“It feels like I haven’t slept in … for ever,” says Ayan Mukerji, the director and writer of Brahmastra, a new Indian superhero trilogy, after announcing yet another release date for its first instalment.
“I was 29 when I started working on the film. I’ll be 39 by the time it releases. My peers have made multiple films, gotten married and had kids in the time I’ve made this one movie.”
The film, starring real-life superstar couple Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt as well as veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan and South Indian superstar Nagarjuna, was initially meant to be released in August 2019, but was delayed on four separate occasions. Last week, Mukerji unveiled the film's first official poster and a new release date in September 2022, more than three years after its intended release.
It’s tough not to feel sorry for Mukerji. To say that Brahmastra’s journey so far has been long, winding and challenging would be an understatement.
The Brahmastra trilogy was announced in October 2017 on Twitter by its producer Karan Johar, to be completed over a decade. Bankrolled by four production houses – Fox Star Studios, Dharma Productions, Prime Focus and Starlight Pictures – the first part alone is rumoured to have cost more than 300 crores Indian rupees (about $40 million), to be released simultaneously in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada languages.
It’s unusual for a Bollywood movie to be announced as a trilogy from the start, let alone in a genre that is yet to see much success in India. The last two big-budget superhero films to come out of the country – Ra.One (2011) and Krrish 3 (2013), starring superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan respectively – were widely panned, evoking more cringe than awe.
Mukerji could well be the home-grown superhero auteur India’s been waiting for, or he could fail at an almost unprecedented scale. And given that Mukerji’s filmography spans only two films – Wake Up Sid (2009) and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) – both slice-of-life romances, albeit hugely successful ones, there is still a lot of potential for things to go wrong.
To his credit, Mukerji seems to be wearing the pressure lightly.
"My previous films were made in the tradition of the films that came before it. Wake Up Sid was my interpretation of Dil Chahta Hai. Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani was my take on Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” says Mukerji. “But as much as I love superhero films, I honestly couldn’t imagine creating something like a Marvel Universe because there simply didn’t exist a template for it in India, which is probably why the others weren’t doing it either.
"But towards the end of YJHD, I just knew it in my bones that I had to do it. I thought I was the right age, ability, energy and experience level to attempt something this ambitious. And here we are.”
In Brahmastra Part One: Shiva, Kapoor’s titular character Shiva travels two timeframes – contemporary India and another of 3,000 years ago – in an attempt to understand his fire-based superpower. All he knows as he undertakes the journey is that he shares a mysterious connection to the most powerful and potent divine weapon in the universe – the Brahmastra. His quest is supported by his lady love Isha, played by Bhatt, and guided by Bachchan’s Professor Arvind Chaturvedi.
“My modernised version of Dumbledore-meets-Gandalf,” says Mukerji.
The result of thousands of hours of work and rework, it took him years to write the film, he says. “I can’t even quantify the amount of work of this mammoth film. I had to first let the thought marinate, then scope out the storyline for three films in my head. Then I started the back-breaking job of understanding action and visual effects. Then budgeting, then learning that I can’t do what I want to do with the budgets I have, then doing it again and again, and again. Too many people have made too many sacrifices to make Brahmastra happen.”
Delays never bode well for a film, let alone for one mounted at Brahmastra’s scale. Roping a real-life couple to play the lead in a movie that takes half a decade to churn out is tricky at best, and a disaster-in-the-making at worst.
Mukerji’s own leading man is well-versed in the tragic ways a movie can be ruined when soured relationships are combined with production delays, given the fate of Jagga Jasoos. The 2017 film starring Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, once highly-anticipated, barely managed to make a blip at the box office upon release after many delays caused, at least in part, by Kaif and Kapoor’s breakup.
But Mukerji, 38, isn’t worried about Brahmastra looking dated, and is completely comfortable with his casting decisions.
“It had to be Ranbir, Alia and Mr Bachchan. We went with the people who most naturally fit the part,” he says. “As for looking dated, I’m not worried at all. We were shooting until last month, we still have some visual effects left to finish. It’s going to be a visual delight, and as an Indian, you’re going to be proud of it when you see it, I can guarantee that.”
Mukerji's film draws inspiration from Hindu mythology. Brahmastra is considered the most powerful among the many weapons of the gods in Hinduism. Similarly, Shiva is one of the principal gods in the trinity of the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu) and the destroyer (Shiva) trinity.
The director, however, insists his film's story is not religious.
In the past few years, several Bollywood filmmakers have had to issue public apologies, alter portions of their film or rename them in the face of furore caused by the hurt sentiments of several religious factions and communities. The reasons for their objections have ranged from depicting celebrated fictional characters in a bad light, promoting inter-religious love and even character costumes. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali had to contend with incidents of violence and threats in the run-up to the release of his big-budget film Padmaavat in 2018.
“I honestly don’t think there’s anything in the movie that could offend anyone,” says Mukerji. "The story has nothing to do with religion, but it does use symbolism that I’ve been attracted to powerfully all my life. It’s my way of connecting with my culture and a tribute to my roots.
“In terms of the story, we’ve been very clear throughout that it’s all fantasy. I just felt that this fantasy needs to be grounded in the treasure trove of inspiration and wisdom that exists within my faith, but set in modern India. I felt this combination would help me create something original and inspiring.
“At its core, I think this movie is a powerful love story."
Brahmastra is scheduled to be released on September 9, 2022