Shamshera is Old Rum in an Older Bottle

Karan Malhotra’s film has larger-than-life heroes who embark on strangely roundabout plans
Shamshera is Old Rum in an Older Bottle

Director: Karan Malhotra
Writer: Ekta Pathak Malhotra, Karan Malhotra, Neelesh Misra, Khila Bisht, Piyush Mishra
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Vaani Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Saurabh Shukla, Ronit Roy

The Thugs of Hindostan (2018) vibes are strong with Shamshera. Not so much in terms of quality (this comes close) or setting (they're only a century apart). But more in terms of how the average Hindi fantasy-action-adventure historical drama is rarely its own beast. The fantasy-action parts are inspired by the scale and audacity of mainstream South Indian entertainers. The adventure is a second-hand medley of Seventies' Bollywood Westerns and Hollywood period/superhero epics. (The terms "homage" and "massy" grant bad movies automatic immunity). And the historical drama is just high-pitched drama that uses history as a flimsy framing device to flaunt more fantasy, action and adventure. In Shamshera's case, the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act is translated into a gaudy, loud and confused film about a dacoit who fights to free his imprisoned tribe from the clutches of an evil Indian stooge of the British empire. 

The cultural context is irrelevant here. Given the aesthetically pleasing dance numbers, muscular bruises and perfectly sun-parched skin on show, the film could have been titled "The Loin King" and we'd be none the wiser (or happier). Visual effects aside, Shamshera is a hollow remnant of a bygone era of storytelling – one where good-looking crows take bullets for a warrior hero; where a human massacre ends with a troubled pregnant woman popping out the baby into her own hands (prompting a viewer behind me to name the baby "Maggi"); where a glamorous dancer sheds her 1890s lip gloss in favour of faded Nirupa-Roy-style sarees and darker skin once she marries a dacoit; where the desert magically produces medium-sized rocks if a character must be stoned to death. I'm all for campy-cool movies, but Shamshera misses the memo so hard that one even starts to notice the wafer-thin premise – a fatal reaction to stories that use imagination as a front for simplistic writing. 

The film opens with Shamshera (Ranbir Kapoor), the heroic leader of the lower-caste Khameran tribe, negotiating a terrible deal with the British government. He agrees to stop looting upper-caste Indian kings and merchants in return for separate land in the fictitious city of Kaza. The broker is an unhinged Indian officer named Shuddh Singh (Sanjay Dutt), so it comes as a surprise to nobody when the Khamerans are instead locked in a fort made solely to enslave them. A guilt-hit Shamshera then comes up with the most roundabout plan to win freedom for his tribe. You'd think he has trust issues with the rulers who betrayed him. But no; he decides to break out of prison, return to being a dacoit, and loot enough gold so that he can out-bribe the upper-caste Indians and pay the British to sign a new freedom treaty. The breaking-out-of-prison part is its own elaborate maze: To reach an underwater tunnel leading to an outside river, Shamshera chooses to climb to the very top of the fort so that his dive takes him deep enough to locate that tunnel. Shamshera perishes in the process, and it's left to his rebel son Balli (Ranbir Kapoor) to complete this overly complicated quest 25 years later. 

The reason I'm going on about this plan is because it's at odds with the stature of the film's heroes. Both Shamshera and then Balli – who morphs into a Shamshera 2.0 of sorts – are designed as gravity-defying, skillful warriors for whom violence is a direct form of communication. Crushing the prison's guards, defeating Shuddh Singh and conquering the police-ruled city should be child's play for them. Yet, the screenplay makes the mistake of reducing a mythical larger-than-life character to an oddly bureaucratic battle for freedom; it's like watching a caped superhero standing in line at a bus stop. Once Balli escapes the prison, too, the film's attempts to raise the stakes for his journey are strange. For instance, at one point, looting a wedding becomes the final frontier for the dacoits to complete their haul of gold. The wedding itself is peppered with high-ranked British officers. But instead of holding them hostage and squeezing out a treaty agreement, the dacoits focus on stealing the gold – and mess that up too. I want to say they have one job. 

The writing keeps inflating the plot with such contrivances to justify the scale of the movie. When it wants to introduce conflict, Balli's gang of merry dacoits suddenly go through an existential phase (Sonchiriya will not be pleased) – where, over the course of one sad song, they all gloomily disband and return to doing odd jobs to keep a low profile. There's no reason for this, other than to fill the film's straightforward path with graffiti-painted potholes. At one point, Shamshera reaches such a dead end that, out of thin (sepia-tinted) air, a Dhoom 2-style heist sequence – where the Queen's Crown gets stolen from a moving train – hijacks the narrative. The choreography of the action is ambitious here, but unfortunately for films like Shamshera, we live in a post-Baahubali era, where a single-take, 19th-century train robbery featuring one explosion and an elegant white horse do not pass muster anymore. Most of the other set pieces lack a sense of place and rhythm, where director Karan Malhotra's (Agneepath, Brothers) penchant for volume is often passed off as creative bravado. When the script runs out of exposition devices, two Kaza policemen helpfully discuss the movements and motives of Balli in a moment tragically reminiscent of Johnny Lever, Suresh Menon and Raghubir Yadav's comic banter from Asoka

Most of the performances play second fiddle to VFX in the film. As rugged father Shamshera and roguish son Balli, Ranbir Kapoor's return to the big screen is visibly an effort to be more 'massy' and accessible. He moves and grooves fine, but the masala-movie pitch doesn't come naturally to him. In the more theatrical sequences – where the warrior must yell at the villain with lyrical disdain – the strain in Kapoor's voice can be detected. It reminded me a little of Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express; the genres are different, but the dissonance between (talented) actor and (mediocre) material is similar. Sanjay Dutt as demonic villain Shuddh Singh is a Disney-level caricature – bereft of context and depth – which is why I kept myself amused by imagining that this was Kapoor extending his Sanju (2018) performance in a triple-role. The one good thing to arise from the film's obsession with Shuddh Singh is that the British aren't all-out oppressors; there are bad Englishmen, but also good ones. Having said that, the Union Jack is used as an action prop so often that I'm not sure who the real oppressors are. 

As the end credits rolled, there was so much Shamshera in my system that instead of directly exiting through the door, I planned to wait until everyone left so that I could climb into the projection booth. This would delay the next show and the ticket booth would turn away moviegoers, which in turn would leave enough rickshaws waiting for me to get home in the rain. Needless to mention, I did not go through with this plan. But Shamshera did – and here we are. 

Related Stories

No stories found.