Mild Spoiler alert
Thugs of Hindostan (TOH), irrespective of whether it goes down as a money-maker or not, will for sure go down in the annals of Hindi cinema as one of the films that divided the critics/audiences to the maximum extent possible. An audience that has grown up on the masala traditions/tropes, and even more so, those who have grown up listening to those stories that one heard from one’s grand-parents as a kid, is bound to like this film; if not love it. More than anything, I was pleasantly surprised that Victor of Doom 3 fame managed to get his bearings almost right and understood and presented the ’70s and ’80s cinema for what it actually represented.
TOH is a simple enough story of rebels versus the Company; of a stoic, metaphorical figure (Amitabh Bachchan) representing freedom; of a turncoat using one’s wittiness (Aamir Khan) to slither toward riches in life and then toward a cause, and more importantly, of achieving poetic justice that is beyond the self’s life or death, all moulded within the masala tropes with the respect the masala-tradition of story-telling of the Hindi films of yore command, not demand.
More than anything, this is a very good tribute to the man who heralded and soared to unconquerable heights in this tradition, Amitabh Bachchan. Both Victor and Aamir have utmost respect toward Amitabh and they show it—Aamir through his eyes—sometimes subtly, mostly unabashedly. There is an Allah-Rakha-esqe falcon as in Coolie—heck, there’s even a throw-back to Oberoi’s cool sun-glasses—that protects the rebels here as a forewarner and flies around whenever Amitabh’s character and/or his gang is on screen; there’s a great tribute to Amitabh’s refusal to pay हफ़्ता from Deewar with Aamir’s introduction shot[very smartly, Victor/Aamir include a sub-tribute to Lagaan via the tax back-drop that’s used as Aamir’s introduction scene right here]; there’s Amitabh’s Bhagwan Dada-inspired steps in the Vashamalle song, there’s Amitabh in shackles as in Kaalia; there’s Amitabh singing a lullaby to Fatima’s Zafira, and of course, there’s his name itself – two of them in fact; Khudabaksh and Aazad.
Aamir salutes [aadab] him in the first scene, and Aamir again does that in one of the pre-climactic scenes—symbolically signifying and accepting that this is what we loved about Bachchan’s films when we saw them the first time; and this is what inspired the masala tradition—where he tries to fall at his feet but then Amitabh asks him to hug instead. The film is sparkled with many such homages and it’s a delight to spot, see, and enjoy them.
Needless to say, with less screen-time but with the most impact, in all probability, with Bachchan’s last outing in a masala avatar, this is a treat. And this is indeed a fine homage. This isn’t the Buddha Hoga Tera Baap collection of scenes project from Amitabh Bachchan’s films’ homage/disguised as postal-stamps stuck in a museum shout-out; it’s a true, sincere, and from-the heart reverence to story-telling in this format and what Amitabh meant to that format. It’s simply thrilling when Bachchan speaks and espouses freedom with the dignity and aura which inspires followers and makes each one of them leaders. His introduction scene is an ultimate ode to his grand entry styles from the ’70s and ’80s flicks and a goose-bumping one at that.
Aamir is truly enjoying this outing, and stays within the ambit of the genre, rarely getting trapped delivering a false note [note, he is on Amitabh’s turf here; age notwithstanding], except for the Chaplin-esque dance during the सुराय्या मेरी जान song. Katrina is wasted but she dances brilliantly and has oomph and lightning rising through the screen till the theater roof [having a lightning rod on the theater roof-tops might be a good idea to prevent getting scorched]. Her dialog-delivery is flat as usual and unfortunately, the British generals speak better Hindi than her. Fatima has a small role and can be called the weakest link but she doesn’t have the lines that’s grand-standing.
The action scenes and battles on the ship are very well-staged in slow-motion–which was the bane of Dhoom 3–are inter-mingled smartly with live-action, coupled with a thundering back-ground score to convey the energy required and to be savored by the audience. Boarding onto the enemy ships by ropes, by ladders, and the usage of a ship’s props in the action sequences are finely used. Frankly, they are on par with the Babhubali’s action scenes: At least, they look better on-screen.
The songs—there are 3 of them—are a big let-down; only the VASHAMALLE song is better but is way too short. Katrina’s introduction song was supposed to be a fire-cracker but it fizzles out. But Manzoor-E-Khuda song again harks back to the usage of a song with the hidden intention of showing some plot happening in the back-ground. [If you notice, the wooden set that is constructed is in the form of a falcon; the leitmotif that’s through-out the film.]
The first half flows like a breeze. It is in the 2nd half where Aamir’s chameleonic act/role gets a bit comedic, monotonous and out-of-sync when it comes to the totality of the movie. His flip-flops get a tad monotonous. But the face-off moments between them are finely staged.
If you don’t understand — don’t want to understand/see– that Bahubali is Chandamama, while TOH is pure Hindi cinema masala, then think twice before watching this movie. And if rather than enjoying the wholesome poetic justice and flow that the film provides/symbolizes, you are going to focus and fret on how Fatima’s eye-brow scar keeps changing its size, or how anybody can survive a ship-collision, then stay at home and watch, as Box Office India puts it, European cinema. Holistic, over-arching emotional crests and troughs are the hall-marks of masala cinema, and if you don’t enjoy this form of story-telling and movie-watching, well, this is not for you. If the navarasas from Natya Shastra are neither your cup of coffee nor tea, drop the idea of watching this. If you have formed an opinion with the preview— that ships floating on high seas means this is a re-hash of Pirates of the Caribbean, well, you clearly missed the boat; and it’s for you to decide whether it was a boat worth riding-on or missing. But if not, this movie is a fun ride.
And no, I don’t feel Aamir has lost it. He’s much smarter than we – the lovers of cinema. This is a true homage, and not a replica of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And if we are not as fond or reverential as him to these tropes, well, the shortcoming is on us; not him.