In Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan, eighteenth-century India isn’t the nicest place to be. The Battle of Buxar of 1764 has been fought and lost, and organised Indian resistance to colonial rule is some decades away. The Marathas, British and Mughals are competing to whittle down the population. Bodies swing from trees, family members and associates betray one another, and even children are not spared.

The screenplay, by Singh and Deepak Venkatesa, has a stark opening sequence that revolves around a public hanging and many scenes of aestheticised brutality. In addition, Laal Kaptaan relies on explanatory text and a voiceover – early signs that the movie will draw a line under its themes as thick as the kohl in the eyes of its central character.

Like the outliers from the Sergio Leone Westerns, this man doesn’t have a name. He is referred to as “gosain” in deference to his dreadlocks and his affiliation with the Naga sadhu sect, and the title defines him even though his actions are anything but ascetic.

Gosain (Saif Ali Khan) is consumed by thoughts of revenge. He has been chasing the cruel overlord Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij) for years for reasons revealed just in time for the closing credits. Gosain proves his own ruthlessness by hiring himself out as a mercenary, and adds eye-rolling and grunting to his repertoire.

However, Rehmat isn’t exactly hidden away. He is a high-level mercenary in Bundelkhand with an entourage that includes a loyal lieutenant (Aamir Bashir) and a surly wife (Simone Singh). Even the mysterious unidentified woman (Zoya Hussain) seems to know Rehmat’s whereabouts.

Meanwhile, a professional tracker (Deepak Dobriyal) who uses his sense of smell and two lovely-looking dogs to locate Gosain for his adversaries needn’t have bothered either. Everybody in this movie is hiding in plain sight, and the theme of vendetta cooked and served up over the years never quite acquires the necessary flavour.

Lala Kaptaan (2019).

If Laal Kaptaan doesn’t work as an account of slow-burning vengeance, it doesn’t fall into place as a character study either. Gosain’s motives are cloaked in a puzzling air of mystery. He isn’t a blank canvas onto which any meaning can be projected as much as a cipher. Despite Saif Ali Khan’s physical exertions and distinctive look, the character’s inner life is as elusive as the movie’s central message.

Manav Kaul’s burliness and grimaces convey menace but little else. Aamir Bashir is wasted in a role of no consequence, and Zoya Hussain is strictly one-note. Only Deepak Dobriyal’s flamboyant tracker, whose pidgin accent anticipates Mumbai street argot, manages to suggest that there is something more cooking in the pot. Madan Deodhar has fun playing an inept Maratha general who, when all else fails, yells out instructions in Marathi.

Threats are delivered but never carried out, and ambition is spelt out but not realised. Yet, Laal Kaptaan scores on other fronts. The lack of sentimentality suits the material, and Navdeep Singh effectively conveys the sense of a battle without honour or humanity.

The handsome production design, by Rakesh Yadav, and the gorgeous costumes, by Maxima Basu, bring the period setting to life. Shanker Raman’s cinematography is bursting with colour and depth, and the night-time sequences are particularly striking even though the events they depict ring hollow.

However, even Raman is unable to suggest the vastness of the landscape or create a sense of a timeless epic with lessons for the present. The distance between hunter and prey always appears to be too small to suggest a near-impossible task. Gosain’s reasons for chasing Rehmat are ultimately too prosaic to justify the 155-minute duration. The film is nasty and brutish but it isn’t short enough.

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