Thugs of Hindostan (2018)

India’s answer to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Thugs of Hindostan is a Hindi-language swashbuckling pantomime that boasts all the bells and whistles of the Johnny Depp-starring pentalogy — think a bloated runtime, bombastic action, and a slippery eyeliner-wearing scallywag, though set on a different side of the earth’s hemisphere.

Written and directed by prolific Hindi moviemaker Vijay Krishna Acharya — whose previous effort, Dhoom 3 (2013), went on to become one of the top ten highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time — Thugs has been both hugely hyped and anticipated, the flick (which is currently the most expensive Bollywood movie ever produced, and released just in time for Diwali) promising to deliver bucket-loads of blockbuster thrills in a setting rarely seen in Indian cinema, the high seas. On top of all this, Thugs reunites filmmaker Acharya with Dhoom 3 firecracker Katrina Kaif and star Aamir Khan. It’s also the first time that audiences get to see Khan, as a leading man, share the frame with Bollywood megastar/ icon Amitabh Bachchan, Black (2005), who’s, admittedly, the most celebrated actor working in the world today. Blimey! One can say that there’s a lot riding on the success of Thugs.

‘You really shiver my timber.’

Substituting the tropical Caribbean landscape for the less exotic Eastern Ocean, Thugs of Hindostan takes us back to 18th-century South Asia (round about 1795), where the Indian subcontinent formerly known as Hindostan has been seized by the British East India Company who are expanding their rule and control, headed by ruthless moustache-twirling commander John Clive (Lloyd Owen). Watching her much-loved father, King Mirza Sikander Baig (Ronit Roy), and older brother, murdered right before her very eyes, kid princess Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh) flees the kingdom with lionhearted Indian warrior Khudabaksh Jahazi Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan), who, in hiding, trains the young girl in the art of combat.

Some years later, Khudabaksh returns home to liberate his people, leading an uprising via a band of Indian bandits known as ‘Azaad’ — cutlass-wielding, musket-blazing seafaring ‘thugs.’ Alarmed by the mounting insurrection, John Clive secretly recruits a duplicitous small-time crook/ wannabe ‘white boy’ named Firangi Mallah (Aamir Khan) — an ass who rides around on, um, an ass — to infiltrate and counter the threat, for a hefty fee, of course, Firangi insisting that his old pal Shanichar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) be freed also, to aid him on his quest.

Running for a whopping 164-minutes, Thugs of Hindostan is, well, a bit of a slog — but, hey, you get a lot of bang for your buck! The action scenes are grand and well staged, though contain more dramatic slow-mos than your typical Michael Bay joint (which probably explains the inflated runtime), Acharya and Co. employing a masala of live-action artistry and VFX magic to craft some big, breathtaking moments, the flick’s horde of on-ground and open-ocean skirmishes becoming increasingly outrageous — it’s clear that filmmakers have rupees to burn and they brazenly set the place on fire, quite literally, and on multiple occasions! Given all its visual razzle-dazzle, i.e. opulent sets and exuberant costumes, it’s no wonder Thugs has been released on various large-format screens, such as IMAX.

Did you hear about that new pirate movie? It’s going to be rated ‘Arr!’

Though based on the best-selling 1839 English novel titled Confessions of a Thug written by novelist Philip Meadows Taylor, Thugs of Hindostan seems to be going through the motions as if ticking boxes off a checklist, the film about as historically accurate as Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), too. The screenplay and dialogue are pretty pedestrian, while the narrative itself, even with its slew of double-crossings (one to many IMO), comes off as shockingly predictable — think hackneyed Bollywood clichés meshed with all the plucky romanticism seen in other sea-based adventures. And although moviemakers try to drop some not-so-subtle anti-colonial messages into the proceedings, these are drowned out by Thug’s quixotic, over-the-top nature.

When it comes to the music, however, the score succeeds in being both stately and thunderous, while the songs and dance routines are a bit of a hit and miss — and we only get three? C’mon guys?! The highlight, hands down, is the powerfully patriotic ‘Manzoor-e-Khuda,’ composed by Ajay-Atul with vocals by playback artists Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan, and Sukhwinder Singh; it’s a five-minute ditty that sees the ravishing Kaif, dripping in glitter and gold, navel-shake, the dance choreography mixing contemporary moves with classical Hindi-inspired forms. It’s a dang shame, though, that Kaif’s overall screen-time is about as scanty as her outfits. The other two numbers are not quite as absorbing; ‘Suraiyya,’ performed by lyricist/ songster Vishal Dadlani and playback singer Shreya Ghoshal, is fun and frisky, this sequence featuring some fast-motion foolery, Benny Hill style, as Firangi (disguised as an Englishman) tries to outrun a bunch of British soldiers, whereas ‘Vashmalle,’ a song that focuses on the camaraderie between Bachchan and Khan’s characters, saw almost every male in my audience exit for a bathroom break.

On Bachchan and Khan, their performances are, at most, passable, despite the pair’s bouncy banter and palpable chemistry. Even at age 76, Amitabh Bachchan is still able to seize the screen with his movie-star presence, though suffers here with physical action and dancing due to being clad in too-heavy a costume and under mounds of makeup. Likewise, Khan is playfully droll as the plundering anti-hero Firangi (a kind of spiritual ancestor to Depp’s Captn’ Jack), whose character looks to be a cross between Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist Slash and a young Bob Dylan (a substitute for Keith Richards maybe); still, his antics do get a smidge tiresome. The remainder of the cast, per contra, struggle to keep their heads above water.

It’s all about the booty!

For those with hours at their disposal, wanting to idle the afternoon away, Thugs of Hindostan is disposable enough, this epically ridiculous seagoing entertainer able to do just that, entertain. All the same, anyone after something a little more substantial, thematically and narratively, would probably find more enjoyment in walking the plank, as this one’s about as trite and tacky as the Jolly Roger flag and as satirically silly as the 1982 musical-comedy The Pirate Movie. Funnily enough, even with all its mustiness, there are no parrots or eye-patches in sight. But we do get a cool CG eagle.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Thugs of Hindostan is released through Yash Raj Films