I am often in way over my head when choosing which mainstream Indian blockbusters to attend at the local multiplex. Since most of the Bollywood & Kollywood titles that populate on AMC Elmwood’s marquee are not covered by Western press outlets, I usually have very little context to go on besides a one-paragraph plot synopsis and an un-subtitled trailer. Finding my footing with the recent romance epic Radhe Shyam was even more of a challenge than usual, though, and it’s one I’m not sure I fully overcame until most of the way into its runtime.
Firstly, I could not settle on which language to watch Radhe Shyam in, since it was simultaneously filmed in both Hindi & Telugu, with two entirely different music composers hired for both audio versions. I assumed checking what region the film was produced in would help solve that puzzle, but it was shot on-location in Italy, so I just went with the most convenient start time. Then came the confusion over the film’s price tag. While most movies I watch at Elmwood are $8 matinees, tickets to Radhe Shyam were $20 a pop ($24 with the AMC app’s outrageous service charges), which is more than I think I’ve ever paid for a single movie ticket in my life. The best I can figure is that the distributors had to four-wall its theatrical run, since the Amazon Prime logo in the opening credits indicates that they will not be adhering to the rigid theatrical window that AMC demands. If I were going by myself, I would have bailed as soon as I saw that ticket price and just waited to see it on streaming in — soon, apparently. However, since I had dragged a friend to the theater (podcast co-host James), we were too fully committed to our playdate to turn back. Which is how we ended up paying $48 to watch Radhe Shyam at 10:45am on Saturday morning in an otherwise empty theater.
My confusion over how to best approach this film did not end with that hasty ticket purchase. Getting a firm handle on its tone & genre was also an adventure in itself. Pre-intermission, Radhe Shyam is a cutesy romcom with an extremely broad approach to humor (to the point where punchlines are scored by bike horns & slide whistles). Post-intermission, it’s an epic romance melodrama of Titanic proportions — complete with explosive, fist-pumping superheroics. Altogether, it’s a thoroughly entertaining 128 minutes of volatile fluff, worth all 4,800 pennies.
Prabhas (headliner of the over-the-top action spectacle Saaho) stars as the world’s greatest palm reader, the Einstein of Palmistry. Reading his own palm and finding no discernible Love Line, he decides there is no romantic love in his future and can only look forward to a series of casual Flirtationships. His resolve is challenged when he meets a beautiful doctor played by Pooja Hegde, an adrenaline junkie with a bizarre fetish for hanging out the sides of speeding trains. After a death-defying meet cute aboard one of those trains, they enter a whirlwind Flirtationship that tests the palmist’s conviction that he will never love. If this were a mainstream American rom-com I’d say you could predict where the story goes from there, but it’s much more explosively entertaining than that.
Radhe Shyam is thematically hung up on binaries. Because the central romance is between a medical doctor and a palmist, most of its scene-to-scene conflicts are built around the tension between hard-facts Science and faith in Hindu religion. More importantly to the romance, it’s a story of Love vs. Destiny, as its two central lovers are decidedly not destined to be together but rebel against their pre-determined futures to transform their Flirtationship into a proper Relationship. The early, comedic half of the film details their adorable courtship phase. The late, thrilling half details their violent rejection of their fates in an all-out visual spectacle you’d never see in a Julia Roberts romcom. That jarring genre structure is itself a binary, and it’s the one that makes the film an exciting novelty instead of just a cute diversion.
It’s near impossible to not be charmed by Radhe Shyam, at least not by the time its two destined-to-separate lovers are heroically cheating death to fight their way back to their sweet, flirtatious beginnings. This is a movie that covers both major touchstones of Celine Dion romanticism—the flowy curtains of the bodice-ripper “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” music video and the ocean-liner disaster epic of Titanic—so you cannot reasonably claim that it doesn’t deliver the goods. Whether a $24 theatrical ticket is too steep of an admission price for those heart-soaring pleasures is subjective, but I will say this: the go-for-broke action finale looked incredible on the big screen, and my audience of two had a great time cheering it on in that empty auditorium.