Laal Kaptaan: Captures Ancient India Perfectly

Ever since the Bahubali series ran riot at the ticket counters, there’s been a rapid explosion in that genre with a lot of film-makers rushing to milk the so-called cash cow. When the promos of Laal Kaptaan were out, there was a deja vu. However, you can trust Saif Ali Khan to break stereotypes and genres and that is probably the USP of the film.

Laal Kaptaan is set in the 18th century Bundelkand where a ruthless naga sadhu Gossain (Saif Ali Khan) is in a killing mode, except that there are rewards for these murders. So basically, he is a bounty hunter making a living. Whenever Gossain isn’t finishing off people, he spends his time with his ally Sancho Panza (Deepak Dobriyal) who has a unique dog-like ability to detect people by their smell, even from a distance.

While Gossain is primarily a compulsive hunter, he also has an agenda. His arch-rival Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij) is an assailant from a Pathan background. The year is 1764, soon after the Battle of Buxar and the East India Company has gradually spread its wings across India, steadily usurping kingdoms at will. There is a political undercurrent to the storyline and conflicts that are both loud as well as subtle. As the film moves further, Gossain’s motives are unveiled.

To be fair to the makers of Laal Kaptaan, it isn’t a wannabe historical film. It’s beautifully shot with Shanker Raman helming the cinematography capturing ancient India perfectly. Not only are the visuals realistic, so are the characters, led by Gossain. Saif Ali Khan puts in a fantastic performance as the vengeful and barbaric bounty-hunter who is out on a mission. In recent years, Saif’s choices have been unconventional and his move to do a web series like Sacred Games probably tops the list.

On ground level, you can understand what excited him to do this film, given the meaty characterization and the settings. There’s a lot of potential in Laal Kaptaan but director Navdeep Singh (also co-writer with Deepak Venkatesha) is unable to efficiently execute his vision in the film. For example, there is a crowd of characters, each with a  promise but they eventually end up creating a hustle.

To an extent, the screenplay holds itself together but Navdeep’s storytelling is unwantedly complex and that spoils the fun. Though Saif’s character looks heavily inspired by Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the storyline is thankfully nowhere similar. However, the resemblance in the getup also gives you a scary deja vu of what Aamir Khan tried with his period-action film Thugs of Hindoostan that ended up as a debacle last year.

One big let-down for the film is the antagonist. As gifted as Manav is, the role of Rehmat ends up as a bridge too far. And as we know, having a weak villain, be it in performance or characterization, dents the momentum of any action film. Zoya Hussain and Simone Singh as Rehmat’s wife have interesting roles to play.

Both of Navdeep’s directorial ventures before this film, Manorama Six Feet Under and NH 10, were unorthodox in their treatment. They were also brutal (literally). Laal Kaptaan is no different but on this occasion, he succumbs to the scale of the project and ambitious nature of the script. He isn’t able to control the flow of the film as the director and the lengthy duration adds to the woes. Apart from Saif’s robust act and the technical side, Laal Kaptaan comes across as one of those films that had promise but faltered due to poor execution.

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