Gabbar is Back is a masculinist fantasy

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      Starring Akshay Kumar and Shruti Hassan. Rated PG. In Hindi, with English subtitles. Now playing

      In Gabbar Is Back, Akshay Kumar plays the title role in homage to the beloved villain Gabbar Singh, from the iconic 1975 film Sholay. But in this masala film (a genre that’s undergoing a substantial revival in Bollywood), things are inverted. The villain is the hero, and the police officers are corrupt. The film deals with systemic corruption, but it remains a masculinist fantasy in which the lone male hero is both champion and liberator.

      Ten tax collectors are simultaneously kidnapped. Soon, nine are released, while the 10th is found hanging in a public street with the evidence of his corruption attached to his corpse. Gabbar, a mysterious vigilante takes responsibility and warns every corrupt official that they could be next.

      The fear that spreads through all levels of power is transformative, shaking the debilitating system of bribery. The indolent police force is stumped—all except Sadhuram (Sunil Grover), whose suggestions are ignored because he’s a lowly driver.

      In his day job, Gabbar is a professor of physics at the National College, where he prefers to lecture in the campus courtyard. Somewhere between teaching and meting out justice, he meets and falls for a young lawyer named Shruti (Shruti Haasan). Via a musical flashback and a cameo by Kareena Kapoor, we’re shown the events that impelled the popular professor to become an urban guerrilla.

      Gabbar highlights the multiple ways in which corruption oppresses the people, with a series of mini morality plays within its larger narrative. Despite the good intentions, and the allusions to a populist following, this is primarily a film about a heroic figure who fights for justice through brutal violence. Ultimately, this is an apolitical message that’s not conducive to movement-building or to lasting social change.