If you’ve been around during the last few months, you might have heard a thing or ten about how mainstream film industries from the South have asserted themselves over Bollywood. While it might not be a complete misreading of the situation, given the unprecedented success of RRR and KGF, there have also been a few alarmist pieces claiming the ‘death of Bollywood’. As someone who watches Hindi cinema (and tries to keep up with good Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam films) on a weekly basis, one is almost tempted to request everyone to refrain from such knee-jerk assessment. And just when one’s batting for the future of Bollywood, comes along a film that makes you question if it’s worth it at all. Sailesh Kolanu’s Hit: The First Case is one such film.

Based on Kolanu’s 2020 Telugu film of the same name, Hit: The First Case sees competent actors like Rajkummar Rao and Sanya Malhotra get sucked in by the T-Series formula, and spit out arguably their career’s worst performance. Kolanu’s film pretends like it’s a cop procedural in the beginning, but the more the film reveals itself, the more we see how it’s neck-deep in tropes.

Vikram (Rajkummar Rao) is a cop with a ‘past’. I don’t know if I should groan at the last line – and this is a review, not even a script. Don’t screenwriters tire of this line? How else does one write about a ‘cop with a past’? One who has developed some version of phobia owing to unresolved trauma, one who is triggered by certain images, one who sits around in his living room drinking whiskey from a dusty glass, reminiscing about his lover. Neha (Sanya Malhotra) – an actor who can come out unscathed from abominations like Meenakshi Sundareshwar – is tasked with the job of appearing in flashbacks as Vikram takes a sip of whiskey, and a song by Ankit Tiwari or Arijit Singh plays in the background. The good old days. When T-Series had not produced a gazillion similar-looking music videos catering to India’s Jilted Lovers Inc.

Vikram suffers from PTSD from an incident that is not fully explained. A young lady was burned alive in front of his eyes by masked men. Since then, he’s afraid of fire. Despite being advised to retire from active police work, during which he gets bouts of panic attacks, Vikram continues to investigate cases. Like in most films like these, he’s the department’s blue-eyed boy – who is greeted by his superior (Dalip Tahil) with “My Boy!” He has great instinct, and therefore inspires the jealousy of other cops – especially one man in particular called Akshay (Jatin Goswami) who is always looking for ways to one-up Vikram.

Neha works in a crime forensic lab that seems to be inspired by Dr Salunkhe from C.I.D. She mysteriously disappears from her apartment one day, while Vikram is on a sabbatical taken for his deteriorating health. A couple of months before Neha’s disappearance, another young girl had disappeared. Called back to investigate the latter case, Vikram realises that the two cases are related.

Crimes against women have spawned a whole new genre of films/shows like The Invisible Man (2020) and Netflix series Unbelievable (2019), which have gained all the more significance in the post-MeToo era. There is an added layer of empathy towards survivors, a deeper-than-usual immersion in their trauma and a recognition of the unfairness of one gender inflicting violence on another. Hit: The First Case does nothing to recognise the evolution of its genre, instead making it all about the man’s trauma. How the man feels when he finds a corpse of women brutalised or dead. The cases, therefore, become an instrument for his own redemption.

The sole victory in Kolanu’s film is when he wants to show how dreary routine investigation can be. And how even the most seemingly ‘routine’ questions open up clues that have been there all along.

Rajkummar Rao, with one of the most convincing mercurial screams in Hindi cinema currently, ends up looking like a stand-in for a role written for Aditya Roy Kapur. Sanya Malhotra on the other hand, rarely caught on the wrong foot, seems to be inhabiting a Shraddha Kapoor (read: a mostly inconsequential) space. One of the funniest things in the film is Dalip Tahil’s commissioner admonishing characters like a school principal. The way he screams “Juveniles!” in one scene, I half-expected him to also go on to say “Is this a classroom or a fish market?”