Cast: Kartik Aaryan, Kriti Sanon, Manisha Koirala, Paresh Rawal, Ronit Roy, Sachin Khedekar
Director: Rohit Dhawan
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of 5)
A crucial scene in the lead-up to the intermission of Shehzada comes pretty close to summing up what Rohit Dhawan’s new film is like. A woman who has been comatose for a quarter century suddenly springs to life, blurts out a long-suppressed truth, and, having set the cat among pigeons, promptly breathes her last.
The film, too, is somewhat of a fits-and-starts affair. After a quick prelude that plays out 25 years ago, it slips into a moribund state, acquires some degree of vitality on either side of its halfway point and then goes right back to being what it predominantly was in the first hour and a bit – limp, lackluster and lacking in genuine humour.
But no matter how Shehzada pans out over its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, lead actor Kartik Aaryan, also credited as a producer, is in fine fettle. He uses the film as an extended demo reel to showcase his range as an actor. Blending slow-motion swag, some cultivated effervescence and flashes of emotion, he frequently hits the sweet spot.
Be it melodrama, comedy, action or romance, Aaryan gives the film all he’s got. If parts of this swapped-baby dramedy are fairly watchable, it is solely because of what Aaryan brings to the table – a likeable persona whose masculinity is tempered with a clear sense of the line that separates the acceptable from what is not.
A boy switched at birth by a factotum of a wealthy tycoon, the hero, Bantu (Aaryan), ends up in the home of the naukar when he rightfully should have been raised in the palace of the wealthy maalik. Armed with a degree from the Government College of Law, Amritsar, he is hired by a pretty lawyer (Kriti Sanon) as an assistant.
As Shehzada makes its way through all the predictable spiel about the rich being exploitative and manipulative and the poor bearing the brunt, it takes him an entire half of the film to figure out who he is.
When he does stumble upon the reality of his birth, he does not leap at the door that opens up. He takes upon himself the onus of righting the grievous wrong done unto him. He employs methods and ploys that are known to those that have seen the original. Those that haven’t might be enthused by Bantu’s antics targeted at ensuring that the unctuous Valmiki (Paresh Rawal), the man responsible for the young man’s misfortunes, receives his just desserts.
Aaryan goes on in one fell swoop to be a lover, an action hero, a mamma’s boy, an angry crusader against those that have wronged him and a firm protector of the family he has an embryonic bond with. The focus of Shehzada is squarely on the actor. He does not let the chance slip through his fingers.
The other cast members, including Paresh Rawal, are at hand primarily to help the male lead display his wares. Kriti Sanon is a lawyer who is never in a courtroom, is the romantic interest and the focal point of a couple of musical set pieces. Yes, she does pop up here and there but never for anything other than to play second fiddle to her ‘assistant’.
Manisha Koirala is hard done by in the role of a mother figure and Ronit Roy plays the patriarch who is barely allowed to make a mark. The youth who benefits from the crib switch at the start of the film is Raj (Ankur Rathee, an actor who clearly deserves to reap the fruits of his talent to a far greater extent than the Mumbai movie industry has permitted thus far).
If not an obnoxious brat, Raj is a man-child incapable of facing challenges, taking decisions and even feeling anger when the girl he thinks he will marry pulls the rug from under his feet. He is the exact opposite of Bantu, an unlucky boy who has had to make do with hand-me-downs all his life.
Bantu’s his strength – and weakness – is his steadfast refusal to lie. When it is time for the deprived prince to return to his kingdom and stake his claim to the silver spoon that his rightfully his, he does not lose his bearings. He chips away steadily and with the pure intent of being of help, he charms his way into the heart of the owner of the mansion – Aditya Jindal (Sachin Khedekar). Hackneyed but harmless.
A remake of the 2020 Telugu superhit Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, Shehzada has an unmistakable retro ring to it, but the adaptation by Rohit Dhawan, while employing all the tropes that come with the plot’s looney devices, throws a modern, millennial cloak around the concoction. However, the obsolescence of the film’s essence is difficult to shrug off.
The Telugu film was headlined by Allu Arjun, producer Allu Aravind’s son, and the star invested the role with a level of energy that Kartik Aaryan has to stretch every limb to match. He pulls it off with panache and, along the way, even takes a swipe at the culture of nepotism that drives the new-gen Bollywood star system.
Shehzada is fusty but fun. Take Kartik Aaryan out of it, there might not be much left in the film. If nothing else, Shehzada goes to show that the star now has the ability to power an entire film without having to fall back on an exceptionally brilliant Tabu as he had to in his previous hit, Bhool Bhulaiya 2.
If Shehzada hits box-office paydirt, it could be a significant turning point in Aaryan’s career. Given the effort and energy that he has put into this massy mixed bag of a film, that would be an absolutely deserved outcome.
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