“If you try ruining my sister’s happiness you will be missing a head,” growls the fiercely bearded Punjabi action hero Sunny Deol midway through his new thunderous headbanger, “Singh Saab the Great.” Although he’s pushing 60, Deol still has the broad-shouldered physique, belligerent attitude and extensive collection of color-coordinated turbans needed to make a convincing Sikh superhero — which is effectively how writer-director Anil Sharma portrays him, tossing bad guys across parking lots and through walls in super-slow-motion bullet-time action sequences. At home, the pic collected a decent but unspectacular $1.4 million in its first two days.
Deol’s brawny righter of wrongs and defender of the weak is initially a man with no name, referred to only as Singh Saab. He works as a collector, a federal administrator in a district responsible for tax assessment and licensing, obviously fertile soil for government corruption. Several characters assume that Singh Saab (a corruption of sahib or master) is that kind of collector and bring bulging envelopes of cash to their meetings with him, only to be rebuffed. Singh is honest to a fault and he keeps stepping on the wrong toes, or at least increasing their tax rate.
In due course a persistent TV journalist (Amrita Rao) uncovers this mysterious hero’s backstory. Almost two decades earlier, in another district, working beardless and under his real name, Saranjit Talwar, Singh ran into a conflict with the evil Bhoodev (Prakash Raj), a local businessman/godfather. After the death of his beloved wife (Urvashi Rautela), Singh was framed for bribery and sent to prison, emerging 16 years later as an anti-corruption crusader with a side arm and growing national organization, a man whose every Hulk-like footstep shakes the earth.
Bollywood movies have been accused for a while now of becoming “gentrified,” that they are increasingly aimed at the affluent middle class and that producers no longer understand what the big Indian audience wants. If that’s the case, the recent wave of hugely popular South Indian-inflected action films (which began with Salman Khan’s “Wanted” in 2009) could be seen as a backlash against endless smirking romantic comedies about well-heeled twentysomethings in Delhi.
Action movies are one thing: They offer simple values and spectacle, and deliver catharsis. What’s amazing about these new films is how old-fashioned they are, as if the filmmakers were deliberately turning back the clock. “Singh Saab the Great” feels like a fully conscious masala throwback, complete with iconic ’80 and ’90s comic-relief specialist Johnny Lever, continuing his recent comeback in a gesticulating sidekick role. As Bhoodev, Raj makes long, florid villainous speeches that seem to have been recorded in an echo chamber — shades of the late, great Amrish Puri, the ultimate masala meanie. Bodies are pierced one minute and eyes fill with tears the next, and then we dance.