Once upon a time in the fictional kingdom of Kaza in British India, there was the brave bandit Shamshera. His son Balli, a frivolous thief born in Kaza prison, is his lookalike but the apple has fallen far from the tree. Both are played by Ranbir Kapoor in Karan Malhotra’s July 22 release Shamshera.

The story begins in 1871, when the British government passed the Criminal Tribes Act. Sanjay Dutt plays Shuddh Singh, a nasty policeman who clashes with Balli. The cast includes Vaani Kapoor and Saurabh Shukla.

Shamshera, whose story is credited to Neelesh Mishra and Khila Bisht, was pitched by producer Aditya Chopra to Malhotra, who turned it into a script with his wife, Ekta Pathak Malhotra. The sub-title “Karam se dacait, dharam se azad” (Bandit by duty, free by nature) summarises the film’s approach, Malhotra said.

The visual effects-heavy period drama was filmed in Mumbai and Ladakh’s Nubra valley in 2020. “Shamshera is a masala potboiler,” Malhotra told Scroll.in. “It’s not a historical or a social cause film. It’s a period fiction made with the hope that it makes the audience laugh, cry, get angry and celebrate, only to return to the theatre and watch it again.”

Ranbir Kapoor in Shamshera.

The trailer has drawn comparisons with Thugs of Hindostan (2018), the Yash Raj Films production featuring nineteenth-century bandits fighting the British. “Once the audience sees the film, they will know whether it’s similar or dissimilar to any film,” Malhotra said. “I don’t want to give any more spoilers beyond what’s already in the trailer.”

Malhotra made his debut with Agneepath (2012), a reworking of Mukul Anand’s Amitabh Bachchan-starrer of the same name. The remake starred Hrithik Roshan in the lead role. Malhotra gave a baroque makeover to the violent melodrama, turning the villain Kancha Cheena (Sanjay Dutt) into a bald Judge Holden-like monster. Rishi Kapoor was cast against type as Rauf Lala, a trafficker.

Since Agneepath, Dutt has appeared as megalomaniac bad guys in Panipat (2019) and the blockbuster KGF films. “Hero or villain, Sanjay Dutt is best-suited for larger-than-life characters,” Malhotra observed. “Ordinary, simple characters won’t work with him. In Agneepath, I needed Vijay to beat insurmountable odds by the end of the film, because only when you defeat a near-invincible villain does the hero appear stronger.”

Shuddh Singh in Shamshera is “poles apart” from Kancha. “Shuddh Singh is a fun-loving, unpredictable, evil guy. He is slimy and conniving. Sanjay Dutt is not playing him at his usual pitch. Shuddh Singh will make you afraid but also laugh and squirm.”

Shuddh Singh in Shamshera.

With Shamshera, Malhotra has now worked with both father and son, Rishi and Ranbir Kapoor.

“The look of Rauf Lala as this bulky man with a crew cut and stubble came from the script but we did not have an actor in mind,” Malhotra said. When Rishi Kapoor, a family friend of the Malhotras, arrived at their wedding reception, “Ekta nudged me and pointed out how Chintu ji [Rishi Kapoor] was standing in his usual, grumpy way. She suggested that he’s our Rauf Lala.”

How different are father and son? Both are professionals who “surrender to the film and director’s vision”, Malhotra said. “Rishi ji would challenge me and my conviction every single day on Agneepath. Ranbir is a fun-loving, carefree person, but keeps to himself and is detached. You will see the newest form of Ranbir in Shamshera, the kind of role and film he’s never done before.”

Another unconventional choice is Mithoon, who has composed the songs and background score for Shamshera. Mithoon, known for his ballads, is an unlikely choice for a flamboyant period spectacle.

“My gut said that his melodies are so strong, that if we can crack the tunes together, everything else will follow,” Malhotra said. “I stick to my convictions because even understandable decisions go wrong so many times, so why not experiment?”

Ji Huzoor, Shamshera.

Shamshera arrives seven years after Malhotra’s second film Brothers, a mixed martial arts-themed remake of the Hollywood film Warrior. Starring Akshay Kumar, Sidharth Malhotra and Jackie Shroff, Brothers flopped.

Brothers didn’t work because I had put a dark and heavy chunk of my personal life and its hits and misses into the script,” Malhotra said. “Perhaps the audience did not like that flavour of intensity. We made Brothers with the same sincerity as Agneepath or Shamshera.”

Action spectacles attract Malhotra because of his own personality, he said. Among his favourite films are Aetbaar, Saudagar, Karma and Khuda Gawah.

“I am highly passionate and angry, like a man on a mission, leaving my house with a background score in my head,” Malhotra said. “However, my lovely wife and beautiful baby have calmed me down.”

What’s next after Shamshera? Perhaps a return to the long-gestating Shuddhi, to which Hrithik Roshan was attached at one point?

Shuddhi is mine and Ekta’s pet project,” Malhotra said. “We have promised ourselves that we will definitely make it one day.”

Karan Malhotra.