Varun Dhawan’s film is helped by lively performances -3.5 stars

Varun Dhawan inside Bhediya. (courtesy: maddockfilms)

Launch: Varun Dhawan, Kriti Sanon, Abhishek Banerjee and Deepak Dobriyal

Director: Amar Kaushik

Assessment: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

The Street the duo of producer Dinesh Vijan and director Amar Kaushik come together to make a film that is substantially more than just another horror comedy. It’s in some ways in the same zone as the 2018 film, but it’s markedly different in spirit, substance, and style.

It makes room for skepticism, but blends it with a remarkable degree of earnestness and teasing humor that keep the film from getting lost in the kind of baffling convolutions that marred Maddock Films’ previous offering, rods.

Bhediya, starring Varun Dhawan who explores the power of a wild transmogrification, is mainly based on the consequences of human-animal conflict – it takes place in a tangible yet fairy-tale setting where the fantastic and the real mix. However, as the story unfolds, it hits the straps and lets other essential themes find their way.

The director, working from a screenplay by Niren Bhatt, not only inserts a message of environmental conservation into a folkloric plot, but also dwells on questions of language, identity and culture with bursts of robust comedy inserted in order to revive a debate of great meaning.

Bhediya it strikes a generally successful balancing act between farce and fable. The latter is firmly rooted in local myths and legends. A 120-year-old shaman is a key character who brings into the equation the role traditional knowledge and beliefs play in the lives of people who have been sustained by hills and forests for generations.

Some parts of the film could certainly have been refined, but, overall, the director maintains an unshakable grip on the tone and tenor of the narrative, which allows Bhediya elicit a willing suspension of disbelief from the audience, which is of course absolutely essential for a film that relies on free-flowing notions that could easily be dismissed as avoidable argle-bargles.

The film’s technical attributes – led by the lighting and camerawork (by cinematographer Jishnu Bhattacharjee) and the evocative set design – are top-notch. Particularly impressive are the visual effects in the pivotal scenes showing the process of the protagonist transforming into a wolf and acquiring the ability and strength to jump over all obstacles.

The cast of Bhediya includes Abhishek Banerjee, who was one of three friends in Street who meet a beautiful apparition which means supernatural trouble for men. In an end credits scene, Bhediya acknowledges its debt to Streetthe film that inaugurated the horror-comedy universe of Maddock Films which now seems to be almost back on track after the oblivion and the capricious rods deviation.

Bhediya reworks the conventions of the genre to create the story of a forest facing the threat of denudation in the name of development. The film would have had a lot more thrust if it had been a little shorter. But despite running over two and a half hours, the plot elements it pulls together form a cohesive whole without overly strained gullibility.

In the popular imagination, undoubtedly perpetuated by genre cinema and the fairy tales that have been told to us for decades, a bhediya it is a feared animal, a savage predator that has never made peace with humanity. In this film, the creature is granted startlingly positive perspectives that allow the benevolent and the fearsome to coexist and create room for ambiguity in our responses to the animal’s violent depredations.

To be sure, the wolf is not native to the part of the world where Bhediya is set. But this is not a film that aims at the absolute truthfulness of the facts. Set in a fantasy world, the wild animal is given a mythical cloak to justify its presence in the wilds of Arunachal. The creature is a beast of the jungle, a sort of wild dog with very sharp fangs that can do serious harm to humans and, most importantly, a warning sign to proponents of development that ignores the ecological concerns.

A Delhi road construction contractor Bhaskar (Varun Dhawan) arrives in the town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh in the company of his narrow-minded cousin Janardhan (Abhishek Banerjee). He has a blueprint that maps the dimensions of a proposed infrastructure project that he has reason to believe will completely transform the site.

The Delhi duo are joined by a local point person, Jomin (NSD alumnus Paalin Kabak in his first film role), whose job it is to help outsiders convince the local population of the urgent need for a new road through the forest. It’s easier said than done.

Bhediya represents the clash between tradition and so-called modernity through a clear and understandable divide between the elderly of the country who consider the forest a sacred space and the younger population dedicated to consumerist suggestions that depend on technology and electronic gadgets.

The bite of the wolf that throws Bhaskar’s plans into utter disarray is the focus of this allegory on the greed of greenbacks and the depletion of greenbacks and humanity’s enormous capacity to harm the environment. Panic breaks out among the citizens. A police outpost springs into action, but the cops are confronted with a phenomenon they can barely explain, let alone decipher.

Bhaskar and his friends – among them are Panda (Deepak Dobriyal), a native of Nainital who has lived in Arunachal Pradesh all his life and is suspected of being influenced by ulterior motives, and Anika (Kriti Sanon), a vet who does not he has no choice but to cure Bhaskar even though the complicated case is well out of his reach – they are stopped as the wolf’s mystifying and fatal attacks multiply.

An important thread that crosses Bhediya it centers on Janardhan’s attitude towards the place and its people. Insensitive to Jomin’s feelings, he makes casual jokes at the latter’s expense, ridiculing his Hindi and making offensive presumptions.

The random verbal indiscretions threaten to drive a wedge between the Delhi boys and the local boy and become a key strand of the story. Resolution takes time to arrive, but when it does the script sums up the situation and its repercussions powerfully, if only in a way that punches you too much in the face.

Bhediya, both entertaining and challenging, is aided by lively performances. Varun Dhawan gives the unconventional role its best shot. Abhishek Banerjee and Paalin Kabak are as great with their comedic timing as they are with their dramatic flourishes. Kriti Sanon has relatively limited footage but does whatever it takes to not be swamped by the picture.

Bhediyathanks to the inventive and intriguing ways he adopts with a genre that has spawned many films over the decades from Paul Schrader’s Cat People and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London to (closer to home) Rajkumar Kohli Jaani Dushmann and that of Mahesh Bhatt June (both of which find mention in this film), has its own unique stamp that makes it watchable through and through.

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