Movies appeal to us for a variety of reasons. Some stand out for their ‘what’ (content), some for their ‘how’ (form), some for their both ‘what’ and ‘how’. Then there’s the fourth kind: the one about ‘who’. This is the cinema of the privileged – the moneyed producers who make the ‘who’ possible, the factor transcending ‘what’ and ‘how’. The main curiosity here revolves around the stars. That gets multiplied if the makers manage a casting coup: convincing two big names, not known for their collaboration, to share screen time. That in itself is enough – to the extent that the craft of filmmaking becomes irrelevant. The audience gets its doze of voyeurism: watching stars react to each other. It’s a bit like Koffee with Karan, albeit without gossip and with some pretense of storytelling.
Such films will always be in demand because we don’t just love our stars, we revere them. Which is why it’s not surprising that the cinema of ‘who’ hits the theatres during festivals. This Diwali, we have Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan, produced by Yash Raj Films, featuring stars that have never acted in a film together: Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan. A period drama, Thugs of Hindostan is set in 1795 when the East India Company has begun its rapid colonisation of the country. Resistance comes through a band of thugs, led by Khudabaksh Azaad (Bachchan), who aspires to free the Indian subcontinent – Hindostan – from the foreign rule. Then there’s another thug, the small-time conman Firangi Mallah (Khan), thoroughly devoid of conscience and purpose, hired by the British to capture Azaad and dismantle his group.
You don’t need to re-read the synopsis to figure out the mechanics of this movie. Two big stars, cast opposite each other, spawning hype and intrigue: check. Casting them as characters hostile to each other to generate conflict and tension: check. Bringing them together later in the guise of fighting the common enemy (because stars, obsessively guarding their images, can do no wrong): check. Enough action sequences to keep you distracted: check. Heated confrontations culminating in sweet resolution and reunion: check. This is predictable and clichéd filmmaking, and, if you’ve seen enough multi-starrers, Thugs of Hindostan – with one eye at the box-office and the other at the vanity of the stars – will not come as a surprise.
This lack of ambition, however, isn’t as much of a problem as is the lack of effort. At its best, Thugs of Hindostan could have been a straightforward, by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser. Which would have been fine: nothing more was expected of it. And for that to happen, its principal actors had to do just one thing: show up to work. But they fail to cross that ridiculously low bar as well.
Bachchan, who can sleepwalk through masala films, leads the pack with his complete indifference and astounding incompetence (like the botched-up CG eagle that follows him everywhere). His Azaad lacks the fire and wit – that essential quality called screen presence – that makes you root for him, buy his grandness of speech and manner. In his 70s, Bachchan is perhaps too old to play a part that requires considerable on-screen stunts, but even in the dramatic sequences, relying on charged dialogues, he’s thoroughly lackluster. Katrina Kaif (no point wondering when she’d start acting) has an accent more anglicised than the British commanders, exemplifying the casual mediocrity littering this film. Khan – playing the role of a funny, amoral rogue constantly changing loyalties – is a delightful and engaging presence and, quite easily, the film’s saving grace. Firangi keeps us in a state of enjoyable confusion and takes the gas out of a film that, at times, takes itself a little too seriously.
Take, for instance, an exchange between Azaad and Firangi not long after their first meeting. Azaad is tilling a piece of land, all by himself, which has been infertile for eons. Baffled, Firangi asks what he wants to cultivate. A sweaty, solemn Azaad says, “Sapnein [dreams].” There’s a kind of acting that blurs the line between melodrama and trolling: Bachchan achieves that in Thugs of Hindostan. Then, in the same scene, he says, “Azaadi se bada nasha kya hai [what is a better intoxicant than freedom]?” Had this line been delivered with even a shred of conviction, you may have been moved. This dialogue instead, at the most, elicits a shrug, followed by “Whatever floats your boat, man.”
Which reminds me: Thugs of Hindostan has no dearth of ships, which form the setting of most action sequences. A majority of these, although well shot, is marred by distinctively poor CG, resembling snatches from a badly conceived video game. There’s constant sloppiness in the movie – a predictable script, shoddy acting, poor visual effects – making it easily forgettable.
But it’s even more disappointing that Thugs of Hindostan fails to live up to its most basic promise: the coming together of Khan and Bachchan. Two actors with markedly different approaches to acting, they could have elevated this ordinary masala fare. The closest parallel of such an awaited pairing was evident in Mohabbatein (another Yash Raj production), where Shah Rukh Khan and Bachchan shared fiery chemistry, looking like actors who were destined to act together. The Aamir Khan-Bachchan pair, in contrast, has no spark, no humour, no intensity. We’re simply expected to look at them and feel grateful. It doesn’t matter what they do – what matters is ‘who’ they are. It’s time we retire the cinema of ‘who’.
Published in arrangement with The Wire.