By Pradeep Menon Jul. 22, 2022
Shamshera doesn’t quite deliver on the anticipation of a touted pan-India film, but its politics and front-foot stance is refreshing, even if unevenly portrayed.
The ‘dacait’ has been missing in popular Hindi cinema for a while now. The appeal in their screen heyday – the 1960s and ‘70s – is obvious when studied as history. In a land that’s no stranger to oppression, white or otherwise, some deprived folk are bound to take up arms and break the boundaries of societal morality. In the movies, we weren’t afraid to paint them black, if required. The sometimes-dashing, often-vile horse-riding rebel was a natural fit for the larger-than-large boots occupied by Hindi cinema’s epic yin and yang – the hero/villain duality. Told in a screen language that’s a lot more contemporary, Karan Malhotra’s Shamshera is a throwback to the days when ‘dacaiti’ was also an F-U to the ‘system’, a stand against the oppression of the privileged.
There’s a reason why the film is set in 1871. It was the year the British imperialists instituted the Criminal Tribes Act in India – a legislation that deemed entire communities and castes as habitual sinners. From these ‘sinners’, emerges someone who fights back against both – brown, upper-caste social oppressors as well as white, foreign capitalist soul-suckers. Shamshera tells the story of a daring man who roamed free, and who sought to liberate his people as well. Along with Ranbir Kapoor, whose hiatus has felt almost as long as that of movie dacaits, the film has a compelling premise; but it doesn’t always make for gripping cinema. Portions feel fresh, others feel like formula.
I don’t remember the dacait films of yore being as tuned to the fundamental injustice of ‘jaati’ as this one.
The tribe in question and the place it is set in are both fictional. The understanding of how oppressive the caste system could be, is less so. I don’t remember the dacait films of yore being as tuned to the fundamental injustice of ‘jaati’ as this one. The vilest form of oppression in the film is performed by a Brahmin man named Shuddh Singh. His name is like salt on a wound – this kind of man is ‘pure’ because of the luck in his birth, his actions account for nothing. The anti-hero Shamshera’s tribe is of a ‘neech jaati’, worthy of the gutters, if anything at all. Shuddh Singh’s terrorising appearance is often accompanied by the sound of Sanskrit verses being recited in the voice of a creepy child.
This is a brave film to make in the present time, I’ll give Yash Raj Films at least that. Truth and reconciliation are a distant dream, when we don’t even acknowledge that as far back as we can trace this land’s former glory, there are tell-tale signs of subjugation and suppression. The ‘invaders’ and the white folk didn’t bring them to our shores and frontiers. It is a fault in humankind, that we can’t seem to create prosperity without exploitation. Which is why, the British are barely villains of the piece. It’s primarily the insider. His caste privilege is visible and brutal. For a film whose primary allegiance lies with its escapist, grunge-glam aesthetic, the graphic villainy on display is unexpected. Then again, I told you about its primary allegiance.
The sometimes-dashing, often-vile horse-riding rebel was a natural fit for the larger-than-large boots occupied by Hindi cinema’s epic yin and yang – the hero/villain duality.
So, the film has ‘genre’ songs where it shouldn’t have them (‘love’ song, ‘struggle’ song and so on); a romance that adds little to the story apart from the opportunity to add gloss to the grime; and wobbly VFX in scenes that could have been avoided altogether. A murder of crows features prominently as symbolism, but if you’re going to do CGI animals, you need to do them at least as good as SS Rajamouli . There’s a wasted train heist sequence in there that’s a little worse than a broadly similar YRF sequence from one of the Dhooms, and is woefully underutilised as a narrative hook.
It should, ideally, have been one of main high points of the second half. Instead, it almost appears as an afterthought. Unexpectedly, the second half issues are strong in this film, and you almost see it coming, considering how predictable the beats of the film are. The other wasted idea is that of Shamshera’s glorious, mighty axe. The few moments it gets to shine in, it feels as campy cool a combo as Thor and/or Mjolnir and/or Storm Breaker.
It is a fault in humankind, that we can’t seem to create prosperity without exploitation.
Mercifully, despite its 159-minute runtime, the film is never a crashing bore. Malhotra’s assurance in creating his world shows. The grimy setting will seem familiar to even those who don’t remember his Agneepath remake – KGF had a similar vibe. Malhotra is clearly a masala-movie man at heart, but there’s a thoughtfulness to his craft that was missing in, say, the last YRF release Samrat Prithviraj. It helps that Ranbir blazes through the screen, in a way that he always does. He wears the tagline well – karam se dacait, dharam se azad. Nothing can shackle his blazing screen presence, though I did feel that even he was a tad underutilised.
I won’t lie, there was much in Shamshera I rather enjoyed, particularly with its setup. The people the protagonist represents are easy to root for, the glossy artifice with which even the grit is designed isn’t random. It falls short only because the big screen spectacle has undergone a transformation in recent years. This film needed to actively be clever with its narrative, keep the audience guessing. Seems like the easy way out, to compare it with the latest or last Southern blockbuster, but honestly, it feels like Hindi filmmakers are struggling to even pander to the audience. Even with Shamshera, it shows.