At one point in Anubhav Sinha's ambitious RA.One, the grimacing robotic villain wanders through a Dussehra celebration, curious about its rituals. On getting an explanation from a group of boys, he tells them (creepy villain voice included), "You burn Raavan on this day every year because you know that he never dies. He who is killed once need not be killed again and again." Shah Rukh Khan's pet project is designed and mounted as a grand superhero-vs.-supervillain saga that rattles along on the premise that evil never quite goes away. Although good may keep winning battles, the war is ongoing.
Unfortunately, the film tries to show that and everything else under the sun. It is definitely a technical accomplishment for Hindi cinema but ludicrously silly, and at times regressive, in its attempt to connect with the audience.
The simple plot involves a London-based geeky and heavily stereotyped South Indian video game designer Shekhar Subramanium (Khan in a cringeworthy curly wig) desperate to earn the respect and admiration of his indifferent son, Prateek (Armaan Verma), while listening to his wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) go on about her PhD on sexism in cuss words. Upon repeated lecturing from his son on how villains are cooler than heroes, Shekhar designs a new video game in which the villain, Ra.One (based on the demon Raavan), is indestructible. Prateek is won over, just as the villain develops artificial intelligence and crosses over from the game world into the real world, killing the man that created him, Shekhar.
Lots of destruction and chase sequences later, Prateek, with the help of Shekhar's colleague Jenny (an underused Shahana Goswami) bring to life Ra.One's only challenger, G.One (named to sound like jeevan, or life), who incidentally looks like Shekhar. More chases and destruction happen until the climactic battle between good and evil. The special effects sequences - in the video game, chases and fights - are actually the highlight of the film. The rampage through the streets of London, the first clash between Ra.One and G.One at a car junkyard, and the thrilling (but lengthy) speeding train sequence in Mumbai are choreographed and shot innovatively, giving fans of superhero fare something to enjoy. The effects are believable and usually thrilling, although not necessarily designed for 3D viewing.
The biggest downer in the film, however, is that the writers (and there are a total of six credited) do their level best to make the scenes and dialogues as pedestrian and unfunny as possible. When so much effort has gone into making the film look sleek and high-tech, desperate gags involving kicks to the crotch, peeks at cleavage, jokes about condoms, effeminate gay airport security officers, and lots more, fall completely flat and detract heavily from what could have been a solid superhero film with international appeal. The jokes are almost as crude as the ones used in Robot - another superhero droid film that was initially offered to Khan and whose eventual star, Rajnikanth, actually makes a brief yet inexplicable appearance in RA.One as the same character, Chitti.
While Sinha and Khan were probably aiming for a film with mass appeal - a la Salman Khan's recent thunderous box office successes - a bit more focus on logic would have helped RA.One by leaps and bounds in becoming a superhero film of international standards. The video game itself, for example, seems grossly undercooked. The game - which is supposed to have cost millions and developed on such a grand scale - only has three levels, and only one way for either Ra.One or G.One to die. It lacks the complexity needed to give the fight between good and evil a constant hook and emotional investment.
The film also hurtles through a variety of animation and mediums, which make for an unclear visual style. There's the other-worldly fantasy sequence in the beginning which involves Priyanka Chopra and Sanjay Dutt, the traditional 2D cartoon segments thrown in to explain parts of the video game, the world of the video game itself, and then the real world. In this equation, the fantasy and cartoon segments could have easily been done away with to maintain a coherent and crisp visual theme.
RA.One is an extremely pricey exercise in narcissism by Khan, who shows up in practically every single scene. He overacts as Shekhar and underacts as G.One, relying constantly on his star persona to sail through the film. Kapoor, otherwise without much to do in the film, is really only given character substance in an interesting twist towards the end. Arjun Rampal is brought in as the face (and shirtless body) of Ra.One too late in the film, having minimal impact. The only character that really evolves and connects with the viewer is Prateek, played by Verma. He is really the only one who seems to know what's going on throughout the film.
A labor of apparently five years - as both Khan and Sinha have stated - RA.One is not a bad film. The team gets the special effects parts right and proves that Hindi cinema can confidently move in that direction too. However, the film also proves that mainstream Hindi cinema is still lacking in good storytelling and scripts. Buried somewhere in the hodgepodge of genres, styles, offensive jokes and half-baked acting is an important message about the threat of artificial intelligence and our constant thirst to see how much creation and destruction we can enable.
The point that robotic Rampal makes about evil never dying is a strong one, yet one that is conveniently done away with for the sake of providing a wholesome mass entertainer. That hint of sinister darkness that so many Western superhero films have ventured into was noticeably missing in RA.One. It's a decent step in the right direction for sci-fi action-adventure films in Hindi cinema, but not pathbreaking by any means.