A desi story of revenge and retribution set in the volatile socio-political milieu of an India on the cusp of colonisation and formatted like a Western. On paper, Laal Kaptaan would have made for a compelling idea. But an indulgent pace, a confused and often convoluted plot and a bunch of characters that walk in and out at random without contributing to the story and, in fact, weighing it down, make the film a laborious watch.
At the centre of Laal Kaptaan is a Naga sadhu on a bloodthirsty quest for revenge that has consumed 20 years of his life. Saif Ali Khan gives up his suave walk and talk to embrace the raw and rugged physicality of a murderous ascetic. Ash-smeared face, bloodshot eyes, matted dreadlocks… he is at once a homage to the lone ranger and to Sergio Leone’s The Man with No Name. He has no name, being referred throughout the film as ‘Gosai’, the term used to describe Shiva-worshipping ascetics.
In a tumultuous period in Indian history — it’s the rugged and often bloody terrains of Bundelkhand, 25 years after the Battle of Buxar — where every faction, from the Marathas to the Afghans to the British trying to make inroads is vying for a slice of the political pie, Gosai is a ronin who operates alone. He’s a man with no lord or master, with lawlessness being the only law he lives by. He’s wild, he’s unhinged and the only thing he’s seeking is the blood of the man who’s wronged him.
Navdeep Singh — who gave us the deliciously ambiguous Manorama Six Feet Under on debut and followed it up with the equally compelling NH10 a few years later — has a premise ripe with potential but clearly bites more than he can swallow. Laal Kaptaan — co-written by Deepak Venkatesha — is brought down by the weight of its own ambition, with the film’s strong political subtext getting lost under layers of unnecessary drama, banal dialogue and superfluous characters.
In the middle of it all, Gosai the bounty hunter rides through the terrain, killing and capturing on the go for money, even as he looks out for nemesis Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij), a mercenary-on-hire, who is also being chased by the Marathas for making away with their loot. The Afghans are also in the mix somewhere, Sonakshi Sinha pops in for a cameo that last exactly two minutes and makes no impression and most of the players are stock characters that look like they have wandered in from the sets of Thugs of Hindostan… which can never be a good thing.
One can’t even say that Laal Kaptaan is an acquired taste because quite a bit of it leaves behind a bitter aftertaste. For one, it’s not a film for the faint-hearted, given its stomach-churning violence. Arrows are often shot with the intention of gouging out eyes, the camera lingers on decapitated bodies, flies settle on rotting corpses and there are too many visuals of merciless public hangings. The film meanders through the first half without much plan and purpose, with a large part of its intrigue hinging on the twist in the tail. But it takes so long to get to it, that the end — bloody yet poetic — leaves little impact.
Earlier this year, the criminally underwatched Sonchiriya, that was set in a similar milieu, examined the karmic debt of crime on a bunch of dacoits past their prime. Its searing take on patriarchy and caste conflict hit one in the gut. Laal Kaptaan has Tarantino-ish style and aesthetics —Shankar Raman’s camerawork often brings to life a flagging narrative — but lacks the emotional depth that’s needed to keep one invested in a story like this.
The performances are uneven. Zoya Hussain — the luminous debutante from last year’s Mukkabaaz — brings in an air of mysteriousness to her underwritten character. She speaks in a dialect that definitely warranted subtitles. Simone Singh — the other notable female presence in the film — is strictly one-note as the ever-complaining wife. Manav Vij glowers and grunts but manages to infuse his antagonist with the right amount of bestiality and ruthlessness. Deepak Dobriyal — reuniting with Saif after Omkara — plays a tracker who, much like his two dogs named Sukhiram and Dukhiram, sniffs out his prey. He seems to be the only one having any kind of fun in this film.
Laal Kaptaan completely rides on Saif’s shoulders. The actor — who in recent times has picked roles that aren’t run-of-the-mill but haven’t delivered much in terms of either critical acclaim or box office — gets much of his complex character right, impeccably portraying the angst of a man wronged. He stands tall even as the rest of the film crumbles around him. But that’s not enough for you to sit through 155 minutes of a yawnfest that could have been so much more.