It stands to reason that someone who makes an utterly unremarkable film about the Mughals wouldn’t do much better with an earlier civilization. Ashutosh Gowariker’s post-Swades career has been so uninspired that it’s surprising he was considered a good enough bet to helm a film like Mohenjo Daro. And yet, the film isn’t the disaster many have been expecting.

It helps that the most ridiculed part of the trailer is done and dusted with in the opening minutes. A man grappling with a giant crocodile was ridiculous when Johnny Weissmuller did it in 1934’s Tarzan And His Mate, and it’s still ridiculous now. But it’s over in 10 minutes, and what follows is the film’s neatest sleight-of-hand. Until then, Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) and his crew had been speaking an unknown tongue. When they return to the village, the camera zooms in on one speaker’s face. When it zooms out, the language has changed to Hindi.

From the start, and in the least subtle way imaginable, the film impresses upon us that Sarman isn’t your average reptile-wrestling Indus Valley farmer. It’s obvious what his dreams of Mohenjo Daro and CGI unicorns will lead to, but this is a Gowariker film, so it’s an hour and a half before the narrative catches up with the audience. That time is spent in getting Sarman from his village to the big city. His guardians give him a seal with a unicorn on it for protection: another heavy-handed piece of foreshadowing, but strangely resonant because of its use of an actual Indus Valley seal. Once in Mohenjo Daro, Sarman is initially awestruck but quickly stung by the cruelty of the ruling pradhan, Maham (Kabir Bedi), and his son, Moonja (Arunoday Singh).

It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed that Sarman was once a resident of Mohenjo Daro himself. I won’t reveal the exact circumstances because of which he found himself growing up in a village; suffice to say that it’s time for Indian historical films to start looking for fresh narratives to accompany their improved visual sweep. Like Baahubali, Mohenjo Daro falls back on time-worn epic-movie devices: the sadistic heir to the throne, the gladiator bout which turns the protagonist into a public hero, the United Colours of Indus song sequence (okay, maybe that one’s new). The city has been realized with surprising restraint and some of the details are intriguing, but the swords-and-sandals template means that even though we’ve never seen the Indus Valley on film before, it all feels familiar.

Though this is the shortest film he’s made in years, Gowariker isn’t—and probably will never be—an efficient film-maker. What other directors convey in two lines, he does in seven. Long after scenes have revealed their purpose, he allows them to continue, lest the audience miss out on some imaginary subtlety. His staging is astonishingly archaic at times—note how the labourers give voice to their grievances one by one, in orderly fashion, instead of shouting all at once like an angry mob would. There’s also the repeated suspension of disbelief (was a little eye make-up really an effective disguise in 2500 BC?) that lazy writing necessitates.

Despite all this, Mohenjo Daro manages to stay afloat. This is in large part due to Roshan, who is the ideal actor for a film like this. In fact, this may be the only sort of role he’s naturally suited for. All the effort and concentration and jaw-clenching that mark a Roshan performance have a viable outlet here; the setting is expansive and ancient enough to accommodate his unironically heroic persona. Bedi too is excellently cast—and costumed—as the scheming pradhan. Pooja Hegde is just about adequate as Chaani, the high priest’s daughter whom Sarman keeps saving; in all fairness, the aviary she wears on her head would have defeated better actors.

It’s a relief when Sarman’s done with his too-easy-by-half socialist revolution and the film returns to the idea of Mohenjo Daro. The ending is a surprise, not because it’s impossible to anticipate but because it’s a rare moment when historical conjecture is used in support of a true imaginative leap by Gowariker. It’s the best thing in the film, and a vision of what this film could have been.

Mohenjo Daro released in theatres on Friday

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