Director: Navdeep Singh
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal, Manav Vij
There is a moment in Laal Kaptaan, Navdeep Singh’s slow-burning period Western, that captures its essence. Saif Ali Khan’s Naga sadhu – all dreadlocks and smeared with ash — comes face to face with Deepak Dobriyal’s eccentric mercenary. There is a fire burning behind them — a pyre, perhaps. The two look at each other and then start dancing around it. It is the dance of beginnings and ends, of retribution and forgiveness.
The last time these two came together, they gave us one of the best scenes in Vishal Bhardwaj’s atmospheric Omkara – a far superior film. Langda Tyagi and Rajju — Iago and Roderigo, taking the Bard and seamlessly transporting him to Uttar Pradesh’s badlands. Laal Kaptaan plays on a different key and chemistry; but tips its hat to the greats anyway — Shakespeare among them.
Saif Ali Khan plays a Naga sadhu in Laal Kaptaan.
Set a few years after Battle of Buxar, Laal Kaptaan revels in anarchy that was India then. Bengal had fallen and the Mughals were on their last leg, with the British star on ascendant. From the Marathas to the Afghans, everyone was either trying to hold on to their kingdoms or carve them some. The idea of a united front against the colonials was yet to be born; it was every man and woman for themselves.
In this period of uncertainty, Navdeep and co-writer Deepak Venkatesh place a lone warrior — Saif’s Naga sadhu — who is a gun for hire while trying to hunt down a man who did him a terrible wrong. He has been on the scent of Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij) for 20 years now, and he is not alone. Marathas are after Rehmat who has run away with their gold, Sonakshi Sinha’s Noorbai has unfinished business with him as does Zoya Hussain’s hard-to-read widow.
Names are not easy to come by in this story – Saif’s Naga sadhu is called Gossain given he is a follower of Shiva while Zoya is ‘The Widow’. We never learn the name of Deepak’s character either, his calling card being ‘howdodo’ (a wonderful take on ‘how do you do’, in keeping with the part-Mumbaiya idiom that he uses).
Watch the trailer of Laal Kaptaan here:
Laal Kaptaan plays like part-Western, part-chase film. Humanity is in short supply as its various characters follow each other across the arid Bundelkhand with its dilapidated forts. In a way, the terrain reflects the darkness within the characters. Everyone has hidden agendas and a cruel streak with lives being lived and ended for the flimsiest of reasons. Corpses hang from trees, are dragged across the red soil of the region and children die by sword too.
In this unforgiving world, Deepak’s character brings some humour with his companions, two gorgeous hunting dogs and a Maratha princeling who isn’t tall enough for the stature bestowed on him. In deft Shakespearean touches, we get a cackling witch and a chorus of sorts, made up of Pindaris — the pillagers of that time.
Singh, a fan of Westerns, doffs his hat to Sergio Leone as well as Akira Kurosawa as he gives us a lone samurai with no master. However, he takes a swipe at his hero with his obsessive need for vengeance, as the mercenary tells Gossain: “You are the slave of one you follow, of the one from whom you want revenge.”
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Saif delivers a wonderfully physical performance. Hidden behind the dreadlocks and ash, he once again subverts his stardom to play a Naga sadhu. He adopts the idiom and the body language, ably assisted by Deepak’s comic performance. Unfortunately, the menace that Manav Vij exudes teases of better things but goes nowhere.
To a large extent, that can be said about Laal Kaptaan too. The film, having established its time and mood, meanders. The punch to the gut you expected in the second half never comes and the thrill of the chase fades. You see the big reveal coming a mile off and the climax feels forced. That is the trouble with long journeys — they take away the fun of finally reaching your destination.