Cutty Snark: The Ughs of Hindostan

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An edited version of this review was published in Hindustan Times today, with a stellar headline (I had no part to play in it. Full credit goes to the desk).

About 20 minutes into the Thugs of Hindostan, the best actor in the ensemble makes their debut. It's Khudabaksh's eagle and don't you dare flip the bird just because it's computer-generated. That bird is the hero audiences deserve for having bought enough tickets to earn the film more than Rs 50 crore on its first day.

For one, the eagle's brown, which immediately makes the bird more relatable to us melanin-rich types since three out of the four Indians in the lead roles have to be smothered in bronzer to reach a pale approximation of rose milk. The fourth appears to have mistaken brown shoe polish for moisturiser, which makes the CGI eagle's feathers look more realistically brown than his skin.

Also, eagle appears before Aamir Khan, the hero of Thugs of Hindostan, and saves the day more times than Khan's Firangi does. Additionally, the eagle doesn't overact. It keeps a close watch on events as they unfold, swoops in exactly when it's needed, does its bit and then disappears — a modus operandi to live by, if there ever was one. The eagle also has more screen time than Katrina Kaif, who is ostensibly one of the female leads in the film. In fact, even the eagle's shadow has more screen time than Kaif. Finally, there's more emotion in the keening cries of the eagle — I'm no expert in avian calls, but I feel a rough translation would be "Get me out of here" at 58 minutes and "The horror! The horror!" at 140 mins — than in Amitabh Bachchan's face, which is mostly smothered under fabric and a fake beard. Whatever little is visible appears to be rendered immobile by excessive make-up. While the eagle manages to communicate panic, anxiety, triumph and weariness, Bachchan as Khudabaksh makes it through the entire film with a single, unreadable expression. The only thing flatter and more rigid than Bachchan's face is Kaif's abdomen.

If only Thugs of Hindostan was just the scenes with the eagle... . But no, we had to have humans and therein, dear reader, lies the rub.

The real revelation of Thugs of Hindostan is that two of Bollywood's most reliable actors are not too big to fail. If there's one thing audiences should to expect of a film starring Khan and Bachchan, it is good acting. Over the decades, these two actors have salvaged countless mediocre films with their on-screen charisma. They can deliver everything from punches to punchlines. Their ability to make the screen crackle with chemistry with co-actors (male and female) is legendary. While Rs 50 crore in a day is a staggering number, the box office collection does make sense when you think of Khan and Bachchan's fan following and keep in mind that this is a year of sleeper hits. It's been months since we had a proper, masala film release in theatres. Just as it makes sense that on day two, the collection dropped by 45% (and by another 15-20% on day three) — it's hard to imagine anyone not being disappointed by the film.

Chances are that those interested in current affairs will hear the war cry of "Azad!" in Thugs of Hindostan and try to figure out how the situation in Kashmir can be mapped upon the fictional Raunakpur, which is taken over by the evil and duplicitous East India Company. Don't bother. While the film has insurgents who sing a song with the Balochi word vashmalle in it, want freedom and are viewed as troublemakers by the ruling dispensation, the film's 164 minutes are devoted to taking the sting (and the 'i') out of the call to "azadi" that has become a flashpoint in contemporary India. We're told azad(i) is a philosophy rather than an actual, concrete...thing in the film. Arguably when one lives under military rule/ occupation, freedom is not a concept, but a real, concrete and absent thing.

Much of the plot of Thugs of Hindostan revolves around Khan and Bachchan's characters and predictably, the film's script ignores every other character to glorify Firangi and Khudabaksh. When not even a twinkle of Khan and Bachchan’s star power can sneak out from under their elaborately made-up faces, it’s a blow from which the film can’t recover.

Khan's Firangi is not inspired by Jack Sparrow of The Pirates of the Caribbean, but a bad copy of the role that made every sit up and notice Johnny Depp. Firangi doesn't unsettle or entertain the viewer as much as exhaust them with his overacting and verbal diarrhoea. This is a creature of fake accents (that disappear in earnest moments) and buggy eyes. At no point is there even a glimmer of suspicion that he may be wicked. This is partly because Bollywood biggies are known for playing squeaky-clean heroes (which means you know the character that Aamir Khan plays will eventually turn out to be glorious and awesome), but also because the script is dedicated to removing ambiguity from Firangi. In the one scene where Firangi could have sowed seeds of doubt about his nature and intentions, he delivers a monologue that is not just honest, but also riddled with regret and guilt at having betrayed the trust reposed in him. So much for being a heartless, self-obsessed traitor.

In contrast to Khan's over-the-top performance is Bachchan, who looks exhausted to the point of collapse. His Khudabaksh is in such dire need of new batteries that he can barely move his lips to speak. The soundtrack unleashes an oomphy male chorus' war cry every time Bachchan makes an appearance, presumably to wake us and Bachchan up. It works only partially — we're awake, but Bachchan sleepwalks his way through the film. Then again, if you're in the middle of a script that can't decide if your character is a ruthless guerilla leader or a marshmallow swaddled in dirty grey, then perhaps sleepwalking is the way to go. One thing we do know about Khudabaksh is that he's decisive. It's just that there isn't much logic to his decision-making. He'll behead one man for betraying him, but lavish love and trust on another traitor. If Firangi showed himself in any way worthy of Khudabaksh's trust, the older man's faith in Firangi might have added up, but all the younger man has to offer are bug eyes and a motormouth. So Khudabaksh sticks to mumbling and stumbling around the beautifully-produced sets.

It's tempting to imagine Thugs of Hindostan starring two actors who were actually enjoying the film. Just as it is tempting to imagine the women in Thugs of Hindostan not being relegated to fringe elements. One of the unsolved questions of the universe has to be Kaif's decision to take on the role of Suraiyya. She gets four scenes and maybe eight complete (if not fewer) dialogues. Of the four scenes, two are (atrociously-choreographed) song sequences. It’s only because Kaif is ridiculously fit and graceful that those moves aren’t intolerable. Every time she appears, Suraiyya is in various stages of undress, which we're told is her choice and a sign of empowerment. This may be true of Suraiyya's character in Raunakpur, but in Bollywood, not as much. Considering Kaif is one of the A-listers, the fact that she gets less agency than Helen in Don and is literally put on display whenever she gets a scene suggest there’s a whole lot of work to do as far as empowerment and agency for actresses go.

Fatima Sheikh, as Zafira, has more to do as the princess of Raunakpur who sees her family being killed as a girl and is raised by Khudabaksh to be a warrior who evidently watched Lord of the Rings too many times and idolised Legolas. Thugs of Hindostan should have been Zafira's story, rather than Firangi's or Khudabaksh's, but the script doesn't give her enough space or agency — she's always a pawn in a man's plan — and we should possibly be grateful that she doesn’t have to do a romantic song sequence to justify her existence. It's poetically accurate that we repeatedly see Zafira carried away on a horse that's ridden by a man going in one direction while Zafira looks back in the opposite direction, brow furrowed and face contorted by misery and confusion.

However, the fact is that actors in Bollywood have made countless terrible scripts entertaining. When you buy a ticket for a Bollywood film, along with money you hand over expectations of logic, historical accuracy and originality in plot. Which means no one watching Thugs of Hindostan was expecting a crash course on how and whether the British wiped out Thuggees in the 1830s (some academics think thuggees were a British invention). Neither would anyone have raised an eyebrow at the film’s villain being named Clive and most of the action taking place in 1806 (Clive of India died in 1774). Few would have cared that Khan’s Firangi and the ship-stealing prank make Thugs of Hindostan look like a Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction. Those who noticed the similarities between Zafira and Legolas from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (Braids: Check. Archery: Check. Pouty lips: Check. Acrobatics: Check) may even have clapped a little louder because it’s one of the few surprises in the film.

Unfortunately, when you're bored out of your wits instead of being entertained, you end up noticing details that are out of whack. For instance, how is it that the fictional Raunakpur is bang in the middle of the map of real India, but also has a gorgeous seashore that could be (and is) right out of Malta? Why are two Englishmen speaking in Hindi to each other? Who are these Indians who can supposedly blend into a crowd of white English soldiers by putting on a (bad) blonde wig? How is it that Dussehra celebrations in Raunakpur in 1811 look so much like they're going back to the future to the 1983 Himmatwala? Does the fact — SPOILER ALERT — that the bad guy gets his comeuppance from a girl make up for how little time is given to the female characters in Thugs of Hindostan and the fact that each time Kaif is on screen, the camera focuses on elements of her torso?

Before you know it, there are more questions than there is popcorn and while the popcorn gets over, the film doesn't.