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Did Thugs of Hindostan deserve the flak?

November 26, 2018 15:29 IST

'Thugs is smarter than a lot of 'nationalistic' movies,' notes Rohit Sathish Nair.

To be fair to Thugs Of Hindostan, a lot of its gaffes or 'faults' could be seen in its trailer itself.

The film and its makers made no palpable attempt to shroud its deficiencies.

So we were warned that the film had no interest in delving into the history of the actual Thuggee cult (Thugs of Hindostan might be the first film to be born out of a case of misconstruction of etymology), and as far as Apocrypha are concerned, Thugs, unmistakably, is a part of a lineage that includes such decorated predecessors as Lagaan and Urumi though it doesn't share their, of extrapolating sentiments.

They made it clear that striving for geographical accuracy was not their concern either as warriors from what seemed to be the landlocked Hindi heartland went to war at sea within the snap of a finger.

No logic, you're out too -- the British officers would rather slog it out in an acquired tongue than speak in English.

Amitabh Bachchan as Khudabaksh Azaad and Aamir Khan as Firangi Mallah were once again drawing from their quiver, variations of the 'Angry Man' and reworkings of the 'Little Uncouth Maverick Tramp' with all assumptions and no true emotion, those three-ish minutes seemed to say.

Also, there's Katrina Kaif, mostly for acts of body contortion as strenuous as the movements of combat Bachchan and Fatima Sana Shaikh were executing.

Then, there's Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, spotted in a frame or two. (He plays the 'colourful' sidekick that such movies always have, where 'colour' comes in the form of a defect -- here a speech sound disorder -- the kind of 'colour' that makes sure this character doesn't overpower the protagonists.)

To all those panning Thugs for its sins, I guess the film would just smirk and tell you: 'And most of you still paid thinking the movie might be better just because there's Aamir and Amitabh. Now thanks to you guys, more folks might still come in thinking 'Oh, it can't be that bad!' Not to mention China'.

And if all of a sudden, the spirit of Ronit Roy's character (Mirza Sikander Baig whose philosophy is to 'jump the gun, whenever in doubt') possesses it, it would rail at you, saying, 'If it is your naïveté, your romanticised notion of how and why stars pick movies, that feeds my cynicism, then must you blame me alone for the same?'

To the film's credit, it doesn't shock you with any more stinkers for the most part, and in its first few scenes it does put in some effort, with stray attempts at humanising its characters (which even better made historicals like Kayamkulam Kochunni missed out on), the graceless hands at work notwithstanding.

 

With fairly amusing thumbnail sketches involving a clay model of a fort and lost primary teeth that are bland, director Vijay Krishna Acharya etches out well-defined outlines of Mirza SIkander Baig and John Clive for both the actors (Roy and Lloyd Owen) to flesh out, just as laziness sets in and Acharya sets out to force-fit the cookie cutter into the material and peel off such 'excess batter'.

Ronit Roy isn't given much free rein as far as his readings are concerned; they don't come with much variety of cadence or inflection.

His eyes rise to the occasion though, assuming a bit of the tongue's job as well; even as he drones out each line, his eyes are racing ahead, rightly recognising that the task at hand has been done.

Overall, he imbues some pathos into a hasty, slightly careless, and even perhaps stupid character.

Lloyd Owen shows a similar intelligence with handling his character, which he maintains even as he gets surrounded with dumber characters and makes dumber decisions as the film progresses. Like, say, waiting for a whole night to kill Mirza's daughter Zafira (played as an adult by Sana Sheikh).

Though his Hindi is unmistakably British accented, he convinces that he has taken the pain to articulate each and every word of it rather than just parrot it out, and that adds to his performance.

He thus betrays much more intelligence than the characters actually has, and this makes such an impact that though we know that his fall is pretty much the culmination of his foolish decisions, it comes off as an unfortunate turn of events.

Thugs is smarter than a lot of those 'nationalistic' movies that way.

It knows that we have learnt the tunes and the slogans by rote.

So its modus operandi to make both the British and the Indians equally dumb, but to keep a staggering body count ratio that is heavily skewed against the British.

The hidden message still is that British guns and cannons are no match for desi kattas, swordsmanship and dexterity in archery, but Acharya trusts the audience well enough to leave it to them to connect the dots.

Enter Amitabh Bachchan, right after the king is dead, cue triumphant music and the screech of a falcon, never mind the defeatist tone established earlier which should have been followed, logic-wise.

It is through his and Zafira's later exploits (Bachchan's moves especially, made to look momentous) and Firangi's antics that we got to know this: The film's cardinal sin isn't its subservience to bad tastes, its ignorance of this servility, or even its submission to the altar of star power, but laziness.

The movie thus essentially turns into the cinematic equivalent of that novice door-to-door salesman whose claims and offers you are more than familiar with, but you still entertain him just to see what he is up to.

What keeps you interested is that he isn't just 'going through the motions' -- there seems to be a certain sincerity to his act, which lends to it a chugging sort of momentum.

And what keeps you hooked to the process are his promises: Not grand, but just, when you consider the goods at sale.

The film sets you up for a course of action which you think will lead you to a most satisfying payoff.

Take the Firangi Mallah character, for example.

Though he and Jack Sparrow are practically send-ups to the old greats of slapstick, characters conceived as people who use wit, charm and nimbleness as tactics of evasion, unlike the latter who thrives on remaining as a near-total cipher, Firangi works best when he peddles a bit of the truth about him along with his pack of lies. That, in itself, can be a masterful ploy.

Somehow, we relate to this character the most when we get to know what makes him tick: He has surrendered to the fact that India has no hope against the British and for him, 'Independence' is just a pipe dream.

He just wants to get by with whatever he can, and end each deal having collected his own lot for the day and someone else's too.

In short, Firangi works best when he takes off Jack Sparrow's rags to reveal his inner Han Solo.

Like Solo (and Obi wan Kenobi as interpreted by Alec Guinness), Firangi is a character who knows that he is hipper than pretty much everyone else in the movie and he rings truest when he gets upfront about this quality of his.

What Acharya does henceforth till the end of the first half is bring the Han Solo-Obi wan Kenobi dynamic, which remained mostly as subtext in Star Wars for the most part, to the forefront, and he does something smart which George Lucas hit the same note again and again on -- hint at the inevitable friction between Firangi and Zafira (this film's Princess Leia).

In what is another act of inversion, the one mistake Acharya does in this portion is providing a moment of faux-resolution (which will foreshadow the bigger instance of the movie cheating) between Firangi and Khudabaksh involving tilling on barren land. (Lucas kept the confrontation steady, while at the same time, providing the necessary crests of agreement and troughs of incongruity).

Also setting you up for what you hope will be a cracker of a second half are the action sequences, culminating in that interval set piece, where Firangi (apparently) finally learns that selflessness and intended sacrifice aren't overrated virtues, that wholly earns your attention.

Rather plodding they are nonetheless, but each action sequence seems to gain more thrust and propulsion than the previous.

Though he doesn't open a faucet of imagination (like Rajamouli did in the better action sequences of Baahubali like the #WKKB sequence) and let the frames, with all their tackiness and brute force intact, flow with the momentum of falling dominoes, thankfully, he doesn't do a Bhansali.

Except whenever Bachchan is on screen, he doesn't try to enshrine each moment in time and mummify them in the process.

And what might be a very compassionate touch, he lets your eyes wander to the edges of the frame when the action at the centre gets pretty boring.

He lets you free to think such thoughts like: 'For how long will that extra, playing the dead British soldier in the background, lie dead?'

I guess Abbas Kiarostami's statement about the generosity of films that let you sleep should be extended to accommodate films like Thugs.

Alas, the film cheats by reviving Amitabh Bachchan and in the process, goes against the principles it had established for the character that was supposed to be its moral axis.

Though it was apparent from the nods in his earlier two films (Tashan and Dhoom 3) and the way Khudabaksh's scenes play out that Acharya wouldn't pull his punches in showcasing his admiration for Bachchan, what is more shocking is that he doesn't even show this revival as a case of how Khudabaksh was forced to bend away from his ideals and denied his sacrifice.

To add insult to injury, the film, that apparently sets off to fail in a glorious manner (Manzoor-e-Khuda starts off in a spectacularly nutty manner with Zafira calling out to Khudabaksh in tune), clomps on to sign off listlessly.

I write this at a time when there are also posts of appreciation for the film coming in, both justified and unwarranted.

Did Thugs of Hindostan deserve the flak it got?

No. It is sad because at some point during its duration, it did try.

Will it get the kind of resurgence, as some of those posts hope, that films like Shawshank Redemption and Fight Club got after their short lives at the theatre?

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think I know enough to answer that.

A lot of the detractors see its sinking as long due justice, seeing it as a case of how Bollywood thanks to undue adulation has gone down.

What I think I have to say is yes, that may be true, but it is also true that a beast whose vices are slammed and good virtues are ignored, might have something snap within him and unleash bigger monsters.

Rohit Sathish Nair