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Adipurush

Let’s say you want to watch “Adipurush,” a new Indian mythological action-fantasy, without thinking so much about what came before it. You want to enter the theater with as little baggage as possible, despite the associations that come with the marquee-topping Prabhas, star of both S.S. Rajamouli’s trend-setting “Baahubali” period action fantasies. Maybe you want to see a great adaptation of The Ramayana, or the most commonly adapted parts of that Sanskrit language epic poem, where the arrow-slinging god Raghava, also known as Ram (Prabhas), rescues his kidnapped wife Sita, or Janaki (Kriti Sanon) from the evil multi-headed god Lankesh/Ravana (Saif Ali Khan). 

“Adipurush” just opened here in America, but it’s already controversial in India, where the writers of trend pieces, interviews, and reviews consider the implications of Lankesh’s appearance, including his weird nu-metal gel-spiked haircut, which has led to some comparisons to the Muslim leader Alauddin Khilji. Sanon’s casting as Sita has also led to outrage and, unfortunately, effective demands for censorship. (Some outspoken protesters don’t like that Sanon, the actress playing Sita, “India’s Daughter,” has danced suggestively in earlier movies.)

Is it possible to see, let alone enjoy, such an archetypal story without making too many distracting comparisons, either to other movies or real-life politics? Or are those associations simultaneously the biggest draw and problem for “Adipurush,” whose Sanskrit title can be read as “First Man,” and whose considerable budget (Rs 500 crore, or about $67 million) allegedly surpasses all prior Indian mega-productions? Honestly, the movie’s rough computer graphics might eclipse all other considerations since there’s so much bad green-screen image-compositing in “Adipurush,” and it all looks cheap and uninspired. 

Your mileage may vary, but slapdash and tacky-looking special effects make the first hour (or more) of “Adipurush” feel interminable. Here in Manhattan’s Union Square theater, at a packed Thursday afternoon matinee, the raucous screams of Prabhas’ fans soon faded after his triumphant first scene, when Raghava almost single-handedly dispatches a horde of demonic wraiths. It took a moment to hear the auditorium’s silence beneath the movie’s typically bombastic soundtrack, but it was eventually glaring. “Adipurush” has been pre-sold to viewers based on what they already know: how can you go wrong by adapting a popular epic featuring superheroic Hindu gods, uncanny valley animal-people, and monstrous villains? Well, have you seen any good Marvel movies lately?

Recent complaints from frustrated employees of Marvel’s visual effects studios make it easier to understand why an SFX-driven event title like “Adipurush” could cost so much and still look so bad. It’s harder to understand how the makers of this movie could be satisfied with key establishing scenes, like when Janaki swoons as she and Raghava are romantically encircled by a flock of poorly-rendered pink flamingos.

Some musical numbers, especially the ones featuring Janaki and Lankesh, also suffer from dramatic inertia given that so much of the characters’ movements only highlight computer graphics that make the theatrical cut of “Justice League” look polished. There’s the ersatz and seemingly literally-translated poetry of the song lyrics and expository dialogue. And then there are the totally bogus visual effects that make everything, especially the uninflected facial expressions of a normally generous ensemble cast, look like video game cut scenes. "Adipurush" has layers of problems, in other words, though it’s hard to imagine that most viewers will be able to squint past the movie’s unreflective surface problems.

There’s some hope in the end, but only if you’re inclined to see “Adipurush” as one of a few trend-chasers, whose many generic elements call back to everything, including HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series, Peter Jackson’s original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and yes, Rajamouli’s “Baahubali” two-parter. Scenes featuring the pure-hearted simian god Bajrang/Hanuman (Devdatta Nage) also shamelessly crib from the recent Andy Serkis-led, motion-capture-focused “Planet of the Apes” movies. The derivative nature of these oft-cribbed elements doesn’t matter as much as this movie’s dramatically flat-footed presentation, which only sometimes picks up during the big showdown between Raghava, Lankesh, and their respective armies. 

“Adipurush” only really feels like a movie that was directed and not just covered during its slowly escalating finale, which pits Raghava, his brother Sesh/Laxmana (Sunny Singh), and Bajrang against Lankesh and his superhumanly fast second-in-command, Indrajit (Vatsal Sheth). Some of us looked forward to “Adipurush” because it was directed by Om Raut, whose “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior” also pulled itself together during splashy, climactic battle scenes. “Adipurush” still looks rough and moves gracelessly even during slow-motion battles, but at least the narrow focus of these concluding scenes gives the movie some dramatic tension.

It’s hard to otherwise imagine a moviegoer who, just looking at what’s presented in “Adipurush,” will be satisfied by this underwhelming spectacle. Everybody on-screen swims about a vast computer-generated wasteland lost in maxi-sized roles that dwarf their singular qualities. Everything is big here, but nothing looks grand. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Adipurush movie poster

Adipurush (2023)

Rated NR

179 minutes

Cast

Prabhas as Raghava

Saif Ali Khan as Lankesh

Kriti Sanon as Janaki

Sunny Singh Nijjar as Sesh

Devdatta Nage as Bajarang

Vatsal Sheth as Indrajit

Sonal Chauhan

Trupti Toradmal

Sharad Kelkar as Raghava (Voice)

Director

Original Story

Author

Story

Screenplay

Director of Photography

Editor

Original Music Composer

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