Starring Saif Ali Khan,Manav Vij, Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal
Directed by Navdeep Singh
Laal Kaptaan is an extraordinary film, powerful brutal visceral and very very tragic. The enormity of its grief is felt in the palpable treatment of the theme of patricide and other family crimes common to Mughal history. The blood-soaked script takes a swipe at the cruelty of history but converts some of the barbarism into a state of perdition and atonement that do not add up to a climactic catharsis. No such closure in this film, thank you.
At the vortex of the film’s implosive violence is the mysterious frighteningly forlorn figure of the Naga bandit played with virulent intensity by Saif Ali Khan. Khan, in a performance that will define his career, moves like a bloodthirsty spirit in the quest for revenge from an entitled wealthy but strangely unfulfilled ruler Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij). Both Khan and Vij are remarkable in conveying their scarred wounded inner world governed by laws of lawlessness.
In an early sequence we see Rehmat Khan gently advising a child to not go outside where a bloodbath is about to ensue. The child disobeys. He pays with his life. In such scenes the inevitability of death during times of political violence hits us with the impact of a headlong blow on the solar plexus.
Elsewhere there is the rather inexplicably voluptuous (and I don’t mean that in the physical sense) figure of an abandoned woman played by Zoya Hassan who insists on tagging along with the hero because she has nowhere else to go and also because…well…every film needs feminine presence.
Hasaan has a terrific confrontation sequence with the regal Simone Singh. The two play women from polarized social classes, the poorer one privileged with a fertility denied to the rich woman.
Laal Kaptaan is not an easy film to watch, or follow. Curiously on the surface it is a typical vendetta drama where two formidable men collide in a combat of death. Often times the colour palates and tonal texture resemble the Wild Wild West sagas of Sergio Leone. But then this is no work of derivative self-indulgence.
Fiercely original in theme and execution, this film operates on a dual level, as a straightforward saga of vendetta, and on deeper level, as a fable of furious abnegation where fathers and sons and siblings are at each other’s throats without pause for regret. The fabulous writing (Deepak Venkatesha and Navdeep Singh) gives the characters no room to ruminate over their ruinous decisions.
The dynamics of a dynastic politics wedged between the Mughal and British era of invasion are used in the plot as symptoms of a rot and corruption in the way our country has allowed itself to be ruled by self-interest. In the way the plot subsumes the politics of the 18th century with a timeless crisis of inter-personal identity, this is the best film of the year so far.
In the way the film uses the contrast between day and night in the bleak barren rust-coloured desert-scape I see a genius at work. Cinematographer Shanker Raman should know this is one of the best shot films in recent times. Every frame in the vast barren hinterland looks ‘undesigned’ and yet is reflective of the two principal character’s sterile famished state of mind.
I dare any actor to achieve the level of grueling physical and emotional intensity that Saif has successfully negotiated in this film. Saif’s character is haunted by demons that the naked eye cannot see. As one of his pithy lines, “What’s the work of a wound if it is visible to the eye?” As his adversary the fabulous Manav Vij is filled with a muted anguish and a haunted faraway guilt for which there is atonement at the end.
Deepak Dobriyal an outstanding actor, here plays the comic relief with a gravity of purpose that just doesn’t fit.
Director Navdeep Singh, no stranger to tales of bizarre bloodshed and cut-throat self-gratification, gives us a saga so sanguinary and sad its soul seems soaked in those very bleak and ominous colours that the camera captures in evocative bouts that insist on being the opposite of splendor and yet in strange twisted way, are exactly that.
If you are looking forward to House Full 4, Laal Kaptaan is not recommended.