Cast: Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Sheikh, Llyod Owen, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Ronit Roy
Director: Vijay Krishna Acharya
There is a prerequisite, an existential one, for all commercial films, especially the big-budget, star-spangled ones: Thou shall not bore.
And yet, the opposite happens way too often, especially when the biggies of Bollywood set out to conquer the box-office as a glorious end in itself.
Upon embarking on this mercenary mission, they first take leave of their senses. And, after sending their pesky writers on long leave as well, they proceed to throw cash — in true tipsy-customer-at-a-dance-bar style, at the art director, the carpenters, the cinematographer, the CGI team, the costume wallas, the extras, the stars’ hair stylists, colourists… Anything and everything except the story, the dialogue, the writing.
Everything must look slick-and-span, expensive, at a massive, impressive scale even if the film’s innards are rotting and hollow.
Thugs of Hindostan, written (LOL!) and directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya, is one such enterprise where everything — from the release date to the single-minded focus of all entities involved — is devoted to making pots and pots of money.
And so, naturally, it is BIG & bloody boring.
It has Big B, for one, swathed, from head to toe, in layers of clothing made up of ethnic strips to yield what looked like the 80% discount basket at a posh store had been emptied on to him in earnest.
Thugs of Hindostan also has the reigning king of box-office, Aamir Khan, in a role that’s a mish-mash of many things. It has bits and baubles drawn from Jack Sparrow, but without his hang loose, drunken swag and guile that was itself borrowed from Keith Richards, the last word in cool even today for many who swear by both, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Thugs also has a taut-tummied, botox-lipped Katrina Kaif who keeps making sultry appearances for no apparent reason except to say something about her powers of arousal and to shake her booty on the instructions of a choreographer (Manush Nandan) who clearly has no concept of eithet rhythm or movement or the human body.
Joining this mess together are standard Bollywood cliches involving evil firangis and good-hearted desis. And together they throw a mean challenge at the audience.
Thugs of Hindostan, from Yash Raj Films, challenges you to stay awake even as it goes from dreary to dismal to downright dud.
In my first viewing I failed this challenge repeatedly. I dozed off at least five times as the unending sorry saga set in a land of aazadi-wanting Indians, and the mendacious goras of the East India Company kept going round and round in circles, heading nowhere.
For the second viewing I bought a very large cup of black coffee and yet, post interval, I woke up twice to my own loud snoring.
The film’s story, which begins in 1795, is idiotic in its entirety. A kingdom called Raunakpur is being by a decent, turbaned king whose benevolence is conveyed to us through his sweet talk with his precocious little beti and his talk of azaadi and gulami when he spots men of the East India Company breaking pots of sookhi sabut mirchi.
King Baig (Ronit Roy) is doing his damnedest to keep Raunakpur safe from East India Company’s kleptomaniacs, specifically John Clive (Llyod Owen). When Clive arrives for the first time, there’s spooky incantation from the space above where the Devil dwells.
In Bollywood’s storytelling now, for most directors — from Ketan Mehta to Gowarikar to Bhansali to, well, V.K. Acharya — Indian kings are defined by their valour, honour, mehman nawazi, and gora firangis by their plundering designs and deceitful ways. The joyous days of Junoon and Shatranj Ke Khilari are long gone.
So, naturally, the tea-sipping, barood-smelling Clive does dhoka on the honourable and nicely accessorised Baig royal family. But, just as Clive casts his evil blue eyes on little Zafira, in rides Khudabaksh Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan) on a stallion and with a hawk gliding about.
The drama of this scene — as the little one runs to ride pillion with Azaad — made me break into a smile.
But then, I’m quick to judge and quicker to repent.
Fast forward to 11 years, when one donkey-riding middle-aged man, Firangi Mallah (Aamir Khan), arrives to con his way into the services of the East India Company who are after thugs.
The film gives the character of Firangi Mallah a lot — tassels and danglers, a nose pin and kajal, a side-kick called Shanichar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), some funny lines and lots of screen love. And Mr Khan returns the favour often. He turns up the masti 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.
There was the possibility of some sparks flying between Suraiya (Katrina Kaif) and F. Mallah, especially after the slap she lands on his cheeks, but it was time for her first item number that involved one of Ms Kaif’s slender legs, her concave stomach and burgeoning lips. All of them danced separately, to their own tune, like drunk uncles long after the baratis have left.
Soon F. Mallah is professing allegiance to Azaad and his beti-like protégée, Zafira (Fatima Sana Sheikh), and here on the story is about, well, bombast and honour versus wit and guile.
Lots of big-big, boring-boring stuff happens. Ships get stolen, ships go up in flames. There is teer-andazi, jumping about from land and sea, ships at war, gora bosses looking displeased and throwing barood-ke-gole at enemy forces, till it’s time for another woman to deliver another slap. Someone double-crosses, someone dies, someone comes back from the dead, and the same guy gets slapped again and the same item girl arrives to do what seemed like an extension of the earlier item number, again with her legs, lips and torso dancing like mad baratis.
While Thugs of Hindostan is mounted on a massive scale, and has lots of great stunts, is shot on sandy beackes, rocky gufas, and its characters swing from ropes and leap and slash, its characters are essentially cut-paste creations — with some bits from Game of Thrones, and many from Pirates of the Carribean. Worse, they have nothing to them except functionality in the meagre plot.
They arrive to do their action, say their lines. All except Lloyd Owen. His Clive was pure evil, quite fabulous.
Which is sad because Amitabh Bachchan is still a powerhouse, and when he’s on the screen, there’s space for little else.
There’s majesty in his frame. And now that it’s aging, it holds a coiled force not seen before. There’s power in his silence that’s often conveyed by the slow-blink of his droopy, creased eyes.
Bachchan, now 76, looked and moved like a mountain. There were moments in Thugs of Hindostan when I though he resembled an Ent (the walking-talking trees) from Lord of the Rings.
The camera, kind and decent, delivers him never as a whole, but in piecemeal — the baritone, the eyes, the sluggish movement of drawing his swords cut into a million shots to insinuate energy when there was none.
But throughout the film, when it’s time to speak or act, Bachchan hams and overacts.
It’s a tragedy that directors now seem to not want to direct him. They treat him like a fragile, venerable thing rather than an actor who’s still got it. And he too likes to get by on his old, vapid moves.
Aamir Khan is good in a very unmemorable way.
He brings to his character nothing more than comic timing and a wicked glint. That is, of course, the fault of the writers and the director who seem content with his oh-so-not-funny “one, two, three quick march” Hinglish gibberish.
Everything about him is fleeting except, perhaps, the kajal and the nose pin.
Fatima leaps and lunges but is very thakeli when she opens her mouth.
As is Ms Kaif.
Enough can’t be said about how terrible her item numbers were. The gent called Manush Nandan, who allegedly choregraphed them, should be made to sit in murga position for at least 42 hours and be made to watch them as they play on a loop. He must be made to suffer the annoying hodgepodge of flailing arms and random jerks of the upper and then the lower body as we suffered them.
I’ve seen better dancing at my colony’s Holi Milan.