Brahmastra Part One: Shiva review – peppy superhero franchise starter

Amid a woeful 2022 so far, this almost feels like Hindi mainstream cinema’s last roll of the dice, and a return to storytelling first principles. A mythologically inclined franchise-starter modelled on Marvel Cinematic Universe’s money-printing early phases, Brahmastra is backed by uber-producer Karan Johar, directed by crowdpleaser Ayan Mukerji (2013’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) and staffed by front-rank faces. Whether it can reunite never-more-divided audiences remains to be seen, but it’s far from the worst idea Mumbai has had, exhibiting appreciable degrees of craft, care and skill.

As is often the case in Bollywood, megastar Shah Rukh Khan sets the bar, turning somersaults in a housecoat and striking the right note of elastic levity in the prologue – albeit as the kind of franchise martyr fated to go no further than the prologue. Thereafter, the torch of righteousness passes to pin-up Ranbir Kapoor as EDM-blasting DJ Shiva, clueless modern scion of a long-secret society, obliged to save the world from Mouni Roy’s old-school villainess – while solving the mysteries of his lineage and wooing rich girl Isha (Alia Bhatt).

Mukerji’s biggest achievement is getting this relationship to flourish, Kapoor and Bhatt being among the precious few real-life couples with palpable onscreen chemistry. She gives him class; he becomes touchingly humble before cinema’s most responsive young actor, and – voilà – we get something real and cherishable to cling to as the universe around this pair explodes in spurts of fantastical FX.

The film eventually assumes the familiar shape of the pixelated beat-’em-up, with Amitabh Bachchan outgrowling MCU’s Patrick Stewart as a guru overseeing a Himalayan training camp. Yet the emphasis on light as a special power banishes the murkiness of certain entries in the Marvel and DC universes, and Mukerji brings a peppy, wide-eyed spirit to the superhero-movie model, adorning tried-and-tested arcs and beats with workable Pritam songs, ravishing colours and gorgeous people. History suggests there are less effective ways of drawing a crowd on a Friday night.

• Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is released on 9 September in cinemas.