Arising from a mishmash of Indiana Jones’s greatest hits, a handful of action films I personally cannot identify, and a particularly mid-2000s stumbling love of hip hop aesthetics, Naksha (“The Map”) (2006) works for me a lot better than it has any right to. Much of the credit goes to the surprising buddy-film charm by leads Sunny Deol and Vivek Oberoi. For the uninitiated, Sunny Deol is famous as a mostly shouty-smashy sort of star from the 1980s and 90s, though he can do more than that. Vivek Oberoi, a generation younger, is, to borrow a term appropriate to his era, a more metrosexual, buff but shiny fellow who can be a good actor but never took as big a hold on the Hindi film industry as he probably hoped (and is now ignorable, having become a right-wing stooge with little clout). Why these two were cast together, I do not know, but something in their protective older brother/bratty younger brother vibe makes a nice connective tissue between the adventure sequences and gives enough heart that I look kindly upon the proceedings.
Jackie Shroff, playing an egomaniacal villain rounds out the significant cast. All three of them know what kind of film they’re in and how to perform the material, and I only wish Shroff had had a little more screen time to cackle and boast while wearing… * checks notes * divine golden armor from the Hindu epic Mahabharata that he steals from a temple in the Himalayas.
The film introduces its mythology with a voiceover about humankind’s search for power as the camera zooms over landscapes, ending high in the mountains. Then a hard-working archaeologist throws something into a fireplace, then flees through a forest as he is pursued by Baali (Shroff), who tries—BUT FAILS!—to claim an important map!
We jump forward 20 years to meet the archaeologist’s son Vicky (Oberoi), a flibbertigibbet mama’s boy. At first we think Vicky is only about the nightlife, thanks to a song called “Shake It”, but then his serious and dutiful side takes over, as he investigates his father’s study and finds clues! And then tries to follow them using his map and journal!
Baali’s men catch up with Vicky and tie him up in their hideout, but fortunately he is rescued by his half brother and, conveniently, forest ranger Veer (Deol)!
I am not well versed in Sunny Deol’s filmography, but I suspect that being dropped through a ceiling is a very fitting entry 20+ years into his career as a guy who beats people up. As they trek through the forest, they run into Riya (Sameera Reddy), the lead dancer from the nightclub who also just happens to be a tv presenter lost on location without her camera crew.
They are captured by a group of little people in a community called Lilipur.
Frankly I do not think there is any point to this ethnographic setting except to visually contrast the relatively large Sunny Deol with them in a fight. When Vicky recognizes a symbol on a shield from his dad’s journal, he realizes that the Lilipur community knew the archaeologist, and everybody indulges in a celebratory and chemically assisted song.
Baali returns, steals Vicky’s map, helpfully narrates the segment of the Mahabharata containing the history of the special armor, and marches our trio off a cliff.
Or does he? Obviously no, of course he doesn’t. Even Riya survives, though she might wish she hadn’t, because she has to stand perfectly still while Veer and Vicky embrace and seal their bond to avenge their father. She really could have been a sexy lamp.
They follow Baali’s crew to the next stop on the map: a temple whose entrance is the mouth in a huge carved face. I’m very sad not to have gotten better screen grabs of this sequence, because temple interiors, especially in fantastical films like this one, are one of my favorite types of sets in Indian cinema. This one is lit by a zillion candles, contains a second giant stone face inside, and functions somewhat like the map room from Raiders! It also holds various clues that the writers seem to think are very clever; surprisingly even someone with the introductory knowledge of Hinduism that I have can figure them out. But never mind!
Baali and his group of heavies and thieves now get a song, indulging in another favorite Bollywood trope: if it’s snowing, the men are certain to be sensibly dressed, but the women might have to wear skimpy tops and chiffon skirts or saris! I didn’t even catch this woman’s name, but she is apparently both a great dancer and knowledgeable about Himalayan geography. And obviously this song should have been in a proper villain lair, but we can’t have everything, especially in a film that barely lasts 2 hours.
Now it’s time to blow stuff up! Veer, Vicky, and Riya invade the villains’ camp and manage to cause mass destruction despite being only 2.25 people—I’m giving Riya a quarter point because she does manage to fell the dancing geographer, which is more than some heroines do.
The film’s finale involves solving more puzzles and traps that you will very definitely recognize before righteousness prevails over whatever it is that Baali hoped to accomplish. And because this is a mainstream Hindi film, there’s a very tacked-on familial-bond-affirming happy ending.
I have not yet discovered many archaeology adventure films from India, and I hope they’re out there. This one is less dramatic but also less ridiculous than Rudraksh released a few years earlier (discussed here on the Gutter, and as I look at that post I realize how very similar in bones the films are). It feels more rambling and less culturally rooted than the 2018 Bengali film Guptodhoner Sondhane (trailer). For me, Naksha would be a very satisfying film to watch on a plane, if I were able to go anywhere far enough away that a 2-hour film was worth digging out my headphones for. I want to pat the heroes on the heads for their enjoyable effort, I like the archaeological traps and secrets, and I am content that the person who wants to abuse ancient knowledge is punished.
There’s an economy in Naksha that makes indulging its weaknesses easy. It doesn’t ask much of the viewer and rolls along efficiently, repeating a pattern of research-discover-chase-fight as Veer and Vicky try to beat Baali to the treasure. The little comic relief is assigned to Vicky, which means there are no extraneous uncles with their own irrelevant plot. The romance between Vicky and Riya is so scant that it robs no time from the many action and adventure sequences. If you don’t want to watch Sunny Deol walk the line of parody and earnest effort at hip hop posturing surrounded by ersatz Victoria’s Secret angels while the final credits roll, you can turn it off without missing anything. I am entertained, and I feel at least as smart as the heroes for figuring out one of the clues in their quest. And as I write this in the middle of a Midwestern snowstorm in month 24 of the pandemic, that’s good enough.
Naksha is available on Amazon with English subtitles.
Beth Watkins rarely makes an entrance by crashing through the roof.