Shamshera has Convenient Plot Twists and Threadbare Characters

When all else fails, crows arrive to save the hero in Shamshera — but there’s no saviour for the audience
Shamshera has Convenient Plot Twists and Threadbare Characters

Director: Karan Malhotra
Writer: Ekta Pathak Malhotra, Karan Malhotra
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Vaani Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt

There is something acutely dispiriting about Shamshera. The film is set in 1871 against the backdrop of the British Raj, but the story isn't aiming for historical authenticity. This is the fantastical tale of a warrior tribe called Khameran, their subjugation and their battle for independence against the British and against a particularly sadistic daroga named Shuddh Singh. That a bloodthirsty, opportunistic megalomaniac should be called Shuddh is about as clever as this film gets.

According to press reports, Shamshera was made on a budget of Rs. 150 crore. The film was extensively shot in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. The hard work and sweat of the team are apparent onscreen. In the production design of the fictitious kingdom of Kaza by Sumit Basu. In the scale and visuals captured by cinematographer Anay Goswamy – he artfully utilises the constantly-swirling dust, especially in the song "Fitoor". In the music and background score by composer Mithoon, who has created a fittingly rousing title song for his two heroes, Shamshera and his son Balli. And most of all in the performance of Ranbir Kapoor, who after 15 years in the business, takes on the mantle of being a larger-than-life hero. He has built his physique and mostly sheds the fumbling softness and vulnerability that made him such a winning performer in more layered roles in films like Barfi (2012), Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) and Tamasha (2015). Shamshera needs him to wield an axe like Thor and rescue the downtrodden. And he delivers. His presence isn't instantly electrifying like Ranveer Singh's in Simmba (2018) or Ram Charan and NTR Jr in RRR (2022), but with acting chops and charisma, Ranbir Kapoor holds the frame.

Yet Shamshera remains ploddingly dull and in the last 20 minutes or so, the film becomes flat-out silly. Shamshera is based on a story written by Neelesh Misra and Khila Bisht. Director Karan Malhotra has co-written the screenplay with his wife Ekta Pathak Malhotra and the dialogue is by Piyush Mishra. The film's tagline, "Karam se dacait. Dharam se azaad", promises an exciting, action drama about not one but two Robin Hood-like figures. But what we get is a story with supremely-convenient plot twists and threadbare characters. Like the dancer Sona, played with enthusiasm by Vaani Kapoor, who could be the sister of the dancer Suraiyya from Thugs of Hindostan (2018), another film produced by Yash Raj Films (YRF) and set against the backdrop of the British Raj. I wonder if they recycled the costumes of the British soldiers. Sona adds the necessary oomph to the scenery – she is introduced balancing a CGI spinning top on her flat belly – but little else. There's also Iravati Harshe. According to the internet, she's 39 years old but here, she's playing mother to Balli. Yes, the character is supposed to be 25 in the film, but Ranbir is 39 himself.

These aren't stumbling blocks for Malhotra who wants, more than anything, to create a big screen extravaganza. There are inventively staged set-pieces in Shamshera where he succeeds, especially in the first half. But Malhotra can't sustain it. In his first film, Agneepath (2012), Malhotra found the sur of the amped-up emotion, drama and especially villainy. Rishi Kapoor as Rauf Lala and Sanjay Dutt as Kancha Cheena were genuinely unnerving. A decade later, Dutt wearing gold teeth and a ponytail makes a fraction of the same impact. His Shuddh Singh is so much less interesting than Kancha or Adheera in the KGF franchise, a bad guy who has been inspired by the Vikings. In Agneepath, one character says about Kancha that he runs the village Mandwa like "Hitler ka concentration camp" — which is pretty much what Shuddh Singh is doing in this film. He even shackles children, but he has little of Kancha's menace. And once again, I must ask: why must this sort of dastardly villain laugh so much? What are they finding funny?

It couldn't be the feeble attempts at humour in this film, which includes Saurabh Shukla playing a Khameeran fighter who speaks in rhymes like this – "Dimaag so gaya hai, saale pagal ho gaya hai". Throughout the film, the Khameeran, who are considered lower caste, are called gannd (dirty), keeda (insects), chor (thieves). All of them have identifying marks on the side of their head which they hide when in disguise. Is the film attempting to comment on the atrocities of caste discrimination in India? It's hard to say because the plot is so preposterous.

For me, the final straw was seeing birds in the role of a saviour. Malhotra adds a touch of magic realism to the film so Shamshera has a special connection with birds – I can't tell you exactly what birds these are, but they look like oversized crows. This connection seems to be genetically transferred to Balli. When all else fails, crows arrive like Tuffy in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994) and save the day. The film also includes the theft of the British Queen's crown, which reminded me of Hrithik Roshan doing the same with impeccable panache in Dhoom 2 (2006).

Those are the big screen, adrenalin-packed, YRF spectacles I want to see.

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