Horror-comedy has held Indian audiences in thrall since the early 2000s, with more than 100 films in the genre being released. Amar Kaushik’s “Bhediya” (literally “wolf”), Bollywood’s first creature comedy, despite its punishing length, is a terrifically entertaining romp through the jungles of Northeastern India that delivers pro-environment and anti-racism messages and also has the potential to become a franchise.
Top Bollywood star Varun Dhawan plays Bhaskar, an ambitious Delhi-based road construction contractor who has mortgaged his family home in order to secure a contract to build a highway through the dense jungles of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeastern India, which borders China. He is accompanied by his cousin Janardhan (Abhishek Banerjee) and has locals Jomin (Paalin Kabaak) and Panda (Deepak Dobriyal) to help. The catch is that he has to get the permission of the local villagers. The village elders object, but Bhaskar convinces the youth that they need malls and “Netflix not nature.” With the help of local corrupt officials, he manages to get enough signatures to swing the deal.
To complicate things, Bhaskar has also been bitten badly on the posterior by a wolf and is treated by veterinarian Anika (Kriti Sanon). The wound heals too rapidly and Bhaskar finds himself turning into a werewolf by night, picking off the officials who approved the highway project one by one. Panda enlists the help of a 120-year-old shaman to turn Bhaskar back into a human, but the local police and militia are determined to hunt down both Bhaskar’s werewolf and the wolf that bit him.
With this, his third film, Kaushik has established a tradition of delivering strong social messages via a mass entertainment package. His debut, horror-comedy “Stree” (2018), was a feminist fable, while “Bala” (2019) dealt with alopecia and skin color shaming. In “Bhediya,” the primary message is to save the environment and the other Indian practice that is denounced is the habit of describing people from the Northeast pejoratively as Chinese — a casual racism that is prevalent in the rest of the country. The messages are on the nose with no subtlety whatsoever, but that is the often the best way to get them across to a mass audience, and Kaushik and his writer Niren Bhatt manage that effectively.
The accent in “Bhediya” is more on the often juvenile and sometimes scatological comedy than the creatures. When the creatures do appear, it is a triumph of top notch visual effects, executed by the team that also worked on blockbuster “RRR” at London’s MPC. Performances are excellent throughout with Dhawan and Sanon carrying the film with ease, but the standout is Banerjee, an actor who can pull off psychopaths and bumbling comics with equal felicity and timing.
With a running time of more than two and a half hours, the film overstays its welcome, compounded by the traditional Bollywood speed breakers of song and dance and romantic interludes, which periodically interrupt the werewolf tale plot. There are a couple of MCU-style Easter eggs in the end credits and the second of them places “Bhediya” squarely in the “Stree” universe. A franchise surely beckons.