Director: Raj Singh Chaudhary
Writers: Raj Singh Chaudhary, Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Harshvardhan Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Sanjay Bishnoi
Cinematographer: Shreya Dev Dube
Editor: Aarti Bajaj
Thar is a revenge drama in which the least interesting thing is the motive for revenge. But thankfully, until we get there, writer-director Raj Singh Chaudhary, aided by a motley group of actors, composer Ajay Jayanthi and especially cinematographer Shreya Dev Dube, creates a tense, startling saga about crime and punishment.
The story is set in a small village in Rajasthan called Munabao. The year is 1985 but that matters little. Munabao is a place where time stands still. Close-ups of the weathered faces of its residents, a water buffalo decomposing on the cracked earth, the pitiless, parched landscape – all suggest a purgatory, where men and women must sin and suffer. The village, located on the border of India and Pakistan, is literally and metaphorically no man's land. As Inspector Surekha, played by Anil Kapoor says, 'Danger ilaka hai. Kuch bhi ho sakta hai.'
In the time-honoured tradition of American westerns, a stranger arrives. Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor plays a version of Clint Eastwood's man-with-no-name. He's mysterious, silent and also somewhat sinister. Meanwhile, a horrifically butchered man has been found hanging from a tree. Now Surekha, who is a few months away from retirement, and his assistant, Bhure, must unravel what caused someone to kill with such brutality, which seems extreme even for dacoits and opium smugglers who populate the area. Adding to the intrigue is the smoldering Chetna, played by Fatima Sana Shaikh, the wife of a local Panna, who the stranger hires for work. She and the stranger form an instant connection, which inevitably, must end with bullets and blood.
Be warned that Thar is disturbingly violent. There are scenes of torture that made me flinch and momentarily took me out of the story. I understand that this is a world in which life is nasty, brutish and short but are close-ups of sliced, broken and battered flesh necessary? Moreover, the pay-off isn't good enough to justify the visuals we are made to endure. But what makes Thar absorbing is the human drama. Like the relationship Surekha has with his wife. This is a man haunted by his middling, compromised career. He believes that he could have done better. There is a lovely scene in which he asks his wife if she is unhappy that he remained an inspector. Her answer is so casual and heartbreaking that his eyes get moist. The expression in Anil Kapoor's eyes reminds you why, after four decades, he is still every inch, a star.
The other standout is Fatima, who in a few key scenes establishes the quiet desperation of Chetna. The shift in her expressions when Chetna first opens the door to the stranger hints at how this will play out. Chetna is very much a second-class citizen, actually even lower because we are told that she is infertile but that doesn't stop her from dreaming of a better life or taking risks. Also watch out for Jitendra Joshi as Panna, Chetna's abusive husband. The actor portrays Panna's nastiness with such authenticity that even before we know him, we understand that this is a man capable of terrible things.
The stranger, whose name we find out is Siddharth, is, by design, opaque. We aren't meant to know him until the end. Harsh delivers this, remaining largely impassive and using minimal expressions. But the character is such a cipher that it undermines the narrative. Who really is Siddharth and how is he capable of doing the things we see him do? The film doesn't answer these questions. The last act especially is sloppy and unsatisfying. The dialogue has been written by Anurag Kashyap – an artist known for delving into the darkness and messiness of the human heart. But here, he writes a moralising voiceover that ties up loose ends. It's odd and out of place.
Thar visually echoes other Hindi films that have Hollywood Westerns imprinted in their DNA. Sholay, which released 10 years before this story takes place, appears as a poster but also as a key dialogue. Whose story is this, Surekha wonders, is it Gabbar's or Jai and Veeru's or Thakur's or Basanti's? You might also find hints of Abhishek Chaubey's far superior Sonchiriya. Like that film, Thar also layers in commentary about the horrors women are routinely subjected to and how caste permeates this tough terrain – in one scene, Bhure, played nicely by Satish Kaushik, says that he became a policeman because "Naukri mein jaat vardi mein chup jaati hai." But these ideas don't coalesce into a whole.
What Raj does best is create hothouse atmospherics and sudden jolts. Towards the end, we get an aerial shot of the landscape with bodies strewn across it. Which suggests the insignificance, in the larger scheme of things, of these skirmishes of good and evil. Eventually, everyone is dust.
You can watch Thar on Netflix India.