Laal Kaptaan review: Zoya Hussain regales in Saif Ali Khan’s sedate tale of vengeance

The supporting cast do their job well, but Saif Ali Khan and Manav Vij suffer from the inconsistent, dreary screenplay

Rating: 2.5 /5

By Mayur Lookhar

Revenge, a dangerous thought to harbour, but a sight to behold. Well, at least on the celluloid.  Of all the genres, it is revenge dramas that have found great acceptance in Indian cinema. The vengeful tales were repetitive, yet fans cheered an act of vengeance.  Bollywood seemed obsessed with revenge dramas in the 1980s, 1990s until directors couldn’t make a killing anymore. 

A conventional revenge drama in 2019 is akin  to a death wish.  So, how do you then draw an audience to such a film?  Shun the conventional, set the drama in an earlier century. Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan is set in the 18 century a time where the British Empire flexed its muscles to take control of large parts of India.   The Mughals were weakened after the Battle of  Buxar (1764), while the Marathas offered a strong resistance against both the British and the Muslim kings.  The only way to survival was by siding with the powerful.  Rohilla prince Rehmat Khan’s [Manav Vij] commits treachery and turns his back on his own. 25 years later, a Naga Sadhu [Saif Ali Khan] is now baying for his blood.

Speak of epic wars, and usually history remembers kings, queens and their warriors, but the role of the Naga Sadhus has perhaps been undermined in history and cinema too.  But this Gosain (Saif Ali Khan) [every Naga Sadhu was addressed as Gosain] cared two hoots about kings and their kingdoms.  Gosain is a hired gun, often taking out notorious men in return for gold coins.

Hunting down Rehmat Khan though is personal. We leave that to the audience to decipher. However, one must turn back to history, a time where the naked Gosain warriors once allied with the Nawabs of Awadh.  There were no religious wars per se, but each kingdom [Maratha, British, or Mughal] fought to expand its empire.  The principal rulers then were Shah Alam II, the struggling Mughal Sultan of Delhi while Mahadji Shinde led the Maratha flag in Gwalior.

Navdeep Singh and his co-writer Deepak Venkatesha have set their revenge story in a critical period of Indian history.  The idea of having a Naga Sadhu as a protagonist in a Bollywood film, simply unheard of.   But then the environment is convenient for experimental cinema.  Venkatesha and Singh ought to be praised for their well-researched history, but the duo fail to provide a taut, all engrossing screenplay.

Lal Kaptaan has its impact moments, but the weak screenplay in crucial sequences drag the film down. The 155 minutes duration only makes the inconsistent screenplay feel exhaustive.  Perhaps pin the blame on Sudip Sharma’s unimpactful dialogues, and the restrained show by the leading cast.  It immediately begs the question, were Khan and Vij the wrong choices? Khan and Vij ace the physicality but it’s not matched by the requisite intensity.

Saif Ali Khan impressed with the long braids, ashen-faced look. All right the beard looked fake at times. For a Naga (naked) Sadhu, it does surprises as to why is he wearing a British offer’s coat, shoes, to top it with his bandana.  Is Gosain trying to imitate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise?  The familiarity ends there. However, you do question shouldn’t a true-blue Naga Sadhu be naked or just have a little cloth to cover his modesty?  Well, there is more to Gosain than it meets the eye.

Saif Ali Khan was brilliant in his rustic avatar as Langda Tyagi in Omkara (2006).  Khan has the rustic, rugged look in Laal Kaptaan, but the tone is more contemporary than 18 century.  Khan shows flashes of brilliance, in particularly his altercation with the haughty Thakur of Bundelkhand, but goes astray in the key moments.

He has the face but not the agility or the fighting skills of a Naga Sadhu. Some of the action has a leisurely pace to it.  Manav Vij is a big unit, but surprisingly, he doesn’t offer much resistance when confronted by Gosain.  A one-man army is acceptable in poorly scripted masala action dramas, but a period action, demanded more from Khan and Vij.  

Manav Vij shot to recognition with his brilliant intense roles in Udta Punjab (2016) and Andhadhun (2018).  His menacing look and towering presence made him the perfect fit to play Rehmat Khan.  Sadly, he appears restrained in his act.  He’s a prime target for Gosain, Marathas and other rebels, and that perhaps explains the worried look on his face.  But for a character who wouldn’t shy from killing his own, there is nothing intimidating about him. The lacklustre battle at the end leaves you bitterly disappointed. The disappointment though stems more from the fact that that here is a powerhouse of a talent, whose natural intimacy just doesn’t come to the fore here.  The blame squarely lies with the director for not making optimum use of the talent at his disposal.  May be Rehmat Khan was never great at warfare. He just knew how to wriggle his way out of trouble.

While Khan and Vij don’t play to their potential, it is young Zoya Hussain who steals the march over her much-accomplished co-stars. She didn’t say a word in Mukkabaaz (2017), yet left a lasting impression.  Much like the late Smita Patil, Hussain has the ability to speak with her expressions.  She talks here and leaves you floored with her intense act.  Hussain’s a lowborn, a Dalit widow used as a surrogate mother. Well, that’s the only thing that has kept her alive.  

Gosain reluctantly agrees to let the widow help trace Rehmat Khan.  Hussain aces the the Uttar Pradeshi dialect, the only leading cast to do so in the film.  Hussain’s excellent in her body language, dialogue delivery.  It’s her presence that lifts the film, building a sense of anticipation, mystery to Laal Kaptaan.  All through her journey, the widow leaves you spellbound by her beauty. She amuses you with her wit. and wins respect for her dare. If it wasn’t for Zoya Hussain, Laal Kaptaan could have turned into a 155 minutes of dreary drama.  

Deepak Dobriyal shot to fame with Omkara. Khan and Dobriyal reunited for Kaalakaandi (2017) but the duo didn’t have any conversation.  Thirteen years since Omkara, Dobriyal and Khan revel in each other’s company in a totally different time and playing intriguing characters. Like the widow, Dobriyal’s a low born too. His survival hinges on sniffing out his master’s catch.   His masters keep changing with every task.  He is like a human GPS (Global Positioning System) in the 18 century. 

After leading few Pathans to their deaths, Dobriyal comes to the aid of Gosain. The words spoken are few, but this alliance provides for some good action.  

The nameless Dobriyal has two wiry dogs as his family and chief trackers.  His pooch-like mannerism makes him a looney, but as he says, “Horses speak to air. But the scent is lost in the air. Gandhdatta (himself) needs to be on the ground for that is how he can track the smell”  Dobriyal sniffs his way to glory is Lal Kaptaan.

Navdeep Singh also deserves credit for a fine portrayal of the Maratha characters, who largely speak in Marathi.    And then there are the naive but hilarious Hyderabadi assassins that accompany the Maratha warrior to capture Rehmat Khan.

The film is shot across harsh lands in central India, Rajasthan with Gurgaon (2017) director Shanker Raman capturing all the pictures.  The memorable frames involve

(a) Zoya Hussain in a black dress, perched on a horse holding an 18 century umbrella, while riding in a scorching sun.

b) Sonkakshi Sinha’s lone scene as the local famous tawaif (prostitute) Noor. If you are not familiar with her voice, then you’re likely to miss Sinha’s little cameo.    The Gosain-Noor meet under diya lights is finely captured by Raman.

The final battle on the banks of Jamuna looks neat too.  At 155 minutes in length, there was no scope to fit in songs.  But the background score by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor is immersive.

Technically, it’s a well shot film, but it’s in the creative aspect that Laal Kaptaan misses its mark.  It’s frustrating that Singh had seamlessly woven his drama into history, but didn’t arm his Laal Kaptaan with the necessary creative artillery. A century later, history would remember Laal Kaptaan as a missed opportunity.

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