Director: Navdeep Singh
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Deepak Dobriyal, Manav Vij, Zoya Hussain, Simone Singh
Laal Kaptaan, the third feature directed by Navdeep Singh (Manorama Six Feet Under, NH10), has every reason to be a good film. It stars the most adventurous Khan, a resurgent Manav Vij who is finally getting a fair deal after Andhadhun, and the chameleon-like Deepak Dobriyal. The cinematography – dusty, dirty, a period Western across the East – is by Shanker Raman, one of the best in the business. The landscape is rugged and raw. The screenplay is by Deepak Venkatesha, the writer of the severely underrated Kaun Kitney Paani Mein. Even the dialogue credited to Sudip Sharma, who wrote NH10, Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya. To quote a popular producer, the film boasts of a "vulcano of talent". What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Laal Kaptaan is a boring and self-absorbed period drama – one that is so obsessed with historical detailing, eccentric characters, bare physicality and country-style pace that it forgets to be narratively and humanely absorbing. It just looks like a whole lot of work for nothing. For all the technical fuss, Laal Kaptaan – in both form and spirit – instead resembles a famous Disney fairytale, given its unsubtle personality-parallels with certain animals (the hero's wild beard and guttural growls tell a tale; Dobriyal plays a nutty-hyena sort of tracker; there's also a wise-monkey witch called Laal Pari). The world-building is almost mythical, except it's not. Even the environment – sepia-tinged valleys and endlessly arid horizons that enable production design to morph into costume design – is quasi-African, evoking the vibe of an unforgiving road movie before roads were invented.
For 155 long minutes, a samurai-like Naga Sadhu (Saif Ali Khan), who surfaces 25 years after the Battle of Buxar in the late 17th century, obsessively shadows an evil Mughal lord named Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij) across Bundelkhand for a reason that is revealed so late that the twist is dead on arrival. Rehmat Khan is simultaneously chased by a bunch of clumsy Maratha soldiers who serve as fleeting comic relief in a broad plot that is destined to invite trouble on the eve of the Legislative Assembly elections. The vengeful Sanyasi's journey across rough terrain is intercut with a flashback from 1764 – a rainy scene in which a patriotic Mughal warrior's son (who is presumably mini-sanyasi) is hanged due to traitor Rehmat Khan's illicit bond with the East India Company. It's all very elaborately edited in a way that makes Naga's motive a mystery. He huffs and puffs, forming the ham in a Maratha-Mughal sandwich that is spiced up with a bit of Dobriyal's sniffer-dog madness. The chase is on foot, as is the film's fatally languid mood. On the way, a strange lower-caste girl (Zoya Hussain), who speaks in a dialect that could have done with subtitles, gets involved in the revenge non-thriller.
The film begins and ends with a philosophical voiceover about the circularity of life and death. I almost heard "But revenge has no religion"…or maybe I imagined it. The opening credits run over the Tarantino-ish shot of the Sadhu's horse dragging the body of a dacoit through an 'Indian' village. The stage is set, but nobody really shows up. The problem with Laal Kaptaan and its semi-loaded political subtext is that its narrative contrivances are dreadfully basic. Every time Naga Sadhu creeps up on his mortal enemy, the two decide to either not kill each other (because short films are for plebeians) or be distracted by a strategically placed attack by other armies. More than once we see Saif or Manav Vij in pole position, but indulging in dialogue-porn instead of sword-magic; the trope feels just as jaded as the lead actor's tortured-rebel act. There are surely better ways for Saif Ali Khan to play Batman.
I get it – Sadhu wants death to be lyrical and all, he believes in karma, but what reason does Rehmat have? He's a bad man, has a scarred face (not unlike the Joker, a half-smile is carved into his cheek), hates his wife, slaughters villages and makes deals with empty Englishmen who insist on speaking in British Hindi. Why does he not just finish off the annoying pest when he has the chance to? Why the suspense? Is he so dead-eyed and sterile that he decides to manufacture his own drama?
The argument might be "pre-Independence male ego," because we don't quite have proof of how emperors and murderers from that century behaved. A creative license is inherently embedded into the language of period filmmaking – we wouldn't be much the wiser even if one of the Marathas turned out to be an undercover Captain America travelling back in time to undo the concept of colonialism. We don't quite have proof of anything but barbarism and brawns. But Laal Kaptaan does offer irrefutable proof that feuds and families of this bygone world were hopelessly cinematic…even before the first-ever film was made. Entertainment be damned. The warning bells were loud enough. Red (laal) is not the warmest colour these days: Ask Ferrari, China and Manchester United.