Perpetually up-and-coming Bollywood star Shahid Kapoor still hasn’t quite arrived, judging from the woeful state of his latest, “R… Rajkumar.” Kapoor is best known for his energetic dancing, and the scenes here in which he kicks up his heels with curvy firebrand Sonakshi Sinha (“Bullett Raja”) are islands of enjoyment in a sluggish stream of head-bonking, eye-rolling, small-town gangster slapstick, complete with “boing!”/”splat!” sound effects.
The whoopee-cushion hijinks here are punctuated with incongruous outbursts of bloody violence, which, as in “Bullett Raja,” include cold-blooded professional killings done by characters who are supposed to be sympathetic, or even cute. The pic collected $1.4 million in its first day of release, a career-best opening for Kapoor, with credit being assigned to the popularity of the movie’s heavily promoted music (by pop-oriented film song specialist Pritam) and to the reputation of the film’s director and co-writer, celebrated dancer and choreographer Prabhu Dheva. These factors also bode well for the film’s success on the NRI circuit in the U.S.
Dheva’s presence is always welcome, on either side of the camera (here he offers only a brief glimpse of his rubber-legged pop-and-lock dance moves, in a tiny cameo), but most of his strenuous effort here goes into pumping up substandard material, a thin variation on the serviceable old plot about a nameless stranger who wanders into a dusty town and sets two packs of low-lives at each other’s throats — basically the story that made its way from Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” to “A Fistful of Dollars” by way of “Yojimbo.”
No such luck this time, however. We do get a mysterious stranger, played by Kapoor, but he’s a distinctly soft-boiled Desi dude in a backpack and sneakers. With his sharp dance moves repurposed as an honorary martial art, the slender Kapoor gets a lot of help from the camera trickery that is ubiquitous now in Bollywood action films. His character, Romeo Rajkumar (in case you were wondering what the “R” stands for), is empowered by love to thunderously kick the crap out of scores of vaudeville goondas, who hover in mid-air and rotate in slow-motion, after being hammered by RR’s seemingly hydraulic fists.
The welcome spark that Sinha brings to the obstreperous character of Chanda, “the girl,” only slightly makes up for the fact that her role in the story is as little more than a prize for the men to fight over. Chanda is the niece and ward of one of the gangsters, the hulking Manik Parmar (Ashish Vidyarthi), and has caught the eye of the other, Romeo’s nominal employer Shivraj (Sonu Sood). Parmar has promised Chanda to Shivraj in marriage in order to seal an alliance between the two dons. Obviously, no self-respecting lovestruck hero with a head-crushing high kick is about to let that happen.
This abusive twist on the arranged-marriage plot, which used to be common in Bollywood, could be wrenching, engrossing, even infuriating, if it wasn’t played out in a spirit of clownish one-upmanship among the variously thuggish men. Even Kapoor’s Rajkumar himself belongs on this blacklist, because his pushy, grabby, butt-wagging assault on Chanda’s affection in no way deserves the reward the plot confers on it. In real life, she would know better.