Did Yash Raj Films just remake its 2018 clunker Thugs of Hindostan with a far more effective hero? Or did director Karan Malhotra revisit his 2012 film Agneepath by setting it in pre-Independence India?
A bit of both, perhaps. Shamshera harks back to ye olde dacoit dramas even as it follows a young man’s attempt to live up to his father’s legacy. Ranbir Kapoor, making his comeback to the big screen after the Sanjay Dutt biopic Sanju (2018), plays Balli, a member of an enslaved tribe in the North Indian settlement of Kaza. He also plays Balli’s father, the folk hero Shamshera.
You won’t find Kaza anywhere on a map, just as you won’t find Shamshera’s community in a government gazette. The film begin in 1871, the year British colonisers passed the Criminal Tribes Act that notified entire communities as potential troublemakers. Shamshera leads the fictitious Khameran, a group consigned to the bottom of the caste pile. A synonym for Khameran could be Dalit, although the movie never uses this word.
Tricked into a truce by the odious police officer Shuddh Singh (Sanjay Dutt), Shamshera sacrifices himself for his people. Shuddh Singh, as his name suggests, is obsessed with ritual purity and despises the Khameran. “Indian dirt only Indian hand can clean,” Shuddh Singh tells his British bosses, who are happy to delegate to him the nasty work of running this remote outpost of empire.
Many years later, Balli is Kaza’s resident mischief-maker, loafing around with the kids and living up to his community’s purported reputation for criminal behaviour. The film hurries over the middle phase that would have revealed Balli’s awakening and leaps straight to the point where he has assumed his father’s mantle.
Among Balli’s collaborators is the feisty dancer Sona (Vaani Kapoor) and the remnants of Shamshera’s followers, which includes Doodh Singh (Saurabh Shukla).
Shamshera is based on a story by Neelesh Mishra and Khila Bisht and a screenplay by Karan Malhotra and Ekta Pathak Malhotra. With a brief to make it big, if not quite coherent, the 158-minute film is overstuffed with scenes mounted on a grandiose scale, cranked-up emotions, and flights of fancy as Balli evolves from pirouetting thief to a liberator on horseback.
Important conversations are staged in the middle of sandstorms and fistfights. Restless camerawork and distracting editing mark Balli’s overnight mutiny. If the falcon came to the aid of Amitabh Bachchan’s load carrier in Coolie, this film has crows – whole murders of them providing a better sonic accompaniment to Balli’s mission than Mithoon’s deafening and unintentionally funny score.
Featuring trite dialogue by Piyush Mishra and flashbacks to moments that have not yet left our memory, Shamshera trundles along on its star power. Ranbir Kapoor ably carries the period drama on his bulked-up shoulders, conveying Balli’s journey with as much subtlety as permitted. Among the film’s better ideas, which struggle through an avalanche of dust swirls and slow-motion action scenes, is that both Shamshera and Balli are heroic but fallible too.
Most of the time, Shamshera is more in tune with Shuddh Singh, an evil mastermind straight out a 1980s movie. Shuddh Singh’s reputation for efficacy proves to be exaggerated. So also, Shamshera’s ambition to be a 70mm-sized epic falls several metres short.