Rudraksh (2004) is a famously terrible Bollywood movie. Since I first started watching Hindi films in 2005, I have read multiple blog posts gleefully detailing its shortcomings, and an Indian comedy duo made further mincemeat out of it in an episode of their recent series “Pretentious Movie Reviews”: “Rudraksh is a movie that answers the fundamental question ‘Where does reality end and green screen begin?’” That’s the kind of movie this is.
I give Rudraksh many points for simply having a lot of ideas, some of them unusual, and generally trying hard to execute them. It has a hardy can-do, make-do attitude: its reach may exceed its grasp, but it least it was reaching for something other than cheap jokes and hero worship. It has nothing but an A plot (No comic relief! No shoehorned romances!), gives every main character their turn at being both strong and struggling, and focuses its resources on a complex narrative of religion, science, family bonds, and sacrifice.
The film opens with a grandiloquent voiceover by Bollywood’s elder statesman, Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan has Narrator Voice to the extreme, and when he speaks in an earnest tone, you most definitely feel the gravitas and truthiness, in this case aimed at the story’s Hindu mythological components. An archaeological dig is working on sites in Sri Lanka associated with the Ramayana, and an unscrupulous digger, Bhuria (Sunil Shetty), finds inside an icon a holy seed with the potential to turn him into an all-powerful demon king. We follow Bhuria for several years as he hones his skills—he can levitate items and has no problems as a contract killer— but because he doesn’t quit have the mental discipline for fully concentrating his powers, he begins seeking a brother to join forces with him.
As the film reaches the present day, an American scientist, Dr. Gayatri (Bipasha Basu, last seen on the Gutter in The Lovers), comes to India on a quest to document and explain spiritual power, exposing phony gurus and studying the true ones with all sorts of bleep-bloop equipment. Gayatri is enraptured by the genuine powers of healer-slash-nightclub-bouncer Varun (Sanjay Dutt), who, when not presiding over Mumbai’s version of Coyote Ugly, takes on the ills of the suffering, confident that Hanuman will then take his pain away. (Why Hanuman does not just directly remove pain from the initial sufferers is not explained.)
Gayatri and her scantily-clad all-female crew also run experiments at the local mental hospital, and they record the frantic ramblings of a man earlier traumatized by Bhuria’s exploits. Varun enters a trance around the patient, where he duels with Bhuria on a spiritual helipad surrounded by swirling black clouds.
The recording is played to a lab rat, who becomes possessed by the demonic forces it contains, and the rat in turn infects the blondest American scientist. She unleashes some impressive fighting moves on Varun, eventually flinging herself off a high building instead of submitting to his healing.
Shocked by the power of the voice, Gayatri and Varun take the recording to Varun’s father, a priest in the Himalayas (Kabir Bedi, the doomed atheist from Nagin). He uses his decades of religious training and a Mac laptop to decrypt the sounds, for which he is promptly killed by Bhuria.
The whole crew then hops 1500 miles south to Sri Lanka—what’s an entire subcontinent when you have evil to fight?— to investigate Bhruia’s path. Varun tries to unlock Bhuria’s mind while Gayatri puts on her best Lara Croft outfit to spelunk into the subterranean source of sinister artifacts.
Varun has an intense chat with Shiva (Hindu god of destruction/transformation and whose third eye the seed is said to represent) using a lot of unsubtitled probably-Sanskrit and then hunts Bhuria to his lair in a CGI office tower, where, this being Bollywood, he is materializing in a musical number. If you’re the demon king of the world, getting talented backup dancers should be a snap, and Bhuria does not disappoint. I appreciate that Bhuria knows what kind of movie he’s in. Their final showdown lasts for over 20 minutes and involves a lot of flames, philosophy shop-talk, magically materializing weapons, and an Obi-Wan-like strategy session with the spirit of Varun’s dad.
Rudraksh’s blurring of Hinduism with the supernatural and a mortal’s quest for power is nothing new, but the film works at being as modern as possible in other ways. Varun invokes the internet as an analogy for cosmic enlightenment, through which he can access other people’s brains as though they are downloadable files. Women are depicted as either worthy opponents (such as Bhuria’s partner Lali, played by Isha Koppikar) or competent professionals who are never shamed for their ambitions, their lack of husbands, or their wardrobes.
The film also takes stabs at contemporary politics. In a flashback establishing Bhuria’s increasing evil and power, a title announces that we are in 1993, a year of communal riots in Mumbai. Bhuria incites both Hindus and Muslims against each other simply by changing a few pieces of his clothing and encouraging people to use swords against their enemies.
These specific events in particular and communal tensions in general are seen in mainstream Hindi movies fairly often, and the theme of the importance of sectarian harmony has been a staple for decades (for example, it’s a component of the 1970s Maha Chor mentioned in this column last year). So has the trope of a villain using urban violence as a distraction from whatever nefarious deeds they’re trying to get away with. In my experience, what’s unique about this scene is that Bhuria’s only aim is to spread evil and destruction. He’s not pulling a heist or taking down a competitor while the police are trying to maintain peace elsewhere, and he’s not luring a superhero out of hiding in order to prey on them.
Rudraksh is hardly a political movie and the only belief system it pays attention to is its own pop culture brand of Hinduism, but it is firm in its depiction of evil that knows no affiliation. If we apply the idea that Bollywood’s most insightful elements tend to be the villains—that the evil characters embody what society is currently worried about or trying to work through—Rudraksh still seems modern in ways. Even just the scene of Bhuria’s sinister code-switching makes the film feel much less dated than most of the early 2000s films I’ve seen: India’s current prime minister is implicated in similar communal riots in a different state that happened just two years before it released, and in the news right now are horrific stories of right-wing vigilante mobs murdering people over issues of cows and beef. If there really were a magical artifact that gave someone the power to incite killings just for practice and to turn the whole world into hateful, destructive zombies, Mike Pence would absolutely send the Army Corps of Engineers after it in a flash. Rudraksh is sometimes referred to as a Bollywood remake of the Indiana Jones movies, but beyond the religious archaeology, it’s a different beast.
Varun is much more consistently devout than Dr. Jones, making him an insider in the knowledge system that the villain is trying to operate, and the scientific aspect is embodied entirely in Dr. Gayatri (as is the book-learning aspect of the Ramayana, as Gayatri reminds us of the text before Varun explains the actual significance). Bhruia is probably worse than Belloq and the Nazis: he’s evil just for ego’s sake, enslaved to the seed’s power, and doesn’t seem interested in fame, wealth, or ideology.
If you watch the comedy clip linked in the first paragraph, you can get a good sampling of the general aesthetics and production design of Rudraksh. No getting around 2017 goggles here: it looks crappy, and it probably looked crappy when it came out 13 years ago. Shetty hams admirably at the right times, but Basu and Dutt both seem sluggish and confused. The music is forgettable, the dialogue is clunky, and character development is ignored completely. In another few decades, when all of our CGI looks quaint and absurd, maybe Rudraksh will emerge as a sinister B-movie with a message. Until then, silence those who encourage us to take up bigger and bigger arms against our neighbors—and never make direct eye contact with a rat.
Beth Watkins’s entire life is narrated by Amitabh Bachchan.