I remember directing my first short film for a college assignment. When the lecturer announced that we were to make a horror film, I thought to myself, “I’m going to incorporate the plot twist from Sixth Sense and the climactic suicide scene from Dhanush’s 3 and it’s going to be the coolest, most mindblowing thing ever!!” I didn’t care how I got to those scenes just that those scenes HAD TO be in it (refer to part about coolest shit ever). I watched the end product with a massive hardon, thinking that my friends and I had indeed crafted something akin to Gordan Ramsay’s Sautéed foie gras. Looking back at the short film now, it was more in line with whatever you would find in the toilet bowl of a public restroom.
I think director Sujeth had a similar mindset when he got the Saaho gig. Someone who thought by including a bunch of cool scenes/shots/ideas from his favourite action films would automatically result in something magnificent. The problem is, this isn’t a college assignment — it’s a 350Cr ($US 48 million) film self-billed as the “biggest action-thriller in India.” It’s more like the biggest cinematic disaster in recent memory.
S.S. Rajamouli made eight smaller films before moving on to the slightly bigger Eega and only then did he helm Baahubali 1 & 2. Who on earth thought it was a good idea to give Sujeeth, who made one romantic comedy, a budget of this magnitude? Forget about the bombast, here the inexperienced director fails to even craft simple conversational scenes in an engrossing manner. Saaho is less a film and more a little kid playing with a big box of brand new toys he has just received from Santa Claus.
Saaho is set in a fictional city called Waaji — think Gotham City meets the desolate wastelands of Mad Max: Fury Road. A voice-over tells us that it’s a dangerous city run by powerful gangsters. The many families of gangsters are now conspiring against one another after the death of their big boss.
Meanwhile, the higher-ups at a police department summon Ashok (Prabhas), who’s hyped up as the best undercover cop in the world. But they don’t bring him in to infiltrate a gang… they bring him in to catch a thief?
If you’re wondering what happened to the gangsters, well, they’re busy wearing fancy suits, burning the hands of unknown characters and having a bunch of board meetings on who’s going to be the new boss.
We go back to the police and thief angle. Remember that scene from Fast Five where The Rock tells the local police force that he wants the Elsa Pataky character on his team because he likes her smile, but in reality, it’s because she’s highly motivated? Well here, Ashok tells the local police that he wants Amrita Nair (Shraddha Kapoor) on his team because he kinda wants to bang her, but in reality, it’s because he REALLY REALLY wants to bang her. At one point he shoots her the rapey eyes ala Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones. She gets turned on by it. **CUE ROMANTIC SONG**
Now the gangsters need to acquire a super-secret key called the “black box” because it can open a vault full of their own money that they initially thought they had lost but actually didn’t lose because one of their homie gangsters safeguarded in the aforementioned super-secret vault in which he doesn’t have the super-secret key to. I think. This is the point in the movie where you start to get a headache. Don’t worry, it gets worse.
Now the thief (Neil Nitin Mukesh) — yes, we’re going back to the thief — also wants to steal the black box. Ashok and gang devise a plan to stop him. And yes, Ashok still desperately wants to bone Amrita but Amrita is already thinking about marriage.
Anyway, they successfully get to the black box before the thief does, so the good guys win. But wait! Plot twist… the thief is actually an undercover cop named Ashok and Ashok is actually a thief named Saaho (his hairstyle starts to change, it’s now longer and always looking slightly wet. This is the point where I understood why Amrita wants to be with him despite his creepy vibe. Prabhas looks like a super sexy Indian Jason Momoa. I want to marry him too). It’s a twist that’s supposed to elicit a response similar to the Arjun-villain revelation at the end of Mankatha. But the only thing that popped into my head was, “huh? Well, I guess it’s something interesting… finally.”
And buddy… that was just the first half.
The second half makes even less sense with a new twist in every scene. I challenge you to keep caring after the 457th character reveal. I won’t spoil the “bigger” twists but this is generally the type of nonsense you will be dealing with: Amrita starts off as a police officer. Then she gets suspended so she’s like “meh. I’ll just go and bone Saaho and roll with the bad guys.” Literally a few seconds later, it’s revealed that she’s still a cop but now undercover and tasked to get information from Saaho. But one should never underestimate the power of an Indian romantic soundtrack. **CUE ROMANTIC SONG** Now, she’s legit in love with Saaho again cause she’s a bimbo like that. But wait! It looks like she has morals, so she goes back to the police team. But when the police try to kill Saaho, she’s like “nonono! That’s my boo!” and dives in to save him. This thread continues all the way until the film’s epilogue. #AiyoKadevule
This amount of zigzagging won’t work even if we’re utterly engaged with the goings-on. Here, we’re completely detached from all the characters, whose entire DNAs are solely made up of supposedly-shocking twists. We don’t get a sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing or who they are as human beings. The gangsters, which consists of talented actors like Arun Vijay and Mandira Bedi, play a major role in the film’s final reveal (Arun Vijay, in particular, delivers a lengthy monologue) but because we don’t know who’s on whose side and who’s friends with whom, because we don’t have an emotional connection to anybody including the lead character, the reveal bears as much meaning as: ijt9ru92gjm3g.
Out of all the poorly written characters, Amrita Nair draws the short end of the stick. She’s marketed as a highly-skilled officer in the trailer but in the film, she’s completely incapable of doing anything without the help of Saaho — she even says so herself. She’s a cop so inept that she can’t seem to go undercover at a club without getting fish drunk and ruining the mission.
Even the action sequences are nothing to scream about. Sure, I don’t think we’ve seen the use of jetpacks in an Indian film, but there’s nothing inventive or creatively staged about the scenes themselves. At one point Prabhas uses a jetpack to try and save Amrita who’s free-falling. His jetpack runs out of fuel halfway — so check this out — while in the air, he removes it uses his sheer willpower and Prabhas-ness to FLY (seriously, he can control the direction and speed of which he flies by changing the position of his hands), catch Amrita and land in a random swimming pool. If you’re into that type of action blocks, you might find some enjoyment in Saaho. The filmmakers can talk about how they used practical effects to flip a giant truck all they want, but who cares if the scene is less thrilling and has fewer stakes than a conversation between a mother and child you can overhear at a Starbucks.
Saaho sucks. There are no two ways about it. There are short bursts of positivity like the Mad Max-esque action sequence at the end, which is gorgeously designed and shot. There’s also no denying Prabhas’ ample charisma. But man, the film repeatedly and consistently tries to show you how dumb it really is (Like the scene where Saaho and Amrita purposely run not away from but right INTO a middle of a shootout. It’s raining bullets, but they run through all of em and come out completely unscathed. Perhaps it’s because the gangsters have hired the stormtroopers from Star Wars to be their gunmen. A more plausible theory is that they were protected by the power invoked by the romantic score that was accompanying the scene).
I could almost feel director Sujeth cream himself during one of the film’s final shots — it’s the massiest of mass scenes. Unfortunately, some of us in the theatre were drier than the desert of the climactic action block. Between Saaho, 2.0 and Thugs of Hindostan, there’s an important lesson to be learned: No grandiose budget can replace a good screenplay.