Popular middle-aged thesp Sunny Deol goes the whole nine yards, and several more, as an Indian patriot in “The Hero: Love Story of a Spy,” a wildly over-the-top, stridently nationalistic but undeniably entertaining slice of hokum for auds who like their action and romance well-cooked. Touted as the most expensive Indian pic to date — at a claimed 550 million rupees ($11.5 million), exceeding even last year’s “Devdas” — and shot in India, North America and Switzerland, story of a Hindu secret agent foiling a bunch of nasty Pakistani fundamentalists trying to build a nuclear bomb could prove a no-brain audience pleaser at less arty fests.
Films set in and around the disputed Kashmir region constitute a sub-genre in Hindi cinema, from trashier fare like “Mission Kashmir” to classier dramas like J.P. Dutta’s “Refugee.” Current opus is by the team that produced 2001 hit “Gadar: ek prem katha,” another nationalist epic also starring Deol. Bowing April 11, “Hero” has so far done gangbusters biz around Bombay and New Delhi, easily beating out “Daredevil”; but its quieter reception in other parts of the country makes “Hero” unlikely to top “Gadar” in the long run.
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In a 20-minute pre-credit sequence that’s almost a self-contained movie, intelligence offer Arjun Khanna (Deol) accepts an award for bravery from the Canadian government and on the flight back home recalls his spying exploits of the past two years. A master of disguise, Khanna had thwarted a plan by maniacal ISI chief Ishaq Khan (vet Amrish Puri) for some pro-Kashmir Islamic extremists to steal one of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs. After fooling Khan in New York, and having him sent to a Pakistani jail, Khanna is sent on a new mission, posing as Major Ravi Batra on the Kashmir frontier. Cue main titles.
Settling into his job, Khanna meets sparky shepherd girl Reshma (Preity Zinta). Discovering she’s actually adopted by her Muslim parents and was born a Hindu, Khanna asks her to go on a mission across the border, posing as a maid in a Pakistani colonel’s house.
Who should turn up at the house but Khan, who’s been secretly released from jail. Reshma barely escapes alive with the info, but back across the border she and Khanna celebrate by becoming engaged at a splashy party in a giant riverside rotunda. Halfway through the proceedings, however, Khan dynamites the gathering, and Reshma is swept down river. Intermission.
Where Part One is more military in mode, and largely set in Kashmir, Part Two is more desi 007, set in Toronto and snowy Canadian mountains (actually the Swiss Alps). The time spent on detailing Khanna and Reshma’s relationship in the first half pays dividends in the second as, in a typically Bollywood maneuver, their paths keep almost crossing as Khanna becomes entangled with Shaheen (stunning newcomer Priyanka Chopra). There’s all kinds of misunderstandings and emotional tangles before the finale on a mountain peak and tourist train.
Though all the money is up on the screen in a variety of set pieces, “The Hero” could have been a much better movie — even on its own pulp level — if more care had been taken with the tech side. Lensing ranges from the excellent to the shabby, and color processing likewise; editing by Suresh Urs (“Bombay,” “Dil se”) also runs the gamut; and the background score is as hysterical as the performances by the villains.
However, the staging and lensing of the musical numbers are excellent, and show considerable thought in integrating them with the plot. The final musical set piece, set at Khanna and Shaheen’s wedding with all the cast present, brilliantly pulls all the emotional and dramatic threads of the preceding 2½ hours together to knockout effect, prior to the extended action finale.
Deol makes a solid, rather than exciting hero, better in military duds than his increasingly outre disguises, and Puri overacts wildly as the villain. Femme leads are much more engaging, with Zinta typically sparky and likable, and mega-looker Chopra (Miss World 2000) making a solid screen debut as a modern urban miss.
Though it’s made clear in the latter stages that the Indians’ battle is not against the Pakistani people or Islam per se, only rotten elements in both, the pic’s politics don’t even bear thinking about.