenly felt.
But the timeline of several key plot turns is different, and unlike Warrior, Brothers features two effective, if lengthy, flashback sequences: one explaining why David came to hate his father and Monty came to hate David; and another about how David and Jenny met.
What doesn’t translate as well in the Indian version is the idea that the character of the younger brother, played by powerhouse Hardy in the original, could be so extensively rewritten, all its dark shadows excised.
Hardy’s character — a reclusive war hero with a tainted record who wants to donate the MMA prize money to his best friend’s widow — is so complex and his performance so haunting that it’s puzzling to wonder why the makers of Brothers wanted to strip it down for this Indian version. Monty is a one-note character, a victim of bad luck who is unreasonably faithful to his father and blames only David for the hell his life has become. Malhotra, so likeable in his debut Student of the Year and a suave romantic lead, is miscast in this shadowy role and approaches the fight scenes too tentatively.
The biggest and best surprise of the film is Kumar, a star so prolific that he stars in two to three major releases a year and is now one of India’s highest paid actors. A black belt in taekwondo and an expert in Muay Thai, Kumar, 47, has made his mark in every genre from dopey comedies to action to social satire.
Read more: ‘Entertainment’: Film Review
Here, with naturally graying hair and covered in tattoos, he draws on those years of martial arts practice to instill a bone-crunching realism in his depiction of a fighter. Action coordinators Justin Yu (a stunt actor in The Hunger Games and The Wolverine), and Eric Brown, and DP Hemant Chaturvedi worked seamlessly to create fight scenes with visceral appeal, although the two brothers’ differing fight styles aren’t as clearly delineated here as they were in the original.
It’s notable that the women’s roles in Brothers are more complex in the Indian version — Shefali Shah turns in a heartbreaking performance in her flashback scenes as David and Monty’s mother, and Fernandez is strong as usual in her role as a supportive wife and mother, displaying a natural closeness to Kumar in their scenes together. Kareena Kapoor Khan appears in a gold sequined bikini top in the dance number “Mera Naam Mary” (My Name Is Mary) — a dance number that is not as incongruous as you might think, given the film’s unabashed masculinity.
Production company: Fox International Productions
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Sidharth Malhotra, Jackie Shroff, Jacqueline Fernandez
Director: Karan Malhotra
Screenwriter: Ekta Pathak Malhotra (from a story by Gavin O’Connor and Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman)
Producers: Karan Johar and Hiroo Yash Johar
Executive producer: Parth Dholakia
Director of photography: Hemant Chaturvedi
Production designer: Suresh Selvarajan
Costume designer: Mandira ShuklaEditor: Akiv Ali
Music: Ajay Gogavale, Atul Gogavale
No rating, 160 minutes
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