Naveep Singh’s neo-Western Laal Kaptaan is set 25 years after the Battle of Buxar in the late 18th century. The movie follows a militant Naga sadhu, who is a mercenary for hire, and his 20-year quest for revenge. A series of trailers for the October 18 release establishes the warrior, played by Saif Ali Khan, as a “timeless” figure. Khan’s character sports matted hair, wears the red jacket of a British East India Company soldier, is armed to the teeth and travels across rough North Indian terrains on horseback.
There is an antagonist, Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij), with whom the sadhu appears to share a bloody past. The nameless characters include a widow (Zoya Hussain) who helps the warrior in his journey, and a tracker (Deepak Dobriyal) who is skilled at hunting down people over large distances. Saurabh Sachdeva plays a Mughal army general. Sonakshi Sinha has a cameo appearance.
Singh, who previously directed the neo-noir Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) and the gory thriller NH10 (2015), said that the seeds of Laal Kaptaan were planted in his mind once he came across the role played by Naga sadhus in the Battle of Buxar in a book a decade ago. The battle was fought in 1764 between the British East India Company’s troops and the combined armies of the Mughal emperor and the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh. The Naga sadhus fought for the Awadhi Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula.
“The gestation period was about five years,” Singh told Scroll.in. “While the research on Naga Sadhus in the 18th century was on track, me and my co-writer Deepak Venkatesha were working on another contemporary revenge Western. We brought the two elements together and finished the script in eight to nine months.” The dialogue is by Sudip Sharma, who also wrote Sonchiriya, the other Hindi neo-Western out this year.
Saif Ali Khan was chosen for the protagonist’s role because of his “swagger and attitude” and his ability to bring “badassery on screen like Clint Eastwood”, Singh said.
Like his other two films, Singh shot Laal Kaptaan across various places in Rajasthan between February and October in 2018. Visual references for the period did not come from any movie, Singh said, but from paintings.
“Edwin Lord Weeks’s paintings from the 1800s were our principal sources for visual texture,” Singh said. “Also, the Company school of art, that is the miniature paintings of local people and architecture commissioned by the East India Company was helpful.” Shanker Raman is the cinematographer and the production design is by Rakesh Yadav (Tumbbad).
Laal Kaptaan happened because Singh always wanted to make a Western. “I like making genre films because I am not cut out for either a masala movie or a small personal movie as I have nothing really important to say,” Singh said.
While Manorama Six Feet Under was a loose remake of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir Chinatown (1974), NH10 was a survival thriller about an urban woman and her husband battling a gang of brutal men in the badlands of Haryana, not unlike the 2008 British film Eden Lake.
Singh said he is not bothered by the comparisons of his films to Chinatown or Eden Lake. “Manorama readily acknowledges the debt to Chinatown and is a homage to it, which in turn was a neo-noir that was a pastiche of older noir films,” Singh said. “As for NH10, it got compared to not just Eden Lake but a bunch of slasher movies, which is fine. Basic similarities in films of the same genre will obviously be there.”
In between Manorama Six Feet Under and NH10, Singh tried developing the zombie film Rock The Shaadi and a spy movie titled Basra. Speaking about his process of adapting genres that are staples in Hollywood for an Indian context, Singh said that instead of replicating superficial genre tropes, he aims to “understand the ethos of a genre and bring it here”.
He added, “Noir, for instance, is about corruption of the self and the society around you, how one single act of wrongdoing can create a spiral of problems. So in Manorama, the hero is corrupted right in the beginning when he takes a bribe, and then there are the waves of corruption inside corruption all around him, and the femme fatale character and all that. Then, the slasher genre is basically about what happens when two disparate social groups, like the city slickers and the rednecks, clash, which is what NH10 is.”
NH10 not only offered genre thrills, but was also a commentary on the Indian woman’s position in a feudal and patriarchal landscape. NH10 co-writer and Laal Kaptaan dialogue writer Sudip Sharma’s Sonchiriya was not just a Western about dacoits in Chambal, but also held forth on caste-based social faultlines. With Laal Kaptaan, Singh said that there is “no larger message”. The attempt is to “spin a yarn or create a legend”, but ultimately, “it is up to the audience to find the subtext”.
How does the “ethos” of a Western fit into Laal Kaptaan? “The lone ranger and pulling out the gun and all that are just tropes,” Singh said. “But essentially, it’s the story of man versus nature. One man fighting for an older moral and social code as modernisation creeps in. The lone man holding out against all odds in the age of the locomotive, as his way of life disappears with the change of an era. That’s what we tried to follow in Laal Kaptaan.”