For the second time this year, Hindi cinema takes a run at a revisionist Western. Laal Kaptaan doesn't come together as satisfyingly as Sonchiriya, perhaps the best theatrical release of 2019. But that film still had the broad framework of the daaku film to play with, whereas Navdeep Singh heads into largely unmapped territory with some hunting dogs and a history book for company.
Laal Kaptaan is set in the late-1700s, a time of fantastic tumult in India. The Battle of Buxar has taken place, the Mughals are losing their grip and the British are on their way to taking control of the country. North India is a mess of competing interests: Afghans, Marathas, assorted tribes and clans. Into this bubbling stew, Singh drops a naga sadhu, played by Saif Ali Khan, who has unfinished business with a warlord named Rahmat Khan (Manav Vij).
The Western is strong in this one: there are Moriccone bells and choruses, and the sadhu is a nod to both the Lone Ranger (in that he looks like Tonto) and the Man With No Name (everyone just calls him “gosain", the term for Shiva-worshipping ascetics). But Laal Kaptaan is also a chase film, a genre Singh experimented with in NH10. Gosain has been pursuing Khan for 20 years and is finally within striking distance. Also pursuing Khan are the Marathas, whose money he’s run off with. And there’s a tracker played by Deepak Dobriyal, who’ll hunt down anyone, Gosain or Khan, for a fee.
There are shades of Aamir Khan’s trickster from Thugs of Hindostan in the tracker, but thankfully there’s more that separates than unites these two films, even though both are set in north India in the late 1700s. This is a more convincing snapshot of what the region must have been like, with everyone looking out for themselves and national identity barely a gleam in anyone’s eye. There's a wealth of eccentric period detail: for instance, the Pindaris – plunderers and foragers of the time – who set off after Rahmat Khan are presented as the film’s equivalent of commedia dell'arte or a nautanki troupe.
Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkatesha create a gritty, unstable world; even the most sympathetic character, a widow, played by Zoya Hussain, acts decisively and without mercy when she has to. The use of incremental flashbacks, though, doesn’t work as well as they might have hoped. Every 30 minutes or so, we’re shown fragments of events that went down in Buxar: rain, a boy and his father, prisoners, British soldiers, a hanging. We get a little more information with each one, so by the time we learn why the gosain is after Khan, it’s not that much of a revelation, unlike that expertly deployed, heart-stopping flashback in Sonchiriya.
The film is held back in other ways. You wish someone had given Singh and cinematographer Shanker Raman a bit of a budget for the set-pieces – there are a couple of good ideas (the Afghan ambush, for example) but little cohesion or fluidity. The performances are a strange collection of accents and attitudes. Saif Ali Khan, buried under dreadlocks, a beard and sacred ash, seethes and grimaces a lot. Vij seems to be trying to channel Pankaj Kapur in Maqbool; there’s a scene when I genuinely couldn’t make out if the source of a loud grunt was Vij or the horse or camel standing nearby. And while it’s nice to see Dobriyal get prominent billing, his clowning is one-note and his part underwritten.
And yet, Laal Kaptaan is the sort of film I wish there were more of – an exploration of the richness and weirdness of old India, one which doesn’t try to smooth the edges or create a Disney-esque franchise. Recent films have used our nation’s distant past as a reflecting pool of orthodoxy (Padmaavat) and proto-nationalism (Manikarnika). Singh, on the other hand, admits that we’ve always been a complicated, fractured country, and that entire lives can be defined by nothing more than a desire for revenge.