I’ve had Shahenshah in my sights ever since I reviewed the dreadful Amitabh Bachchan superhero joint Toofan a few years back. In that review, I mentioned that Toofan was one of a string of underperforming late 80s comeback vehicles that Bachchan released upon the abrupt end of his ill-fated foray into parliamentary politics. Shahenshah, also a superhero film, was both the first and the most successful of those comeback vehicles, which lead me to hope that it might be an improvement upon Toofan. Unfortunately, it seems that Toofan was merely an attempt to recapture the lighting that was Shahenshah, as the two have much in common, flaws included.
Shahenshah’s lengthy prologue sees the righteous policeman father of young Vijay framed in a bribery scandal by “J.K.”, an unscrupulous developer and all-around crumbum. Dad then – like a boss – hangs himself in the family home where his wife and young son are sure to be the first to find him (don’t do this). Flash forward a few decades and Vijay is now a policeman himself, albeit a buffoonish, betel leaf chewing one who appears to be accepting bribes for real from various corners of the underworld. Thing is, though, that those offering graft later receive a visit from Vijay’s alter ego, Shahenshah, a pitiless vigilante armed with the rope necessary to enact his self assigned job as judge, jury and executioner.
Shahenshah’s is sort of a de facto origin story, pretty much taking for granted that we’ve seen enough of these superhero shows to know that of course Vijay would reinvent himself in adulthood as a freakishly agile nocturnal avenger. And given the tendency of modern tent pole films to want to show us how our superhero sausage is made over and over and over again, it’s refreshing. Still, though, there are a few details I’d be curious to see fleshed out a bit. For instance, I’d like to know how Shahenshah settled on his costume, which involves a silver emo wig and a single chainmail sleeve, plus leather. I’d also like to know how Shahenshah, just being a normal guy, is able to so easily beat up several muscle bound and well armed goons in one go. (I know you can train, but doesn’t a life of crime also make a person pretty good at fighting? I mean, they’re called “toughs” for a reason.)
Finally there’s the suggestion that it’s Vijay the bumbling cop who’s the fictional persona, while Shahenshah is the real deal. We even see Vijay trying to integrate the two identities toward the end of the film, when he attempts to adopt Shahenshah’s righteous and fearless demeanor in his guise as a policeman. This split is also examined via that old shtick of having Vijay’s love interest (Meenakshi Sheshadri, who was also in Toofan) fall head over heels for Shahenshah and missing no opportunity to make unfavorable comparisons between the two. I would love to never see this particular trope played out again, but, then again, sticking to watching only films aimed at adults might do the trick in that regard.
In any case, it soon becomes obvious that Vijay is not accepting bribes in earnest but instead as a means of tricking the forces of corruption into revealing themselves. This plot point gains particular interest when you consider that Bachchan’s political downfall came as a result of his proximity to an influence peddling scam. Although the film’s screenplay was written by Santosh Saroj, it was based on a story idea suggested by Bachchan’s wife Jaya, which makes it tempting to wonder whether she had intended it as some kind of rebuke to Bachchan’s political critics. (Bachchan, by the way, was ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing, but felt burned enough by the experience to resign anyway.)
Shahenshah, like Toofan, suffers first and foremost from giving us far too little of its titular superhero and far too much of his goofy alter ego. This is especially frustrating because Shahenshah, on those rare occasions when he does show up, is pretty cool. He has a killer catch phrase (in response to a trembling goon asking “Who are you?”, his unvarying reply is, “I am greater than you. My name is Shahenshah!”) and there’s this weird Darth Vader noise that accompanies his every entrance. Vijay, by contrast, is a shrill annoyance. There’s just something about Bachchan’s mugging comic relief turns in these later films that strikes me as painfully undignified. I realize that, as a star of masala films, he had to master broad comedy as well as badassery, and that he played the fool on numerous occasions during his heyday. Yet, as in Toofan, there’s a desperation on display here that makes it feel as if he’s running a particularly humiliating gauntlet.
Compensating for Shahenshah’s weak center is a terrific cast of supporting players. Chief among these is the great Amrish Puri, whose presence alone elevates Shahenshah well above Toofan in terms of melodramatic stakes. In fact, J.K. is such a boilerplate Puri villain that the actor needs to make little more than a minimal effort in order to provide a satisfying baseline of bug-eyed, whisky swilling malevolence. (By the way, never turn down Chivas in a Bollywood movie -- as J.K. does in favor of Black Dog here -- or people will apparently lose their shit and figure out that you’re the Antichrist.) Also on hand is what Lazy Writing 101 decrees I call a “veritable who’s who” of iconic Indian character actors: Pran! Aruna Irani! Prem Chopra! And also Jagdeep in a giant cowboy hat and, at one point, nothing else.
Also in Shahenshah’s favor is the fact that it concludes with what is by far the most insane courtroom scene I’ve ever witnessed. This begins with Shahenshah delivering a key witness by driving a 4x4 through the wall of the courtroom, and continues with a defense attorney pulling a rifle on the judge and forcing him to make a false confession in order to prove a point of law. Finally there is a massive brawl that concludes with Shahenshah essentially lynching Amrish Puri right in the middle of the courtroom. (Sorry, spoiler.) As is the case with most vigilante movies, Shahenshah is peppered throughout with embittered diatribes about the sorry state of the legal system, and seeing as the legal system here is apparently run with all the restraint and integrity of an interspecies cage match, I see what they’re talking about.