Synopsis – In an 18th century setting, a Naga sadhu in India sets out on a journey across Bundelkhand to seek revenge for an injustice committed in the past.
My Take – A spaghetti-western is quite unusual in Indian cinema, however, this is the second film this year (after Sonchiriya), which makes a run at the generally untouched genre, along with a set of Cowboy meets Pirates costumes.
Set against the backdrop of the clash between the Marathas, Mughals and the rising English East India Company in late-18th-century Bundelkhand, the film aspires to be a sweeping tale of bloody vengeance with clear influences from films of Sergio Leone. Throw in some underprivileged girls, crumbling mansions, and a few eccentric characters riding horses and you have all the ingredients for an epic historical action drama.
But despite all of these varied elements, the film unfortunately doesn’t work too well. Director Navdeep Singh, who has earlier made taut thrillers like the deliciously tense Manorama: Six Feet Under and followed it up with the Anushka Sharma led powerful drama NH 10, in his third film seems bogged down by the material at hand, which ends up inspiring more yawns than gasps despite being a revenge saga.
With a wafer-thin plot whose payoff hinges on the big reveal, the film attempts to ramp up suspense and tension but stunningly fails to sustain either.
It also lacks the emotional strength to make one care about its ash-smeared and dreadlocks Naga Sadhu, played by the ever awesome Saif Ali Khan. Within its first hour, the proceedings get dreary and dull, the imagery repetitive, and the dialogues increasingly banal. Alas, it’s not for everyone.
Set in Eighteenth-century India, the story follows a mysterious Naga Sadhu mercenary referred to as Gosain (Saif Ali Khan), who for years have been in pursuit of an infamous traitor of the Maratha kingdom, Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij), a Pathan warlord, to settle a personal score.
Drunk in his vengeance, he carries the grit and guts to challenge a king in his palace when trifled with, and doesn’t think twice before slitting throats or dragging bodies. However, his vengeance is getting difficult by the day as Rehmat, who is accompanied by his loyal general (Amir Bashir), his wife (Simone Singh) and their infant child, is regularly provided assistance by the East India Company who offers his entourage arms to take down anyone in their way.
Including the Marathas from whom the warlord has stolen treasure recently, and are now using a unique tracker (Deepak Dobriyal), to trail him. Also joining Gosain in his pursuit is a concubine (Zoya Hussain), who seems to know about Rehmat’s whereabouts.
Without a doubt, the film has an ambitious setup and an intriguing premise. Beginning with a stark opening sequence that revolves around a public hanging and many scenes of aesthetic brutality, here director Singh and writer Deepak Venkatesa introduce us to a gritty, unstable world, where even the most sympathetic character, a concubine, acts decisively and without mercy when she has to.
However, when the distance between hunter and prey always appears to be too small to suggest a near-impossible task, you start losing patience. Yes, the film is very slow, and the story fails to keep us engrossed. For people who love neo-western classics, the film’s pace might be just right. However, for others, it takes a toll. And when the slow pace elongates a story, especially a story with vengeance as its background, it creates dissonance.
A dissonance which grows as the film progresses towards its predictable end. The film is predictable because it is a revenge drama. By then, you have figured out the answers to the running questions through the film, like who is this Gossain? And why is he after Rehmat’s life? Questions that were raised at the beginning of the film. Answers that you had figured out.
Sure there is one twist to come, but by the time it does, it is of little consequence. If film doesn’t work as an account of slow-burning vengeance, it doesn’t fall into place as a character study either. Gosain’s motives are cloaked in a puzzling air of mystery. He isn’t a blank canvas onto which any meaning can be projected as much as a cipher. Despite Saif Ali Khan’s physical exertions and distinctive look, the character’s inner life is as elusive as the film’s central message.
On the other hand the film is technically on sound ground with the rich details in the setting and costumes making it a pleasure to look at. Shankar Ramen’s deft cinematography exquisitely capturing the beauty of barren landscapes. He has an ambitious canvas to play with here, does an incredible job of showcasing the landscapes and moods of the period piece.
The arid hills and vast plains make one feel positively parched, while dark palettes are used to show the gloom, fear and uncertainty of a region in turmoil. The night-time sequences are particularly striking even though the events they depict ring hollow. The handsome production design, by Rakesh Yadav, and the gorgeous costumes, by Maxima Basu, bring the period setting to life.
Performance wise, Saif Ali Khan is once again excellent. Embodying a dark riveting and brooding character, he adds its own intrigue value to the storytelling. Khan is not only intense and emotional but also fierce. Only if the script hadn’t let him down. Deepak Dobriyal as the tracker has some of the film’s funnier moments, but he isn’t given much more to do.
Manav Vij and Amir Bashir, the forces of antagonism, are reduced to a whimper and criminally wasted. Simone Singh and Zoya Hussain are alright in small roles. While Sonakshi Sinha is miscast. On the whole, ‘Laal Kaptaan’ is a disappointing revenge saga which despite some brilliant moments is let down by its frustrating screenplay and unbearably slow pacing.
Directed – Navdeep Singh
Rated – NR
Run Time – 150 minutes