Director: Vijay Krishna Acharya
Cast: Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Lloyd Owen, Katrina Kaif
Trust the makers of Dhoom 3 to make a 300-crore movie look spectacularly unambitious. Thugs of Hindostan is the Bollywood manifestation of Halloween – an amusing, self-gratifying but altogether pointless fancy-dress ball designed to trick audiences under the guise of treating them. The result is a tiresome action adventure with tiresome superstars who are too tired to act adventurous. The film is based in 1795 so that they have the excuse to at least look adventurous – ships, swords, cannons, horses, hats and grand forts fill in for actors, screenwriters, musicians and sound designers. For a film obsessed with history, it also displays an absolute disregard of geography. Jodhpur, Thailand and Malta combine to form all-in-one island-cum-inland-cum-coastal-cum-marshy lands called Ronakpur, Durgapur and Gopalpur that exist solely to enable seamless (so seamless that ports don’t exist) water-to-land set pieces in which the backgrounds change colour faster than Amitabh Bachchan’s lenses.
Thugs of Hindostan begins with a little girl – Zafira is her name – witnessing her parents, the defiant King and Queen of Ronakpur, being murdered by an evil East India Company officer named Clive (Lloyd Owen). Let’s call him Clive Owen; if nothing, it will make this review read better. Clive Owen loves staying alive; even rifles run out of bullets when aimed at his head. Ronit Roy’s cameo as the King is the most interesting part of this sequence. You can sense that Roy is trying hard not to yell at, and torture, his daughter himself – he refuses to succumb to the monster-father stereotype bestowed upon him by so many Hindi filmmakers, and dies a martyr in the bargain.
Zafira here is also wondering why the ageless Khudabaksh Azaad (Bachchan), a warrior hero entrusted with the duty of protecting the family, failed at the one job he had. He rides in late, much after all the crimes have been committed, like a Mumbai cop in a ‘masala’ movie. He rescues her and escapes in slow-motion, though it’s hard to tell whether the frame rates change or he is just an old man weighed down by the eagerness of the costume designer.
Eleven years later, Aamir Khan is introduced as Firangi Mallah, a small-time crook on British payroll who rides a donkey and looks like he has deflected from the sets of Moulin Rouge. A jazzy edit – a rap-video-meets-K-serial triple take – establishes him as a clownish drifter, a Captain Jack ‘Chidiya’ of sorts, who is too cool to be trusted. Firangi is the film’s primary and most frustrating character. He is the reason Thugs runs at a dire 165 minutes instead of a respectable 120 minutes. Once he is hired by Clive to hunt down Azaad, his temperament – that of betrayal, greed and switching sides faster than YRF switches sensibilities – is used as a device that desperately tries to infuse grey shades into a horribly black-and-white mission.
Khan, a famously pensive and studied actor, perceives “flamboyance” differently from his contemporaries. His on-screen charisma – in films like Secret Superstar, Rang De Basanti, PK, the Delhi Belly song, even Dil Chahta Hai – is very performative, as if he were counting on the fact that viewers get entertained by Khan emulating a buffoon rather than his character inherently being one. There’s always a sense of parody, almost condescension, about the way he plays “lower personalities” like these. Which is why he continues to interpret them as funny folks, far removed from the world he inhabits – and he injects each of them with Andaz-Apna-Apna-ish comic undertones. He tends to overuse his tongue and eyes in such cases, and Firangi eventually comes across as a live-action cartoon that exists solely to counter the monotony of Bachchan’s obsessive voice-acting.
It’s admirable that the 50-something Khan and 70-something Bachchan partake in what is basically a physical green-screen project, but they seem to care less about what they do than why they do it. Ditto for the director, who indulgently frames most of their moments in the hope that we recognize his coup of casting Khan and Bachchan together in one movie for the first time ever. This is an event for him; the story is secondary. As a result, their action sequences, on water and in land, are conveniently incoherent. They always seem to be missing a crucial shot or two. For instance, we see close-ups of agile characters jumping and landing but never the trajectory of their physics-defying airtime. We see Khudabaksh deciding to ride a burning ship out of a hangar; the ship magically wheels itself out, smashes the walls and obediently rolls into the ocean towards the enemies.
Katrina Kaif, as dancer Suraiyya, is the cinematic equivalent of a cricketer selected to play as a specialist fielder. She appears in all of two scenes. Both of them are songs. There is, however, a rare sense of harmony between actress and character – Kaif’s entire career off-late hinges on distracting red-blooded viewers from ordinary filmmaking, and Suraiyya’s moves exist to distract the Englishmen from the Indians’ birdbrained plots. This is the one time Kaif’s Indo-British background might have been justified – I’ve lost count of how often writers introduce Kaif as a London-returned heroine – and yet this film instead equips her with a chaste Urdu heritage. It’s no wonder that Fatima Sana Shaikh looks pained throughout this charade. From wrestling in a man’s world in Dangal, she is now forced to wrestle with gravity in a man’s world in order to balance out Kaif’s token presence.
Less than an hour into this film, it got so boring and predictable that I began to make up vivid backstories in my head. Khudabaksh’s loyal eagle, for example. The majestic bird is always shown drifting over battle, casting a watchful eye on his favourite humans. Could it have been the reincarnation of another doomed Indian period film’s key creature? Could Mohenjo Daro’s carnivorous crocodile have been reborn as this heroic eagle to compensate for a lifetime of bad Bollywood deeds? Could Clive Owen, who insists on speaking in Hindi even with his own countrymen, have been the great grandfather of Lagaan’s Captain Russell? Was he a good batsman, too? Is Khudabaksh simply Shehenshah teleported into the wrong era? Will Zafira grow old to become Manikarnika? Most importantly – is Thugs of Hindostan the long-lost triplet of Mohenjo Daro and Mangal Pandey, separated at birth by tone-deaf studios?