Thar is a strange beast. It’s a difficult film to watch – almost tedious. It’s 1985. A mutilated man is found hanging from a tree in a remote Rajasthani village. A gang of opium-smuggling dacoits shoots a family dead. A veteran inspector is surprised by the sudden burst of action in his sleepy village. A mysterious antique dealer arrives from the city, looking for able men to do a job. There’s a lot going on; several little films jostle for space. Much of Thar looks disjointed, like a pilot of a TV series that’s yet to grow some connective tissue. I almost waited for the next episode to stream after the end credits. But thinking about Thar is far more rewarding than watching it. Because on paper at least, it’s a worthy experiment.
Thar has an identity problem, but the collision of genres is also its conceit. On one hand, it’s a period police procedural that gets hijacked by a cold-blooded revenge drama. The inspector, Surekha Singh (Anil Kapoor), is familiar with the dacoits, their terror, the cross-border trade, even his village’s caste politics. He knows why the family might have been killed. But it’s the hanging body that confuses him. He can’t fathom that the two crimes are related. He suspects that perhaps a brooding newcomer, Siddharth (Harshvardhan Kapoor), might be using the village’s violent history as a front for his own devious doings. On the other hand, Thar is a standard small-town noir set in an unusual environment. Siddarth clearly has an agenda, because one of the first things he does is customise an abandoned fort into a torture chamber. He plans to hold some very specific people hostage there. The revenge genre has undergone several iterations over the years, but it started out as a gun-toting Western. In arid deserts and one-horse towns. Siddharth is no cowboy; he is more like a modern revenge protagonist, urban and shadowy, confined by the roots of the genre.
The disorienting aspect of the film is that it’s hard to tell the world-building from the plot, the background from the foreground. The narrative subterfuge is awkward. The policeman is in his own movie until he’s not. The newcomer is hiding behind that movie until he’s not. The context is too elaborate to be cosmetic. The cop’s voiceover explains that the border village, Munabao, is a lawless product of the India-Pakistan partition. Like the film itself, it’s a land bereft of identity – a gateway rather than an actual place. Surekha Singh is a long-time resident, but also a disgruntled inspector whose DSP bosses are half his age. On the verge of retirement, fate throws him a googly: a chance to remember and be remembered. The dacoits who terrorise the village are led by an Pakistani ex-soldier, whose opium network seeps into every crevice of the area. In other words, the texture of the story – the cultural fabric, the red herrings – is more compelling than the story.
The cinematography is striking: a wonderful example of how the climate on screen influences our thoughts. But it’s also smart, because it forces us to reconsider our visual perception of both a revenge thriller and a bleak Western at once. The performances are fairly lived-in, too. Anil Kapoor riffs on his own young-cop filmography, playing a grizzled veteran who is subtly influenced by the Bollywood of his time (which is incidentally when Kapoor himself was rising through the ranks). His manner of cussing and phrasing – like “this is only the poster; the movie is yet to follow” – reveals a life uneventful enough to be swayed by fiction and swag. Harshvardhan Kapoor is appropriately haunted. His character, like an action hero, is designed to use grief as a poker-faced trigger. Not speaking or emoting much may sound simple. But there’s a thin line between emotional inertia and psychological numbness, which Kapoor manages to walk. I particularly liked Jitendra Joshi as Panna Ram, one of the three workers hired by Siddarth. The Sacred Games actor is a portrait of toxic masculinity and, more importantly, a consequence of the space Panna occupies.
Despite faltering at a macro level, some of the screenplay’s micro details are nice. For instance, Siddharth’s torture chamber supplies the ancient status of a fort as the last line of defense – of honour and kingdom, among other things. A scene where a sub-inspector (Satish Kaushik) admits that his uniform hides his (lower) caste is disarming, for it reflects the contradictions of a country that’s forever striving to shed its postcolonial trauma by manufacturing its own. I also like how the opening act of the film is constructed. It opens with the cop’s point of view, followed by two seemingly unrelated killings in different parts of the village: the hanging and the shooting. It’s like a detective being faced with two doors – he must choose between his film and someone else’s, between the India of broad daylight and the India behind closed doors. In Thar, one is at odds with the other. It’s not pretty. Even though there is some method to the madness, there is a constant struggle to engage. A flashback, for example, is littered with shots of gratuitous sexual violence. A climactic revelation is a bit of a copout, rooted in a diary and drawings. Some of the retribution scenes border on torture porn as well.
There’s a Sholay reference midway through the film. The chase is afoot, and the inspector wonders aloud whether the perpetrator is Gabbar Singh, or if it’s maybe one of the ‘good guys’: Thakur, Jai, Viru, Ramlal, or even Basanti. In doing so, he reveals more about the identity of Thar than the premise does. It is after all a revisionist Sholay of sorts, stripped of its binary moral terrain, where Gabbar lies in the eyes of the beholder. In a way, Thar is also located at the intersection of two cultural eras. By letting a rape-revenge narrative dominate and derail a dusty Western, the film tries to convey that the problems inherited by a post-Partition India – the dacoits, the assassinations, the casteism, the drugs, the cross-border hostility – pale in comparison to the inherent misogyny and gender violence of its own people. It says something that the family is killed by the dacoits while the daughter is necking in the field with her lover; she’s the only one with sexual agency. But all the female characters of the core revenge drama – Panna’s wife (an intuitive Fatima Sana Shaikh), her sister-in-law – are battered victims of patriarchy, married to the men who abuse them. These are victims woven into the DNA of a country, unlike the daughter, whose agency somewhat saves her from certain death.
In a sense, Surekha Singh is a traditional survivor of systemic rot, while Siddharth is a new-age reminder of social decay. By being a battle of narratives, the film is almost willing the former to concede to the latter. At one point, we see Surekha Singh literally escaping from an old-school dacoit shootout and then managing to confront Siddharth within the same sequence. The execution is clunky; it lacks rhythm and flow. But transitions – between two times, two nations, two identities, two tenses – are often a bumpy ride. Thar is situated in the middle of nowhere, but it aspires to be the middle of everywhere.