Let’s face it, filmmaking is a hard vocation. There are more than a dozen departments to take care of, months of planning (and cancelling) and things like fate and providence that come into play. When you’re making a period film, the hurdles are multiplied by a thousand. Unless you’re militant about it, the film’s tight budget can reveal itself. The illusion of 18th century Bundelkhand breaks, and you’re back to your seat inside a Noida multiplex. Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan is an agonising film to watch, because you can practically see what its ambitions are. You’re rooting and waiting for the film to find its feet, something it fails to achieve even by the end of its run-time of a little over two hours.
Saif Ali Khan is a nameless naga sadhu, who goes around hunting people with a bounty on their head. Referred to as ‘Gossain’, a Hindu group that worships Lord Shiva, Khan’s character is a pitiless cowboy by day and a hermit by night. Sporting dreadlocks, a wild beard and kohl under his eyes, it’s apparent that Khan is meant to embody death itself. He goes on these nihilistic rants during everyday conversation, and he’s motivated by inteqaam.
Consumed by his revenge for Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij), Khan’s character is hinted to have moved beyond worldly desires, possibly even death. And so he goes around spouting how everything is pointless. So much so that, his rants end up sounding gibberish.
“It was the same story yesterday… like today, and it will be the same one tomorrow” – he’s heard telling someone. Given the character’s serious lack of depth, it begins to sound like Khan is trying to slip in an apology on behalf of his ill-prepared director.
Saif Ali Khan, just like the rest of the actors in Laal Kaptaan, displays noble intentions. However, as any musician will tell you, merely trying to hit the note isn’t enough. Saif Ali Khan’s performance has spurts of desperation, and you really see his effort to inhabit a really dark place. Alas, it’s never good enough. After his role as a twisted cop in Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, Manav Vij’s role as the film’s antagonist never takes flight. Zoya Hussain is a subtle seductress, while Deepak Dobriyal is a tracker with a hypersensitive nose. They’re serviceable for their parts, but wasted in a film that often looks amateurish.
So weighed down is the film by its own its period setting that none of the characters breathe beyond their one note. In spite of Dobriyal’s repeated attempts and the presence of a fringe army of outlaws conversing in Hyderabadi-laced Hindi, Laal Kaptaan is a largely humourless affair. The characters are not haunted like in Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya, another 2019 film that tried to make sense of the circle of violence. In more than one scene, it’s apparent that Navdeep Singh is so much in awe of his film’s one-line concept, that he didn’t spend enough time on the world building. The screenplay written by Deepak Venkatesha & Navdeep Singh is choppy, using flashbacks only marginally better than Siddharth Anand’s War to dump information about character motivation.
The worst kind of film-viewing experiences are based around films that lack awareness. As disappointing as it is, Navdeep Singh’s latest sits right in this bracket. Barring a line or two, the film never quite comes close to realising the concoction of a Bollywood masala Western. As a result, we get a film that tip-toes around tropes, never showing the courage to fully embrace any of it.
There isn’t a single memorable tune in the film (music by Samira Koppikar), and it’s a shame… considering the Western genre’s long history with theme musics. Towards the end of the film, Saif Ali Khan grabs hold of Rehmat Khan and kisses him on the cheek and tells him to ‘reserve a seat in hell next to him’. It’s a rare masala moment that pops in an otherwise unmemorable film. In the hands of a better storyteller, this would have been a starting point for greater things.