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Thugs of Hindostan
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by Jay Seaver

"A Bollywood swashbuckler, without a doubt."
3 stars

It's about ten minutes into "Thugs of Hindostan" before someone is swinging on a rope for the first time, and let me level with you: People swinging through the air on a rope to escape danger or enter a fray is a large part of what I want from a swashbuckling adventure, along with swordfights, cannons, and sneering villains. This movie has all that along with a few musical numbers and actual mustache twirling, and while it sometimes strains under the pressure of including all of that, it's still a pretty good time.

In 1795, almost the entire Indian subcontinent had fallen under the control of the British East India Tea Company, represented by John Clive (Lloyd Owen), and he had his eyes on the last remaining free kingdom. King Mirza Sikander Baig (Ronit Roy) prepared to fight back, but Clive gets the drop on him, with only pre-teen Princess Zafira escaping with legendary warrior Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan). Eleven years later, Clive has total control, though Khudabaksh (aka "Azaad") and Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh) lead a persistent rebellion. Clive recruits informat Firangi (Aamir Khan) to find his hidden base after Firangi crashes a whites-only performance of the dancer Suraiyya (Katrina Kaif), and with the help of his old friend - hard-drinking mystic Shanichar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) - Firangi soon manages to find himself on a merchant ship that Azaad attacks. Can he become a hero like Azaad and Zafira, or will his mercenary nature prevail?

As much as people generally like the idea of pirate stories as swashbuckling period adventures, audiences have often been apt to look at them as cheesy or embarrassing when it comes time to buy a ticket, so filmmakers feel the need to cram all they can in to what they probably figure is the only one they'll ever get to make. Writer/director Vijay Krishna Acharya, who previously made the hit Dhoom 3, is guilty of that - not only is there so much swinging on ropes, but characters are forced to walk the plank and the post-intermission half of the movie is working overtime to cram every possible permutation of the basic story in. The budget doesn't quite stretch - though the production built some nice sets on land including the ships, they don't appear to be seaworthy, and animating water and boats in daylight is harder than it looks, before you even get to the fire.

Then there's the matter of Amitabh Bachchan, one of India's biggest stars and a workhorse, a great fit for the grizzled warrior and mentor side of Azaad; he plays a scene where Azaad matter-of-factly acknowledges Firangi's inevitable betrayal marvelously and fills even the most potentially-saccharine moments with sincerity and gravitas. But at 75 years old, the action seems to be more than he can handle, with him obviously doubled and edited around, keeping the action from attaining the kind of fluidity this particular genre demands. It's not just a problem in the action, but in the musical interludes - the number he's in becomes slow and small despite the large number of dancers behind the stars as everyone dials down to his pace.

Katrina Kaif, on the other hand, can certainly dance, and for much of the film it looks like she's just in the movie for an item-number cameo. That wouldn't be so bad, if it were the case - her first number is energetic, sexy, and fun to watch even as it transforms into a wacky bit of Benny Hill slapstick to finish. The movie perks up a bit when she shows up later, but it's a sign of how Acharya doesn't seem to know what to do with his cast as the film goes on: Suraiyya isn't just pushed aside because apparently Firangi having a girlfriend would make it hard to write scenes with him and Zafira, despite the two actors not having much chemistry here, and Fatima Sana Shaikh generally most impressive when she gets to express herself with action rather than words. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub makes Shanichar an entertaining sidekick but doesn't have much to do. An enemy from the start of the film is pointedly reintroduced to serve as a threat in the last act and then never actually appears again; one of Clive's lieutenants briefly showing signs of developing a conscience is paid off, but the two-scene arc is unnecessary.

That leaves Aamir Khan to carry much of the movie, and he's fortunately up to it. Firangi isn't exactly a complicated character, but Khan plays the jester well and doesn't seem out of place when he has to look pained because Firangi has accidentally found himself in a position where he actually cares about someone. He's obviously the Jack Sparrow of this movie, which does start to wear a bit when he's unchallenged in the center toward the end (one of those long stretches when a movie is hammering home a double cross and the audience would appreciate if it just got to the seemingly-inevitable triple cross), but he's good enough to keep that going smoothly.

That describes the movie in general - it's an amiable Diwali blockbuster that's a bit uneven for trying to be a bit of everything and not having room or budget to do all of it well. It looks nice, though (likely even more so back in India where it grabbed the Imax screens), has some catchy songs, and captures the exuberance of an old-school swashbuckler. If you like people swinging into trouble on ropes, it's not a bad three hours.

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originally posted: 11/15/18 11:30:05
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  08-Nov-2018 (12A)

  08-Nov-2018 (MA)

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