New Delhi: Against the backdrop of the clash between the Marathas, Mughals and the rising English East India Company in late-18th-century Bundelkhand, a Naga sadhu who is also a bounty hunter has been chasing one man for 20 years, and is now at his heels. Throw in some nautch girls, crumbling havelis, and horses with gleaming coats and you have all the ingredients for an epic historical action drama.
But despite, or maybe because of, all of these varied elements, Laal Kaptaan just doesn’t work. Director Navdeep Singh, who has earlier made taut thrillers like Manorama Six Feet Under and NH 10, seems bogged down by the material, and what emerges is a brooding, convoluted bore.
Saif Ali Khan as Gosain, the sanyasi bounty hunter who wants to extract vengeance on Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij), shows flashes of the brilliance we have come to expect from him, especially in a meaty role like this. But for large parts of the film, he merely grunts and grimaces, scowls and slashes his sword around in dizzying fashion.
Deepak Dobriyal as the tracker has some of the film’s funnier moments, but he isn’t given much more to do, which is a pity. Zoya Hussain, as the widow who must make a hard decision, is excellent, but the film features a number of characters in smaller roles that clutter the plot and their muddled accents do it no favours. Sonakshi Sinha, for example, in a small role as a nautch girl, sounds exactly like a Bombay girl trying to speak what she thinks is ‘old-time Hindi’.
Some of the scenes appear indulgent and gratuitous, with no real connection to the plot, and the frequent flashbacks that unravel why Gosain is after Rehmat Khan in the first place are longwinded — one could hear an audience member asking another to wake them up if something interesting happened.
Special mention must be made of the way the film looks, though. The rich details in the setting and costumes make it a pleasure to look at. And cinematographer Shanker Raman, who 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.
One must also applaud the vision of the director: that of a historical drama that tells the story of a pure mercenary and does not valourise, unlike many Bollywood period dramas, jingoism — in fact, the film’s broad sweep makes it clear that what became India was a land of extremely diverse cultures and languages, that there it was not some cohesive whole and that people are driven by different motivations.
Laal Kaptaan could have been brilliant and it has its moments, but at more than two and a half hours, it is, unfortunately, a beautiful bore.