In a scene early on in Bullett Raja, two thugs ruefully discuss how Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and his friend Rudra (Jimmy Shergill) wreaked havoc on their gang. One man tells the other, "Hamesha do log kyun hote hain? Sholay mein bhi do the." This is typically sharp writing by Tigmanshu Dhulia; we immediately get a sense of two buddies, brothers-in-arms, so thick that nothing can come between them.
Up until the halfway mark, Bullett Raja is rollicking entertainment. Our gangster protagonists kill, maim, kidnap, and intimidate their rivals, all the while bickering and joking, in Dhulia’s direct nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Raja and Rudra meet by chance and are drawn into violence by fate. During a stint in jail, they are introduced to a fixer (Vipin Sharma) who advises them to become "political commandoes" for a UP leader (Raj Babbar). They soon become local heroes, but when they take on a nexus of political bigwigs, police, and industrialists, the two find themselves on a hit list. Sadly the film’s screenplay comes undone post intermission, its second half disintegrating into a bloody revenge saga.
Dhulia makes a hardcore action film, but coats it with local flavor and dialogue. Like Quentin Tarantino’s cinema, the violence has an irreverent, cheeky vibe – like that scene where Raja insists on killing a slimy politico from a distance of over 100 metres, just so he can break another shooter’s record. This is one of many sparkling moments, as is a scene in which two hostages forget where they are, and burst out laughing while glued to a comedy show on television, even as their kidnapper watches them bewildered.
To give texture to his tale, Dhulia hires good actors in colorful parts. Ravi Kissen is pretty solid as the hit-man who dresses up as a woman and pretends to be crazy, just so he can escape getting arrested. In one instance he tells a corrupt neta: "Aap humein support kijiye, hum vispot karenge." Gulshan Grover particularly shines in the role of a contemptuous Marwari millionaire, and you laugh when a Chambal dacoit on the verge of surrender, puts in a demand for Bipasha Basu to dance for him in the ravines.
What’s disappointing then is that Bullett Raja isn’t consistently engaging. Aside from the rather choppy editing, there are also random scenes strewn about carelessly. Sonakshi Sinha plays an aspiring actress who comes in contact with Raja and Rudra. We’re never sure why this sweet middle-class Bengali girl insists she wants to tag along with two gangsters for the ride. She falls all-too-easily in love with Raja, even though they appear as far removed as chalk and cheese. The flabby, unnecessary portions in this film include the hiatus these three take to Mumbai, a plot diversion that serves no purpose other than to fit in a silly nightclub number. Even the dacoit-capture scene in the Chambal valley comes off as indulgent, given that it’s included only to establish Vidyut Jamwal’s character as a daring cop.
And therein lies Bullett Raja’s big flaw. Working on a larger scale than he’s usually handled, Dhulia inevitably falls into the trap of glorifying his star. The narrative bloats to include scenes of Raja’s herogiri and this quickly becomes a drag. The director’s knack for telling intriguing, wacky stories gets sidelined by the pressure on him to present Saif Ali Khan as the ultimate symbol of machismo.
Of the principal cast, Jimmy Shergill is nicely restrained as the quick-thinking Rudra, whose chemistry with Raja is compelling. Sonakshi Sinha comes off as a third wheel in this friendship, stuck with a middling role. Saif Ali Khan is very good as the wise-ass, audacious Raja, going full-throttle in the comic interludes, the high-adrenaline chase sequences, and even the loutish dancing in an item song with Mahie Gill. The pity here is that despite dominating the screen throughout, his character never feels entirely well-rounded, and as a result his performance never hits the high notes he achieved with Langda Tyagi in Omkara.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Bullett Raja. With a tighter script and an uncompromising vision, he might’ve knocked this one right out of the park. At the moment though, it’s an easy but forgettable watch.