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Let’s start with a disclaimer. Bhaigiri takes a back seat in Salman Khan’s Antim. Yes, you heard it right. Except for the Bhai ka Birthday track, Antim, which is an adaptation of the Marathi film Mulshi Pattern, has very little to do with the trademark Salman jingoism, cryptic monologues, slow-mo fight scenes, and choreographed scenes with sunglasses and scarves. Antim revolves around an honest police officer Rajveer Singh (Salman Khan) and a farmer’s son Rahuliya’s (Aayush Sharma) conflict. Mind you the conflict here isn’t the typical cop chasing the bad guy narrative and that’s what makes Antim interesting.

Directed by Mahesh Manjrekar, Antim has a lot going for it. The treatment of the film feels very different from any recent Salman Khan offering. Yes, there is that ever-looming cloud of needing to pander to his massive fan base, yet Manjrekar puts more belief and faith in his writers than Bhai’s bulging biceps. Something that directors haven’t managed to do in a very long time. It could be because Manjrekar has also made Marathi films in the past (Lalbaug Parel, Kaksparsh, Natsamrat) and has used the same formula to showcase the world of Rahuliya and his strife. The backbone of the film and the seed of its conflict lies in the idea of a poor farmer losing his land to forces beyond his control and reach – a reality that has been well documented in several places of Maharashtra. Despite the larger-than-life canvas and loud drums thumping in the garish background score, Manjrekar manages to create characters that are believable.

What stands out in Antim is the remarkable transformation of Aayush Sharma. The actor, who made a shaky debut with LoveYatri, has delivered a performance that stays with you even after the end credits roll out. That is a lot to say for anyone struggling to hold his own ground in a Salman Khan cinematic universe. Aayush’s Rahuliya has a stark resemblance to Sanjay Dutt’s Raghunath Shivalkar from Manjrekar’s very own Vaastav. They both evoke empathy, have an existential crisis as their sinister desires get bigger, and are in the pursuit of happiness. Aayush’s biggest win in Antim is to neither succumb to the pressures of taking on Salman’s larger-than-life screen appeal nor be a bystander and lurk in the superstar’s massive shadow. In fact, Aayush manages to hold his own ground and impress in scenes where Rahuliya has to challenge Rajveer and make him look small. Not an easy task, but somehow the actor manages to pull it off with ease. Salman delivers what can be easily called one of his most subtle and underplayed performances in recent times. Rajveer is no Chulbul Pandey or Raadhey (small mercies!) and that in itself is a step in the right direction for the actor.

Antim’s biggest drawback is its flawed narrative and inability in being consistent in making its characters feel real. The second half could have easily been trimmed and made shorter, songs don’t find an appeal (especially Varun Dhawan’s sketchy cameo in the Ganesha song) and the background score and sound mixing plays havoc on your eardrums. There are too many slaps and punches that after a while feel almost robotic and banal attempts to fill in gaping holes in a weak subplot. Salman’s Rajveer is made to look like he’s unpredictable, doesn’t take sides and is mostly a bystander to events unfolding in front of him, yet 20 minutes into the second half he starts going against his own principles and belief and seems to lose track of what he established so effortlessly in the first half of the film. A character that’s flawed because the makers didn’t know what to do with him.

Antim is a small step in the right direction for Salman Khan and a big step for Aayush Sharma whose path of self-discovery as an actor seems to have begun with this film. Overall Antim has enough ammunition to deliver what it set out to promise – an action blockbuster with a massive emotional connect.

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