There’s a reason why you don’t use the phrase “first annual” to describe an event: you can’t guarantee the “second annual” event will actually happen. Writer-director Ayan Mukerji put extra pressure on himself when he titled the first film in his ambitious planned superhero trilogy Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva. Fortunately, Brahmāstra Part One is a solid foundation for future films in the franchise.
The movie opens with the establishment of the story’s foundational lore. Centuries ago, a group of sages received powerful weapons called astras, the most powerful of which is the Brahmāstra. The sages named their order the Brahmānsh, using their powers to protect humanity, keep the Brahmāstra from spinning out of control and destroying the world, and passing their powers down across the generations.
The powers themselves are pretty cool. One member of the Brahmānsh has the strength of a thousand bulls, another the agility of a monkey, and one can shoot snakes as arrows. It’s not totally clear how the powers are inherited, though. Some powers are explicitly tied to physical artifacts like bracelets, while others seem to transfer genetically and don’t require a sacred object. The first film in a planned series is the place to make those rules crystal clear.
In the present day, orphaned disc jockey Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) is struck by a confluence of life-changing events in a temple during Durga Puja. He has visions of a scientist (Shah Rukh Khan, in a movie-stealing cameo) being tortured by three people with strange powers. He also sees a beautiful woman, Isha (Alia Bhatt), with whom he falls instantly in love.
As Isha and Shiva get to know one another, he has more visions in which the scientist reveals that an artist named Anish (Nagarjuna Akkineni) is in danger from the three strangers, and that the location of an ashram must be protected at all costs. Isha corroborates details of Shiva’s visions, and the two head out to warn Anish.
There they encounter the mysterious strangers, each wearing a piece of rock that emits a sinister red glow. Their beautiful, terrifying leader Junoon (Mouni Roy) wants to ignite the Brahmāstra’s full power and resurrect an entity called Dev. A battle ensues, but Shiva and Isha are able to reach the ashram.
The ashram is run by Raghu (Amitabh Bachchan), leader of the Brahmānsh and tutor for all astra wielders. He promises to explain Shiva’s visions and his strange connection to fire to him — and even tell him about his parents — but only if Shiva agrees to stay and send Isha back to the city.
Brahmāstra Part One employs a lot of superhero origin story tropes, right down to the main character being an orphan (a 30-year-old one at that). Character development isn’t high on Mukerji’s priority list, at least not in this phase of his saga.
Dialogue also isn’t a main priority, as much of what the characters utter is matter-of-fact or utilitarian. It’s also repetitive, as Isha says Shiva’s name fully 83 times, by one Reddit user’s count. It might even be more than that in the streaming video version, as Mukerji added some scenes to better establish the central romantic subplot.
Mukerji’s main focus in this first film is in establishing a visual language for the series. What he creates is stunning. Each scene is perfectly lit to focus the audience’s attention or set the emotional tone. Characters sport wardrobes in eye-catching hues. Best of all are the gorgeous ways the astras manifest, as collections of ethereal sprites of varying colors, depending on who wields them. Battles are vibrant as opposing magical forces clash, eschewing grittiness in favor of pure fantasy.
The scale of the film’s fight sequences feels appropriate. Battles are fought in enclosed spaces or in remote areas away from prying eyes, which makes sense, since the existence of the astras is supposed to be a secret. This approach provides a welcome respite from the tiresome city-wide destruction used in every Marvel film.
Brahmāstra Part One‘s sensory appeal is enhanced by an excellent soundtrack, written by Pritam and sung beautifully by Arijit Singh. The memorable songs come to life when performed by Ranbir Kapoor, who dances with a spontaneity that belies the hours of training that went into creating each song sequence.
Superhero origin stories have a formula for a reason, so Brahmāstra Part One – Shiva gets a pass for the elements that feel a little generic. Mukerji was smart to zero in on the aspects that set his film apart, including a distinctive look and approach to special effects that can enhance the array of possible superpowers yet to be introduced. I’m looking forward to Brahmāstra Part Two.