Allow me to start this review of “Shehzada” on a slightly tangential note by reminding you of the movie “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” During his journey, Percy and his friends reached a hotel in Las Vegas to rest up before resuming their adventurous trip. But after some time, Percy realized that the hotel was playing tricks on their minds. And it was only after exiting that place that Percy realized that, while they thought they were in the hotel for a few hours, in reality, five days had passed. So, it was an exaggerated metaphor for the addictive nature of Las Vegas and how the addiction of that city can mess with the passage of time. The experience of watching “Shehzada” was quite the opposite of that. The movie is 145 minutes long, and yet, it felt like an entire week had passed, and I was dissolving into the theater seat while my soul withered away. However, since I’ve survived the experience, let’s talk about it.
Rohit Dhawan’s directorial film, “Shehzada” is an official remake of South Indian film “Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo” that stars Pooja Hegde and superstar Allu Arjun in the lead role. Just like the original, “Shehzada” follows Valmiki (Paresh Rawal), an employee of Aditya Jindal (Sachin Khedekar), who arrives at the local hospital to check on his pregnant wife and Yashoda (Manisha Koirala), i.e., Randeep’s (Ronit Roy) wife and Aditya’s daughter. While Valmiki’s son is delivered safely, Yashoda’s son appears to be dead on arrival. So, Valmiki asks the nurse to exchange his son with Yashoda’s so that his rich employers don’t have to deal with the death of the heir to the Nanda empire. Once that’s done, though, and Valmiki is taking Yashoda’s actual son to his wife, the newborn baby starts to cry. The nurse tries to reverse the exchange. However, Valmiki says that he wants his real son to grow up to be the sole owner of the Nandas’ wealth, while Randeep’s son will grow up in poverty, as that’s how he wants to hurt Randeep and Aditya. The nurse protests, but Valmiki pushes her down the hospital balcony, thereby sending her into a coma and securing the secret of the exchange. Twenty-five years later, Valmiki’s son grows up to be Raj Nanda (Ankur Rathee), and Randeep and Yashoda’s son grows up to be Bantu (Kartik Aaryan). There’s also a love interest, Samara (Kriti Sanon), and a villain called Sarang (Sunny Hinduja) thrown into the mix.
It’s pretty obvious from the get-go that “Shehzada” wants to be a story about classism and how class divide can cause the underprivileged to take drastic steps to seek equality. In doing so, it does present the middle class in a negative light by making its personification (Valmiki) guilty of murder, robbing two mothers of their respective sons, and inflicting childhood trauma on Bantu. Valmiki describes Randeep as some kind of schemer who married Yashoda to become the CEO of the Jindal empire. Yet, the treatment of the upper class is way more nuanced. The interpersonal conflicts between the members of the Jindal and Nanda families are apparent. And while they are guilty of adultery, fraud, and infantilizing their youngest (Raj), they are also capable of expressing regret and changing for the better. Since the middle class’s misgivings are inexcusable and the upper class can be forgiven with an apology, it seems like Dhawan and Trivikram empathize with the affluent rather than the underprivileged. They try to make a point about how struggle and suffering help in character building, while luxury and mollycoddling make one immature. However, the message is delivered in such an insensitive manner that it fails to make any kind of impact.
But I don’t think anybody will walk into “Shehzada” expecting a 2-hour-long lecture on economic inequality. Since the trailers put such a heavy focus on the “action” and Kartik Aaryan, I am assuming that that’s supposed to be the main draw. So, I am sorry to say that it’s all bad. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of action sequences, and Kartik Aaryan clearly performs all of his stunts himself. He is on wires, he is making massive leaps in the air, he is kicking, and he is punching, all while trying to emote the best he can. But Dhawan, cinematographers Sudeep Chatterjee and Sanjay F. Gupta, editor Ritesh Soni, and production designer Suresh Selvarajan fail to add even an ounce of style, personality, or energy to those sequences. I don’t have a problem with gravity-defying physics until and unless everyone commits to it. However, the presentation is so lackluster, and the vibes are so inconsistent that you just can’t immerse yourself in it. In addition to that, Aaryan never feels at home with these over-the-top set-pieces, which adds to the underwhelming viewing experience. Hence, more than the flaky commentary on the class divide, the film’s biggest drawback is its inability to transform Aaryan from a rom-com actor to an action star.
Continuing on the topic of Kartik Aaryan’s performance, I think it’s high time that directors and Aaryan himself understand that he isn’t a swag machine. He doesn’t ooze charisma, and he doesn’t have a larger-than-life persona. From his dramatic scenes to the song-and-dance sequences, the man is consistently offbeat. Aaryan doesn’t know what he should do when his co-actors have the spotlight on them. He always seems to be waiting for cues. His dance moves aren’t smooth. His dialogue delivery (yes, even his monologue, which Aaryan is apparently contractually obligated to do in every film) is either one note or shaky. And all of that is okay because it means that he isn’t plastic, like a lot of recent stars. He needs to double down on his awkwardness and find stories that highlight his inability to be sophisticated and cool. He needs to find choreographers, both in terms of dance and action, who play to his strengths instead of those who try to make him look like some other action star. He has produced “Shehzada,” and that clearly means he has the power to decide for himself. It’s high time he started thinking about all this before signing on to make the next soulless film.
As for the rest of the cast, Kriti Sanon looks ethereal but doesn’t get any scenes to flex her acting chops. Manisha Koirala, Ronit Roy, Ankur Rathee, Sunny Hinduja, Ali Asgar, Rakesh Bedi, Shalini Kapoor, Ashwin Mushran, and Rajpal Yadav (in a special appearance) seem to be phoning in their performances or being way too loud and obnoxious. Sachin Khedekar appears to be the only one who is trying to be in character and he make the most out of the scenes he is in. Paresh Rawal is, for lack of a better word, awful. Despite having so much screen time, he never shows interest in playing the character of Valmiki. The only time his eyes do light up is when he has to ridicule a Bengali nurse for her inability to understand Hindi. I don’t think he was even acting at that moment. His very real hatred for Bengalis (just Google “Paresh Rawal Bengali” for the necessary context) made it into the final edit. Hence, in a roundabout way, Kartik Aaryan ends up being the most memorable thing about “Shehzada” by taking a middling swipe at being an action star. If that’s what you want to watch, then feel free to give “Shehzada” a try.