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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, SOUTH ASIAN CINEMA

‘Simmba’ (2018): Review

Directed by: Rohit Shetty || Produced by: Karan Johar, Hiroo Yash Johar, Rohit Shetty, Apoorva Mehta

Screenplay by: Yunus Sajawal, Sajid Samji || Starring: Ranveer Singh, Sara Ali Khan, Sonu Sood, Ashutosh Rana, Siddartha Jadhav, Vaidehi Parshurami, Ulka Gupta

Music by: Tanishk Bagchi, Lijo George – DJ Chetas, S. Thaman, Amar Mohile, Chandan Saxena || Cinematography: Jomon T. John || Edited by: Bunty Nagi || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 159 minutes

Ranveer Singh is one of the fastest growing stars in Hindi cinema, colloquially known as Bollywood. No filmmaker is more responsible for his rise than period drama specialist and cinematic musical auteur, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I’ve written numerous positive reviews of his work and consider him one of the better talents in Indian cinema since the 1990s. One of this many skills is coaching great performances out of high-profile stars (e.g. Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra), i.e. being a great “actor’s director.” Singh is one of the best lead men with which he’s worked this past decade (e.g. Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela [2013], Bajirao Mastani [2015], Padmaavat [2018]), and as such, I was eager to watch a recent lead role of his with a different director.

You know what I really want in my fun, colorful Hindi musicals with goofy action scenes (top) and catchy dance-numbers (bottom)? Gang rape!

Enter Simmba, a spinoff of the notable Singham (2011, 2014) franchise, created by screenwriter Yunus Sajawal and director Rohit Shetty, starring prolific Hindi actor, Ajay Devgn. The series follows the over-the-top, action-packed antics of hard-boiled Goa police officers, described as “action masala” films, which means they blend multiple genres. This description within Indian cinema in general and Hindi cinema in particular puzzles me, because most Indian movies blend several genres in a sort of free-form, haphazard “kitchen-sink”-type filmmaking. Most of these genre mashups don’t work, arguably, because only the most talented filmmakers, Indian or otherwise, may conjoin such disparate genres as romantic comedy, action, musical, and thriller into a seamless whole.

Simmba is yet another example of this forced genre-blending, though Shetty’s latest film is notable even amongst Bollywood movies in that it is a film of two halves; like fellow oddball movie, Rang De Basanti (2006), its first half is lighthearted and somewhat entertaining, while its second half is incredibly dark and morbid. This tonal whiplash is perhaps worse in Simmba given how its first act features typical Hindi action-musical elements, including colorful dance numbers, corny jokes, melodramatic characters, and goofy action sequences. Its second half mutates into a sort of weird, self-serious diatribe on rape culture and street justice, in which the story bends over backwards to rationalize everything its main character (Singh) does in his convoluted arc to achieve vengeance against villain, Sonu Sood. At least Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Basanti kept a somewhat grounded, dramatic tone throughout, despite its second half devolving into comical darkness.

To back up a bit, the gist of Simmba’s setting involves the corrupt law enforcement ambitions of Singh’s mischievous, scrappy titular character. Simmba grew up on the streets of the fictional town of Shivgadh, Goa, and uses his childhood background of street smarts to inform his corrupt deals with local gangsters. If Singh’s protagonist sounds gritty from the get-go, trust me, he’s not; Singh is such a charismatic, likable actor that he’s able to chew the corny dialogue to his advantage and deliver most of the goofy jokes. He’s fun to watch, but acts more like a Saturday Night Live comedian than a supposed “hard-boiled” cop or anti-hero. Still, the first half is entertaining enough with memorable dance numbers that feel like 1970s disco throwbacks (think Saturday Night Fever [1977]), good music, and cartoonish yet fun action.

The film takes a hard right into darker territory after the implied brutal off-screen rape and murder of supporting character, Vaidehi Parshurami. Simmba discards its song numbers, lighthearted comedy, and half of its supporting cast in order to become a wannabe “hard-edged” revenge thriller. A couple of mildly entertaining action sequences intercut with long, cringe-inducing scenes like Singh ordering his female officers to beat rapists with comical Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) sound FX, and a courtroom sequence stuffed with contrived plot-points and laughable monologues to manufacture melodrama.

This is all in service of an ostensibly timely social commentary on modern sexual violence in India, but it comes across as incredibly simplistic and in poor taste. Simmba’s second act diatribes on toxic masculinity and sanctimonious justifications for mob justice clash not only with the first act’s tone, but also the second half’s cartoonish action sequences, stylish, exaggerated slow-motion camerawork, and decidedly male-centric revenge-fantasy. I’ve said this before about misguided genre-hybrids that attempt to span the emotional extremes movies can depict, and I’ll say it again: Unless you know what you’re doing, your movie will come out an oil-and-water mess.

Left: Ranveer Singh (center) shows off his crooked police force. Right: Singh shows off female lead and love-interest, Sara Ali Khan (right), who practically disappears halfway through the movie.

Whatever directorial flair Rohit Shetty and charismatic acting Ranveer Singh bring to Simmba are wasted on a condescending second act that reduces the complex, touchy subject of sexual violence to a simplistic, dated melodrama. Only Rang De Basanti and the worst Oscar-bait rival this movie in terms of sheer, misguided self-righteousness, which is all the more disappointing considering its colorful, entertaining first half. I am unable to discern whether Simmba’s laughable failure is more a function of tone deaf direction or studio executives cynically attempting to milk recent tragedies for audience sympathy. Either way, Singh should stick to Sanjay Bhansali pictures if he’s offered a sequel.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Simmba is a pandering, juvenile revenge-flick masquerading as a masala cop drama for all ages. Its poor pacing and wasted supporting cast are small potatoes next to its baffling, cringe-worthy second half.

However… the movie’s first act is entertaining enough as a quasi-buddy cop action comedy, featuring a charismatic lead performance from Ranveer Singh and fun musical sequences.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED

? Simmba is essentially the inverse arc of Batman Begins (2005).

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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