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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Thugs of Hindostan, Review: Where are the thugs?

Thugs of Hindostan, Review: Where are the thugs?

In the Hindostan of the early 1800s, as in most countries at any time in history, there were thugs. India, as Hindostan came to be called by the British, had an exactly similar term for these gentlemen, only the t in thug was hardened to sound like tug. Our story begins in 1795, when one small kingdom dared to withstand the marauding East India Company forces, led by John Clive.

There is one solitary thug in the film, who has an ambivalent attitude to morals and principles, and there ends the thuggery. So, you find one singular thug and hundreds of other characters in a film called Thugs of Hindostan. You might have been pardoned for mistaking the film to be a documentary on the practice of double-crossing and double agents, with an eye for pillaging and pilfering, had you not been informed that the film is produced by YashRaj Films and stars Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan. Aamir is the titular thug, so that makes Amitabh…Hindostan, I mean a champion for the cause of a free India, free of British presence.

Based on Philip Meadows Taylor's 1839 novel, Confessions of a Thug, the movie tells us about a thug named Ameer Ali and his gang, whose nefarious ways posed a serious challenge to the British Empire in India in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Ameer Ali has been renamed Firangi (foreigner/Englishman) for the film. Ali, the fictional anti-hero protagonist of Confessions of a Thug, is a composite of three real-life thugs: Feringhea (Firangi), Ameer Alee, and Aman Subahdar. Feringhea was a jamadar, or captain, and led many expeditions before turning into a prolific informer for the British. The historical Ameer Alee, who provided the fictional character's name, was a low-ranking thug. Finally, Aman Subahdar was described as "the foremost thug of his day."

Mirza Sikandar Baig, ruler of a small kingdom, dares to stand-up against the onslaught of the British, and pays the ultimate price. He is shot dead, after his teenage son, who was tied to a cannon, is blown to smithereens. But his loyal guard Khudabaksh returns from a mission just in time to rescue the king’s daughter Zafira and take her with him. He brings her up as a warrior, and amasses a bunch of loyalist soldiers and laymen, who are willing to lay down their lives, rather than live under the British flag.

Firangee is a jolly-natured thug, a man with no compunctions and an inveterate liar. The British ask him to infiltrate Khudabaksh’s army (he is now called Azad—‘free’, as are all his soldiers) and tip them about Azad’s movements, so that he may be apprehended and, in the end, eliminated. Firangee agrees, for a fat fee, of course. There is a nautch girl in the picture too, kotheyvaalee Suraiyya Jaan, who is Firangee’s lady love. She knows all about his ways, but loves him all the same. While selling Azad down the river, Firangee develops strange patriotic feelings and decides to double-cross the British, for a change.

Khudabaksh cannot but remind you of Amitabh’s character in Khuda Gawah. One dialogue is a clone from Shahenshah---yes, the “Naam hai Shahenshah” one. There are many ways in which Azad reminds you of Kranti, played by Dilip Kumar in the eponymous film, which was, in turn, grafted from a B-Grade flick. We have a ‘babul’ song which is a reference to ‘Babul pyare’ in Johnny Mera Naam. The donkey scene is right up Pink Panther street, where a blind beggar calls his performing monkey his active partner. So many references! What is writer director Vijay Krishna Acharya (Victor) up to? YashRaj has reposed faith in him on the basis of Dhoom 2 and Dhoom 3. Aamir Khan from the latter comes back, and has for company, for the first time in his career, the indomitable Amitabh Bachchan.

Is this a casting coup? Yes. Is it a performance coup, with the two giants battling for histrionics? No. Most of their scenes together are fight scenes (tackling common enemies), and the few times that they have some dialogue, the repartee is ‘rip party’, anything but funny, although you will laugh alright. Action scenes are mounted king-size, but the repetitions are also huge in number. One shot, where Amitabh swings Zafira on a cloth and she attacks the enemies in a swirl, was very impressive. There are too many ships and ship-battles, with little to distinguish one from the other. Think Pirates of the Caribbean.

Acharya has another star player in the shape of Katrina Kaif, who contributed so much to the YRF ‘Tiger’ franchise. Here, he uses her for two songs and two scenes, one of them designed for generous skin show. He did not need Kaif for this role, did he? Amitabh has lots of screen time, but you do not need an actor of his caliber and standing to do so much fighting with a plethora of arms. Lesser mortals would have done is as well.

Amitabh gets into trade-mark baritone grains so many times that one loses count. There’s little else he does, except use his sword, throw weapons from and at all angles, and gyrate to the rhythm of a song. At 76, why do you want him doing all this? Blame the script and the direction, but this is not Big B’s day. Aamir, by contrast, revels in the best written role in the film. After all, he is playing the title role, isn’t he? Stock-in-trade grin and motor-mouth dialogue become part of his repertoire, and he makes good use of them.

Katrina Kaif has still to lose her accent completely. Yes, she dances well and has a few good expressions. Fatima Sana Shaikh (Chachi 420, Akaash Vani, Dangal; in Dangal, she played Aamir’s daughter) as Zafira rises above the script, which has written her as a fighting machine, more mechanical than human. Her face has shades of Reena Roy and Farah, even a touch of Katrina, but nevertheless watch the face in days to come. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as the lisping Sanichar provides comic relief. Jean-Charles Andrieux as Sam wins you over with his near perfect Urdu, while Lloyd Owen as John Clive plays the role of the sadistic coloniser, John Clive. Ronit Roy as Mirza Sikandar Baig has a small role and performs well.

Background music by John Stewart Eduri is all western, nothing Indian. Ajay-Atul’s songs go well with the situations, but do not linger once you have left the auditorium.

Thugs of Hindostan is a disappointment because it does not get any bigger—the casting and the banner--and the mind-boggling  production cost--all rank up there. Bangs for the buck are not in any unfavourable ratio, to be sure. But what about the buck itself? The kind of buck that should stop here and keep you glued for a full 164 minutes, no less. Thugs of Hindostan doesn’t.

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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