Director: Vijay Krishna Acharya
Cast: Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Lloyd Owen, Katrina Kaif
There are three words in the title of Vijay Krishna Acharya’s new film, and at least two of them are wrong. Unless you count a small band of thuggees, who rob and kill travellers, the film has no “thugs”. Aamir Khan’s Firangi Mallah is more of a stool pigeon, who earns a living by passing information to the British. (The film is set in the early 19th century.) Khudabaksh Azaad, played by Amitabh Bachchan, is more of a warrior-guardian. His mission is to protect Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), a former princess who seeks revenge on a British officer named Clive (Lloyd Owen), who wiped out her family. Fast-forward this story — a woman on a mission, aided by two men (one of whom is a rogue) — to the early 2000s, and we get another Aamir Khan starrer: Mela. In other words, Thugs of Hindostan gives, of all people, Dharmesh Darshan cause to say “I got there first.” Whatever next? An update of Raja Hindustani, set in the pre-Christian era, with Aamir Khan playing a donkey driver?
No, wait. That’s here, too. Firangi Mallah does get around on an ass, named Nawab. In the film’s closing portions, there’s talk of moving to Calcutta. I wondered if a name change was in order for Nawab: Bray of Bengal. What’s that? I’ve meandered from my original aim of explaining why this film’s title is misleading? Forgive me. It must be the screenplay’s influence. So what’s the problem with “Hindostan”? Just that the action is centred on the kingdom of Raunakpur. It’s not as though the film traverses from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Gujarat to Bengal (though, as we have discussed, Calcutta is name-dropped), amassing “thugs” along the way. Yes, I admit Random Rebels in Raunakpur doesn’t quite have the stentorian ring of Thugs of Hindostan — still, one must strive for truth in advertising. Look at Katrina Kaif, for instance. Has she ever tried to sell herself as anything but the Indo-Brit that she is? Whether playing Meera Thapar in Jab Tak Hai Jaan or Supriya Menon in Balram vs Tharadas, she makes sure we know she’s just hopped off an intercontinental flight. That explains the audience’s trust in her. We know she will never deceive us by slipping into character. She will always be Katrina Kaif.
Without strong writing, echoes are just a lazy wink, the cinematic equivalent of a Throwback Thursday photo on your Facebook feed
The film, however, indulges in a spot of deception on this actor’s behalf. The billing makes it seem that she’s the heroine. Turns out she’s just a glorified item girl, summoned only to perform two dances, one of them in Zeenat Aman’s silver bikini from Satyam Shivam Sundaram. (I’m guessing Mumait Khan did not have dates to spare?) Speaking of blink-and-miss appearances, we also get Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. He plays Sanichar, and he’s introduced in a scene where he gazes at the moon and makes complex calculations. I sat up. If anything can liven up a very long movie, it’s astrological hocus-pocus. I had visions of Sanichar patting Firangi Mallah’s ass (I refer to Nawab, of course) and interpreting the animal’s cries as oracles. Alas, the sole point of distinction in this character is his plait. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub must be the first actor who took up a next-to-nothing role in order to earn his daily braid.
Thugs of Hindostan wants to be a masala movie for the modern age — Kranti with the might of Yash Raj Studios’ bank balance. To be fair, the opening stretch does carry a heady whiff of an older era of cinema. The introductory voiceover sets up the scene with this line: “Raunakpur ki mitti ab bhi azaad hai.” (The soil of Raunakpur is still free.) The rest of the narrative will be coloured by two words from this declaration: “mitti” (soil) and “azaad” (free). The young Zafira dips her hands into moist mitti and makes a replica of the fort — her father’s fort — glimpsed in the distance. Later, she exclaims, “Clive ki kabr mein mitti daalenge.” (We’ll fill Clive’s grave with soil.) And “azaad” is used as both a name and a quality. Khudabaksh tells Firangi, “Tumhare andar kuch hai… jo azaad banna chahta hai.” The line could mean “There’s something inside you that wants to become free,” or “…. become Azaad” — for that’s the name of each one of Khudabaksh’s band of fighters. They’re freedom personified. These are potent ingredients. You just have to add the right amounts and stir. You could hand Dharmesh Darshan the ladle and still get a palatable movie.
Vijay Krishna Acharya cannot even keep the pot boiling. Though, to be fair, it’s also the star’s fault. It’s not the performance, which is entertainingly overcooked. It’s his presence. The only way this story would have worked is if we were constantly kept on edge about whether Firangi Mallah is a rogue or a nice guy — and with a superstar like Aamir Khan, it’s never in doubt that he will feel a twinge of conscience and rise against the British. He did it in Lagaan. He did it in Mangal Pandey. Are we really to imagine that, this time, things will be different? Heck, he has a son, now, named Azaad! To stave off the predictability, the film reaches for masala echoes: Amitabh Bachchan’s eagle from Coolie, Hema Malini’s dance in the villain’s den from Sholay (here, too, a character is shackled in chains), and even Kamal Haasan’s stunt from Oru Kaidhiyin Diary, where a statue comes to “life”. But without strong writing, echoes are just a lazy wink, the cinematic equivalent of a Throwback Thursday photo on your Facebook feed.
A director really tuned to the masala ethos would have found ways to build in more organic echoes, say, from the scene where the young Zafira struggles to lift a heavy sword. Where’s the corresponding scene where the adult Zafira accomplishes this feat, at an opportune moment, and makes us whistle and whoop? No wonder Fatima Sana Shaikh walks around with a look that suggests there’s something rotten in the air. It’s the script. It’s the Ajay-Atul songs. It’s the choppy battle scenes, which sometimes look like they were staged in a bathtub. It’s the punishing pace. Read the slapstick-fight scene on paper and you’d think it would be a riot on screen. But the only things that explode are the numerous cannons, which made me imagine a slapstick situation with audiences running towards the screen in the hope of being instantly projectiled out of the theatre.
No wonder Fatima Sana Shaikh walks around with a look that suggests there’s something rotten in the air. It’s the script
Amitabh Bachchan plays a character he has played roughly 6,725 times. It’s hard to say if he sounds tired because of this over-familiarity or the fact that there’s not a scene where he’s allowed to remove his battlesuit. For Khudabaksh, restoring Zafira to her throne is probably an easier task than taking a leak. It’s sad to see the great actor here, floundering in the kind of film he was once the king of. Even his not-so-great masala movies have immense recall value — there’s always a line, or a song, or a sharp scene. There’s a nice-ish bit in Thugs of Hindostan that plays on the amulet Khudabaksh has on his wrist. Zafira’s father gave it to him, as a sign that he has to protect her. Khudabaksh tells Zafira that the day it comes off, he will finally be able to sink into uninterrupted sleep. It’s a deceptive line that comes with a lip-smacking payoff. But again, the staging kills it. It’s what happens when you don’t know your elbow from your ass, and this time, I’m not talking about Nawab.