The sheer pleasure of seeing veteran actors Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta on screen elevates a simple film like Shiv Shastri Balboa and makes it engaging. Initially a comedy, the film eventually delves into a variety of topics, some of which will touch your heart while others will make you think about life in general. Shiv Shastri Balboa, written and directed by Ajayan Venugopalan, is neither overtly funny nor overtly grim. It strikes just the right note to elicit a range of emotions. At some point, you might get the impression that the film is about to deliver a serious message or turn into a social commentary on the types of lives that Indians lead abroad.
Shiv Shankar Shastri (Anupam Kher) is a diehard fan of the 1976 film Rocky, which starred Sylvester Stallone as boxer Rocky Balboa. He is not a boxer, but he has trained several boxers who have brought honour to the country. He moves to the United States as a retiree to live with his son Rahul (Jugal Hansraj), his wife, two young sons, and a dog named Casper. While adjusting to the hectic pace of life in a foreign city, he meets Elsa Zachariah (Neena Gupta) and promises to reunite her with her family in India. And, as fate would have it, the two find themselves on an unexpected road trip through the American heartland, eventually embarking on a journey of self-love and rediscovery.Along the way, Shastri and Elsa meet Cinnamon Singh (Sharib Hashmi) and Siya (Nagris Fakhri), who play important roles in getting them to their destination. But things take a turn for the worse when Elsa is declared a ‘wanted’ criminal and is imprisoned. The second half of the film follows Shastri as he pulls every string he can in order to set her free while also realising his own dream.
Interestingly, Kher’s most recent album, Uunchai, also discussed how one is never too old to reinvent oneself. And he takes on challenges in this one as well. Working at a gas station or riding Harley Davidson motorcycles with a tattooed gang, Kher maintains his swag while doing both. And he is as loving as they come when he is with his grandchildren, telling them the story of Rocky and being surprised that their father, Rahul, never got them to see the film. Shiv Shastri takes every opportunity to tell the brave story of Rocky, whether to his grandsons or to a stranger, Elsa, whom he meets at the bus stop while dropping his son off at school.
The friendship between the terrified-of-dogs protagonist Shastri ji and Casper, who gradually develops a friendly bond, is undoubtedly the film’s highlight. I enjoyed the scenes with Shastri and Casper, especially when a speech bubble appears on screen to tell us what the dog is thinking.
Shiv Shastri Balboa is 132 minutes long, but it quickly picks up the pace and the story moves forward. The story is straightforward without being preachy. Some of Kher’s lines, such as “The bigger risk a person can take is to do nothing” and “Sometimes, you have to make-believe things to believe in yourself,” are excellent life lessons. Overall, the writing could have been much better in terms of how the story unfolds, but I believe the creators stuck to a simple narrative and did not take many risks. A few sections, such as the track around the biker gang, felt rushed. I would have liked to have seen them become more involved in Shiv Shastri’s journey.
Neena Gupta’s portrayal of a housekeeper in an Indo-American family is quite daring. We’re told she’s originally from Hyderabad, which explains why she has a put-on accent throughout the movie, which I found a little over-the-top and distracting. The only amusing aspect is that she can’t pronounce Shastri and refers to Kher’s character as Shastra Ji. Sharib Hashmi’s casting as the funny man is brilliant, and his comic timing is impeccable. He never overpowers the protagonist’s story while still holding his own in the few scenes he has. It’s wonderful to see Jugal Hansraj back on the big screen after such a long absence, playing a nearly full-fledged role.
Shiv Shastri Balboa is a sweet, innocent, and endearing love, life, and learning story. While the film has a good heart, watch it for the relatable performances by Kher and Gupta that will make you want to rediscover life.