RA.ONE: Film Review

India’s first attempt at a superhero movie is both vigorous and emotionally fulfilling within the context of Bollywood traditions.

Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan stars in the sci-fi family adventure which boasts the largest budget in Indian film history.

A Bollywood superhero was bound to be an amalgam of everything from the world of super beings -- from those men in funny costumes who fly, swing and bound through American movie screens to gravity-defining Chinese warriors, Hong Kong martial artists and videogame pyrotechnics. So ladies, gentlemen and most especially boys and girls, Shah Rukh Khan gives you G.One, the superhero dad of the sci-fi film RA.ONE, boasting the largest budget in Indian film history and rolling out this Diwali weekend, the biggest Indian holiday, known in the West as the Festival of Lights.

The film, directed by Anubhav Sinha, is gloriously silly, with stunts, CG animation and music numbers bursting out all over yet its beating heart lies in a commonplace story of a family and most especially a father and son who don’t understand one another. Oscar Hammerstein II once said something to the effect that you have to believe in whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens to get away with writing about such corny banalities in a lyric and so Shah -- SRK as he is known to billions of fans -- really does believe in family values and the power of cinema.

You don’t have to be an enthusiast of Bollywood to embrace RA.ONE, but it sure would help. The “item” numbers and cultural references come fast and furious with little concession to Western audiences unfamiliar with South Asian cinema. But --  sign of our times -- the videogame milieu and computer technology that back up the fantasy will score big with youngsters across the globe. And the stunts and FX work -- the final credit crawl lasts over 10 minutes -- move Indian cinema to a new level of technological expertise.

Reportedly costing over $25 million, the film was originally scheduled to roll out in June. However, the release was postponed to Diwali due to extensive post-production work and a 3D conversion. The print under review here is a 2D version -- which is what will screen in most of the world’s cinemas -- as that’s all that was available in Los Angeles prior to SRK’s appearance in the city for a gala presentation following premieres in London and Toronto on consecutive nights.

The film starts with a rush in a dreamscape in which a superhero (Khan) races to the rescue of a damsel held captive by a villain (affording Bollywood stars Priyanka Chopra and Sanjay Dutt with crowd-pleasing cameos). This proves to be a daydream of a school youngster, Prateek (Armaan Verma), whose own dad is a dull -- at least in his eyes -- computer geek who designs video games for a London game tycoon.

Khan, dressed in a very bad curly wig and effecting a broad South Indian accent complete with stereotypical eating mannerisms and occasional slips into the Tamil language, plays Shekhar Subramanium, who will never be a hero to his son. Even his Michael Jackson Bad-era impersonation fails to impress and nothing Shekhar’s adoring Punjabi wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor, herself a major star) does will shake Prateek’s belief he needs a new dad.

In desperation, the nerdy dad accedes to his son’s request — to create a videogame villain “who only wins,” a complete badass that cannot be defeated by any player. This player is dubbed by Shekhar’s design team Random Access One or Ra.One. The superhero who will attempt to defeat this super villain, with little odds for success, is named Good One or  G.One and is shaped in the image of his creator, Shekhar.

(The explanation passes quickly but Ra.One is a loose play upon Raavan, the demon king in Hindu mythology, and G.One comes close to the Hindi word jeevan or life.)

In an elaborate and overlong sequence that owes much to Universal’s ‘30s era Frankenstein movies, the computer lab that produces this game runs amok as the villain becomes sentient and ultimately escapes the video world to roam among men and destroy at will. He not only kills Shekhar’s Chinese colleague Akaashi (Hong Kong-born martial artist Tom Wu) but confronts and kills Shekhar himself.

This is the film’s emotional turning point. Shekhar’s sudden widow and son must now confront all they miss in their late husband and father but also deal with his virtual replacement. For the son and Shekhar’s computer team realize the only way to combat Ra.One is by freeing G.One from the game as well. So Shekhar’s self-designed, lookalike warrior — Khan minus the bad wig — moves into the real world to protect his family, targeted by Ra.One, and figure out the villain’s latest guise, from Akaashi to any number of assumed identities. (Ra.One is mostly played by Arjun Rampal, a well-known Bollywood actor.)

Major sequences include a demolition-derby chase through London city-center streets and an airport parking lot brawl to a runaway train in Mumbai that causes major CG destruction to the Victoria Terminus and a final confrontation between the two virtual warriors in a world that moves increasingly into videogame terrain. Fittingly, Prateek teams up with his dad’s alter ego in this duel.

Music numbers are nothing you would expect in the Terminator or Matrix films — both quoted from liberally — but are de rigueur in a Bollywood film. However, here they actually suit story and character purposes, even at one point poignantly expressing the grief of a wife and son over the death of the father.

The acting pushes emotions as one would expect from a movie based on a fictional videogame that will most certainly become a real one. The child delivers the most realistic and effecting performance. Khan in his two roles is genuinely sweet if over the top in each. Kapoor is gorgeous and beguiling as the loving, then grieving wife while Rampal makes a splendid villain.

During the credit roll, the film makes a point of showing a behind-the-scenes EPK of the stunts and effects, driving home dual points. One is that SRK did, as advertised, his own stunts. And two, that India can compete in the big leagues of stunts and fx. SRK, whose company Red Chilies Entertainment made the film with Eros International, has poured a lot of money into creating his own Mumbai special-effects house and RA.ONE is nothing if not a calling card to the film world.

So RA.ONE nicely serves two masters — good family values and good capitalist instincts. And as is traditional at Diwali, the effigy of Raavan gets torched as good triumphs over evil.

Opens: October 26 (Eros International)
Production companies: Eros International and Red Chilis Entertainment present a Winford Production
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Armaan Verma, Shahana Goswami, Tom Wu, Satish Shah
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Screenwriters: David Benullo, Kanika Dhillon, Niranjan Iyengar, Mushtaq Sheikh
Story by: Anubhav Sinha
Producer: Gauari Khan
Executive producers: Anil Sable, Rajan Vanmali,, Swapna David, Prashant Shah
Director of photography: Nicola Pecorini
Production designers: Sabu Cyril, Marcus Wookey
Music: Vishal & Shekhar
Lead visual effects supervisor: Haresh Hingorani
Costume designers: Manish Malhotra, Anaita Shroff, Naresh Rohira, Robert Lever
Editors: Martin Walsh, Sanjay Sharma
No rating, 156 minutes