Director: Vijay Krishna Acharya
Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Shaikh — this is the order in which the lead cast’s names are placed in the credits of Thugs of Hindostan. The ranking is representative of their star stature combined with seniority in the industry. A more truthful list reflecting the substance in the roles they play would have read: Khan, Bachchan, Shaikh, Kaif. And if you want to know which of these stars scores in terms of quality of performance and conviction, this is my list: Aamir Khan, Aamir Khan, Aamir Khan, Aamir Khan.
Vijay Krishna Acharya’s third directorial venture (the others being Tashan and Dhoom 3) might have been a lifeless parade of spectacular visuals without Khan. Whenever he is on screen though, the film develops a pulse. Khan is Thugs of Hindostan‘s heart and soul, breath and blood.
The story is set in an India overrun by the British, and revolves around an unscrupulous rascal called Firangi Malla who serves only one master, himself, until he encounters the freedom fighter Azad (Bachchan). Torn between self-interest and patriotism, Firangi keeps his associates guessing about where his loyalties lie, swinging back and forth between the British led by Clive and his own people. The road he will ultimately take may be obvious to the audience, but how he takes it is unpredictable enough to keep the film going.
If the mention of a Clive suggests that Thugs of Hindostan is historically accurate, then let it be placed on the record: it is not. “What’s in a name?” as that most famous of Englishmen once wrote. A white man by any other name would have smelt just as rotten. So yeah, in all their confrontations here, the Brits are made to look like incompetent, gullible asses, forever suffering defeat at the hands of Indians. Since India is the wronged party in the imperialist equation, it could be argued that taking this sort of liberty with the past can hardly be treated as a crime especially since this is nothing compared to Western cinema’s casual portrayal of true thugs of the colonial era, most recently Winston Churchill, with affectionate indulgence. In any case, Thugs of Hindostan is unapologetically commercial, characteristically masala-filled Bollywood fare, that does not ask to be taken seriously. It is an action adventure in the mould of Hollywood’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, and does not pretend to be anything but that.
Acharya’s actual crime lies in the weak writing of every character other than Firangi Malla. Azad is a pallid creature, and Bachchan invests nothing beyond his towering personality and baritone in his uninspired performance.
The women are laughable asides in the screenplay. Kaif as the courtesan Suraiyya gets to look sexy and dance mechanically, displaying technique but little grace in two lavish song and dance sequences on elaborate, eye-catching sets. She has a third scene but disappears for the rest of the proceedings, which is just as well since she seems unable to move even those few facial muscles that she has exercised in her earlier films.
Shaikh, who made a mark as a skilled wrestler and rebellious daughter in Dangal, is not required to act at all. As Zafira, who is part of Azad’s band of warriors, she barely has any lines, and most of her screen time is spent running across battlescapes, firing arrows and throwing punches. She is fair enough doing all this, but not outstanding, and since she lacks charisma it is hard not to wonder why she landed the job. She also has less chemistry with Khan than Lloyd Owen who plays Clive.
It is thus left to Khan and the technical departments to save this film, and they do. Thugs of Hindostan‘s production designers (there are four) and DoP Manush Nandan ensure that the film is never short of pretty and grand. John Stewart Eduri serves up a throbbing background score and Ajay-Atul’s songs are all hummable.
Given the only well-written character in Thugs of Hindostan, with an abundance of mischievous dialogues and credible motivations, Khan throws himself into his role with gusto, summoning up Munna of Rangeela and Siddhu of Ghulam, imbuing Firangi with a relentless zest, and switching from good to bad to inexplicable to exasperating to lovable within a twinkling of those delightful kohl-lined eyes.
Thugs was promoted as the first film ever to pit him against the great Bachchan. The legendary superstar is a pale shadow here of the best he has been. Khan, on the other hand, crackles, pops and sparkles as a swashbuckling scoundrel. The writing of his character and his performance are the only reasons why Thugs of Hindostan does not turn out to be a stylishly produced but disastrously dreary repeat of Acharya’s first film, Tashan. Despite all its minuses, Thugs is light-hearted fun.