Synopsis – Based on Philip Meadows Taylor’s 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug, the movie tells us about a thug named Azaad and his gang, whose nefarious ways posed a serious challenge to the British Empire in India between 1790 and 1805.
My Take – What a year it has been for Hindi cinema! As an audience member myself I was glad to see how films big or small worked solely on the basis of their content, it just didn’t matter who the lead was or how splendid the soundtrack sounded. But nothing came in comparison to the hype surrounded this YRF produced film, mainly as it was led by Aamir Khan. A national gem for Indian cinema, Aamir Khan, known for his careful selection of scripts, just brings out great expectations from every corners, and over the years, he has proved rightfully so.
But this film was quite different from others, not just bigger, but also quite an important one as it paired him up alongside Amitabh Bachchan, a living legend with five decades worth of films to his name, for the first time onscreen. Joined by Fatima Sana Shaikh and Katrina Kaif, here ‘Dhoom 3‘ director Vijay Krishna Acharya‘s film aimed to bring best of both the worlds in swash buckle adventure on lines of Hollywood franchise blockbusters like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘ and India’s own ‘Baahubali‘. Filled with jam-packed with high-octane action sequences, elaborate dance numbers and plenty of thrills. In short, the film was born to be a spectacle. But what’s surprising is how hard it tries to entertain and ends up falling flat on the face.
Sure, there was always a chance for the script to get overshadowed especially considering it revolved around two Bollywood titans, but what’s worse is that it allows them to do nothing, except perform their functionality around the meager plot. Worse, considering its story line, it neither has a convincing villain (a caricature of a white officer who periodically snarls and speaks chaste Urdu with a British accent) or a compelling cause (an abstract idea of freedom and slavery that no character is able to articulate), and a CGI budget that could have been put to better use.
The film comes as a perfect example of what happens when Bollywood sees the success of big-budget western franchises, wants to replicate them, but has no idea how to and just ends up shamefully borrowing elements from other films, and inserts star power into the proceedings, all with the hope that it’ll end up turning into a money spinner for its producers and distributors.
Set in the early 1800s, right after the East India Company had successfully colonized India, the story follows Firangi Mallah (Aamir Khan), a smart talking crook, who earns his keep by acting as a small-time informer for the British by helping them in capturing mass looters. For he is ruthless when it comes to the question of profit, and not above double-crossing his own comrades when it comes to earning a pretty penny. Other than his wholehearted love for money, Firangi’s only other interest lies in desiring and courting Surayya (Katrina Kaif), a high on demand dancer and performer for the British army.
With his reputation fast spreading, Firangi ends up being hired by John Clive (Lloyd Owen), a ruthless British East India Company officer, to bring in any source of information to allow the capture of a man named Azad, who along with his band of thugs has been seizing ship after ship from the British, plundering their reserves and causing heavy losses. However, unknown to John Clive, Azad is none other than Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan), a former general in the army of Mirza Sikander Baig (Ronit Roy), the former king of Raunakpur, who Clive had slaughtered along with his wife and son.
Now joined by Baig’s only surviving daughter, Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), Khudabaksh as Azad has only one aim – to instill revolution in the mind of the Indian public and exact his revenge on Clive by any means possible. While Firangi does manage to worm his way into Khudabaksh’s group, by using his sweet-talking ways and charm, he also surprisingly comes under the spell of the grizzled warrior, resulting in him questioning his loyalty between the freedom fighters and his colonial masters.
The rest forms the crux of the story of this otherwise predictable and dull-as-door nails film. But it takes a long time for writer-director Vijay Krishna Acharya to get to the point. We have seen quite a few films about India’s struggle for independence, this film aims to create an entirely new experience. While films about independence have always been black and white, here it does away the stark differences and showcases various shades of gray. But as the film builds up to a larger-than-life narrative it just loses ground. And just when you begin adjusting to one kind of tonality, it changes into another film. Holding a film together for 164-minutes is anyway a daunting task, but with the stellar star cast, it should have been nothing short of a spectacular party.
But it isn’t, as director Vijay Krishna Acharya‘s biggest mistake is not utilizing his available resources. Also it would have done the film some good had the makers realized that making a film based in the early 19th century doesn’t necessarily mean that you use storytelling techniques as ancient. Also, despite its title, the film says nothing about the Thug cult, apart from weakly suggesting that the bandits were proto-rebels and that Firangi is their true inheritor. Rather, director Acharya’s third film after Tashan (2008) and Dhoom 3 (2013) sails under the flag of the Hollywood Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Firangi’s costume is a collection of trinkets and accessories borrowed from his victims, just as his character itself is modeled on the untrustworthy pirate Jack Sparrow, played indelibly by Johnny Depp. But by focusing more on the action and the CGI, the main story is just left orphaned.
Another problem with the film is that it does not have any surprises or twists. The narrative is just bland and you can always predict what’s going to happen next, and watching the British officers speaking Hindi in such a fluent manner appears just weird. As the film runs for nearly three full hours, a lot of time is eaten up in the first half, trying just to establish the lead characters elaborately, to which it succeeds partially.
The film gives the character of Firangi Mallah a lot in the form of tassels and danglers, a nose pin and kajal, a side-kick called Shanichar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), some funny lines and lots of screen love, with Aamir Khan returns the favor often. He turns up the fun quotient by talking fast and silly, making his eyes dance along with his curls, but there’s little else besides that. It’s a character who lights up the screen for a bit, making no connect because it has no depth. One could argue that the absolute focus on Aamir’s ruffian has dimmed everyone else’s scope, however, that aside, the film doesn’t offer anything new either. It is a bad rehash of films we have seen too many times.
But there is something about the way Firangi and Khudabaksh relate to each other. The younger man trying hard to impress, the unbending older man seeking a spark of something within this protégé. Khudabaksh seems to see something in Firangi that hitherto no one has: a spark. Through symbol, imagery and through words, Firangi is depicted as Khudabaksh’s ‘heir apparent’. Their characters are a study in contrasts: one ever-ready to yield, the other completely unyielding; one for whom everything has a price but no value, while for the other, some things like freedom, integrity, loyalty are so valuable that there can be no price put on them, ever.
Amid their battle with the British, there’s also a battle of wills between Firangi and Khudabaksh. Whose character will prove to be stronger, who will influence whom, is part of the crux of the film’s first half. In one scene, we see Khudabaksh tilling a barren land over several years, in the hope that one day, the same ground will yield a harvest. The land is a metaphor for Firangi, and it proves to be a fertile spot after all, for Khudabaksh’s hopes to take seed.
However, the engagement factor takes a major hit in the second half, sure there’s a faint attempt to make up for it in the form of multiple twists and turns that could excite one, but by the time they come in, it’s a little too late for redemption. The climax and denouement also drag. Surprisingly, unlike its trailer, the film is visually stunning and magnificently mounted with special effects. With a multi-million budget, the film shows off a multitude of majestic sets. From the forts to the ships, the production design is top notch. The director has made perfect use of these sets to showcase his story. Also, the look and costumes of the characters are also well-designed and deserve praise. Manush Nandan’s cinematography captures the era created by Sumit Basu’s production design, costumes and locales to perfection. Each frame is a masterpiece, be it the wide angle shots or the close-ups.
Coming to the performances, it’s understandable why Aamir Khan chose to do this film though. Firangi is a role that must have shown him glimpses of brilliance. And he sure is the best of the lot, bringing quite a lot to the table. Here, Aamir Khan gets the opportunity to juggle with multiple features here. He shines in each of them. Be it comical, serious, sarcastic, or rage. He takes the biggest leap to propel this film. Amitabh Bachchan‘s character demands respect and the veteran legend pulls it off graciously. His dedication is beyond his age and is very admirable.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for poor Katrina Kaif, whose screen time is very less, considering the film runs for so long. She looks drop dead gorgeous and appears in just three scenes along with two songs to shows off her dancing prowess. While Fatima Sana Shaikh fits perfectly for the action-oriented character and has some interesting moments for herself. Unfortunately, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is wasted as Firangi’s partner in crime, while Lloyd Owen is nothing more than a caricature than the usual portrayal of foreign characters in Indian films. Ronit Roy leaves a strong mark in his small role. On the whole, ‘Thugs of Hindostan‘ is a disappointing and uninspiring action adventure which despite its excellent cast and mammoth budget ends up being just loud, lousy and formulaic.
Directed – Vijay Krishna Acharya
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 164 minutes