Thugs of Hindostan is bad. Really bad. But you don’t realise that at first because of how ambitious the movie appears to be (aesthetically) and also because it stars Aamir Khan and Big B himself, Amitabh Bachchan. In a way it hoodwinks you. You walk away thinking, “hmm, that was underwhelming but…” You semi-convince yourself that there’s a ‘but’ because there’s no way in hell both these legendary actors — first time together on screen, mind you — agreed to star in something that’s complete hot garbage, right? But the more you think about it, the more you let the movie marinate at the back of your head, the more you realise just how BAD this movie is. Recently, I used the phrase ‘cinematically tone deaf’ to describe Sarkar. Well, Thugs of Hindostan is cinematically tone deaf and has two left feet, both of which are flat.
We open with a voiceover by Amitabh Bachchan (slightly longer than what we hear in the trailer) telling us that The East Indian Company (the British) have begun to enslave India. We see a British Army general, John Clive (a one-note villain with the personality of a toothpick played by Lloyd Owen) manipulate, threaten and murder a king, his wife and their teenage son. The king’s brave young daughter approaches her father’s limp body and screams and then tries to lift his heavy sword, eyes locked on Clive. Clive cocks his gun, but just as he’s about to pull the trigger, Amitabh Bachchan’s Azaad storms into the castle riding a horse (it’s not a pretty sight, but more on that later) and saves the little princess. Eleven years later — and this is where the narrative kicks in — Azaad and the now grown up Zafira are on a quest to kill Clive and rid the kingdom of the British empire. Sure, that sounds like a badass treatment, but on screen, even these opening minutes feel hollow and artificial.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Thugs of Hindostan is written and helmed by Vijay Krishna Acharya, the dude who gave us cinematic masterpieces like… Dhoom and Dhoom 2 and err Dhoom 3. Sorry, did I say masterpieces? I meant cinematic ballcancers, each one worse than its predecessor (though, admittedly, I enjoyed Dhoom 2 as a kid. Side note: I was a stupid kid). Believe it or not, Thugs is his worst movie yet. At least, the Dhoom movies have something resembling narratives we can attempt to get behind. Thugs is off-key from start to finish, playing like an untuned guitar. It’s monotonous, flat and has no heart — fantasy and masala films require a beating heart at its centre, without which they languish. I’m genuinely baffled by how little this movie moved me (trust me, even ‘little’ is too much of a stretch). This movie is completely void of emotion. I was kept waiting for a connect that didn’t come.
And I think it’s partly because of the movie’s weird structure. There were a couple of times where I turned to my friend sitting beside me and wondered aloud, “wait, it’s gonna end here?” And we’d check our phones and realise that it’s only been 90 minutes (this is a close to three-hour-long movie). Later in the movie, I once again turned and mouthed, “you know, this would be a powerful ending had everything that came before worked,” but again, the movie doesn’t end. Every big action scene is confusingly staged in a way that feels like it could be the finale. And that’s because Thugs of Hindostan flatlined right from the start and remained static all throughout. Vijay Acharya seems to have no concept of cinematic rhythm or tempo. There are no ups and downs in this movie, no escalating conflict, no tension that slowly builds and builds towards an explosive climax. Imagine watching the ‘Katravai Patravai’ song sequence in Kaala only to realise there are another 15-20 minutes of the movie left.
There’s also the writing of our central character. Azaad may be THE warrior in the eyes of these characters, but we the audience follow Aamir Khan’s Firangi. Aamir Khan (who is my favourite of the three main Bollywood Khans) has fantastic screen presence, and it is this screen presence that makes one of the most stupidly written characters in recent memory, slightly bearable. Firangi (if Jack Sparrow from the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie had incest sex and birthed a retarded son, it would be him) is a good guy who pretends to be a bad guy who pretends to be a good guy who pretends to be a bad guy who pretends to be a good guy who pretends to be a bad guy who pretends to be a good guy who’s ultimately a good guy. It’s as if this character was written by an ADHD five-year-old who has only ever watched a couple of spy films and thought, “you know what would be better than a double agent? An Octuple agent!”
Every time Firangi is on screen, there is a twist. After the 57th twist, I needed to start meditating in the cinema to prevent myself from doing violent things. First of all, more than two twists and the effect already loses its lustre. Second of all, nobody is buying Aamir freaking Khan, the dude who fought against the Brits in Laagan as a bad guy. Nobody. So, that leaves us with two options. Option 1: Have Firangi start off as a bad guy and then realise the error of his ways and betray the Brits. Option 2: Have Firangi ultimately be a bad guy (a triple agent, not more) and shock the audience. What’s the point of having 57 twists that ultimately leads to the same conclusion people in the audience have made 15 minutes into the movie? But that’s the problem, isn’t it. The movie is so self-indulgent, you can literally see the director jacking off while looking at the mirror. The filmmaker is having more fun than the audience.
Katrina Kaif is another peculiar case. She just shows up twice in the movie to be sexy and dance. But that isn’t the peculiar part. Katrina is always just the babe who dances. What’s peculiar is that in Thugs, she looks awkward even in these dance sequences. I don’t know if it’s her, the choreography or her outfits, but she doesn’t fit in. There seems to be a disconnect between the music and her movements (in ‘Suraiyya’ at least. She’s pretty good the second time around). But that’s just this movie in a nutshell.
Almost everything doesn’t work.
You would think that it would at least be a substanceless swashbuckling fun movie that we can sit back, enjoy and shove popcorn in our faces. But it isn’t. Even the action sequences are so poorly choreographed, shot (Manush Nandan is the cinematographer) and edited choppily that you can’t make out anything that’s going on. There are way too many quick cuts and close-ups to mask the horrible staging. A character would swing his sword towards another character and it’ll cut to a completely unrelated shot/angle.
It’s not just how it looks, though, but also how it feels. Despite using a lot of practical effects (they actually built a couple of ships from scratch — hats off to the production designers), none of it feels real or weighted. When characters jump, they don’t land with a thud. You don’t feel the tremble of the bass during these set pieces. Everything feels light, almost like it’s shot in a zero gravity chamber. Some scenes — like the one where Azaad rides a horse — is so clearly artificial, that it sucks you out of the movie completely, not that we were even sucked in, to begin with.
The performances are the only saving graces in the movie. You can’t go wrong with Big B (who is regal as ever) Aamir Khan and Fatima Shaikh (who, just like in Dangal is able to hold the screen and make it look easy. You buy her as a rough and edgy warrior, despite the edgeless writing of her character). There’s also the beautifully performed ‘Manzoor-e-Khuda’ song towards the end of the movie, which almost gave me goosebumps. I could feel the shivers slowly creeping down my spine (but because of how dull everything is before and after the track, it doesn’t quite land as well as it could’ve).
There’s plenty of head-scratching decisions made by the writer-director. Like why are two British soldiers talking to each other in Hindi? Also, who are the jokes targeted towards? Five-year-olds? (You could argue that I don’t understand the language. But I watched the movie opening night with a cinema packed with Punjabi people and nobody laughed. At all.) But here’s how truly cinematically tone deaf Thugs of Hindostan is: Early on in the movie, we see little Zafira scream and struggle to lift her father’s sword. Where’s the poetic parallel scene where the adult Zafira accomplishes this act **as the music roars and the packed theatre cheers** and slashes Clive’s head off? Instead, the reflection we get is an adult Zafira screaming (before shooting an arrow). Yeap, adult Zafira is an archer, not a swordswoman and Vijay Acharya simply doesn’t get it.
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Thugs of Hindostan
The more you think about it, the more you let the movie marinate at the back of your head, the more you realise just how BAD this movie is. Recently, I used the phrase ‘cinematically tone deaf’ to describe Sarkar. Well, Thugs of Hindostan is cinematically tone deaf and has two left feet, both of which are flat.
Thugs of Hindostan