Readers Write In #60: Thugs of Hinduston is a fantastic tribute to Masala cinema and its leading men

Posted on November 19, 2018

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On why thugs of Hindostan is no lazy rehash of the masala formula , but a well constructed modern tribute that echoes back to best of the genre.

Thugs of Hinduston has flopped badly at the box office. Neither the big star cast, nor the lucrative diwali weekend could save the film. The film critics have universally panned it. Many are calling it the worst film ever made and such. It goes without saying that I stepped into the theater with great trepidation. But I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. I found it to be a very enjoyable and satisfying movie for most of its running time that worked more successfully as a post modernistic tribute to masala cinema and its iconic leading men and perhaps a less satisfying yet not an embarrassing stab at masala cinema itself

Obviously the film had a lot of problems starting with the title. I have no idea why it was called Thugs of Hindustan. If at all, it should have been called just Thug , standing in for Aamir Khan’s character who goes around conning people in the early eighteen hundreds. The Title also brought about allegations of it being a poor copy of Hollywood’s pirates of the Caribbean franchise, something that the film can do without. For whatever its worth, the inspiration for the film is not any Hollywood franchise, but our good old masala cinema.

Right from Tashan , Vijay Krishna Acharya has proven that he is a die hard fan of both masala cinema and Amitabh Bachchan. In Tashan, it looked like he wanted to make a full on postmodern masala movie but was forced to change track in the second half to make a more straightforward film. So the film remained uneven, With the first half being a Po Mo exercise and second half aiming to be a regular masala film. Still I found the film quite enjoyable. In Dhoom3, he cut down on the Po Mo aspect to concentrate on making a regular masala film. But the issue here was that the basic template of dhoom franchise borrowed from Hollywood’s bikes and babes pictures was too shallow to hold the masala universe. With Thugs, he seems to have found just the right balance – or at least a more acceptable – in making a masala film which can contain the post modernistic references and tributes without disturbing the main film and yet provide the adequate pleasure to a true masala movie geek

The most likeable aspect of the film for me was the performances of Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan apart from the many movie tributes that is scattered throughout the film, how they played off each other and how their respective characters are conceived in relation to each other. they are what i call the yin and yang of the masala universe. Khudabaksh is from the more serious masala film world of Salim javed, Rajkumar Santhoshi, JP Dutta and all, while Aamir’s character firangi is from the manmohan desai’s light masala universe. Bachchan’s greatness in his hey day was that he could effortlessly straddle both worlds.

Aamir, from lagaan to Dangal, has championed a form of neo masala cinema, where he reworks the masala universe into a less larger than life, more realistic universe to go with our times. The physical violence in Bachchan has mutated into more cerebral nonviolent action in Aamir. Both Vijay and Bhuvan are heroes, but what sets them apart is their modus operandi in tackling the enemy. So its fitting that Aamir plays the younger, more cerebral version of what Amitabh used to play so well in his heydays

Take the character of Khudabaksh played by Amitabh Bachchan, its less a character, more an accumulation of his most iconic moments. Yet it did become a fully realized masala hero for me. His introduction scene in the film references his most massy introduction scenes in three of his earlier films, Coolie, Khuda Gawah and Thoofan. He comes out of nowhere like a god riding a horse to save the life of young Zafira’s who would be played as an adult by Fatima sana Sheikh. Cut to 11 years later, now he is like Don with his own army and his own private hideout. Like in the film Don, when we first meet him in a full on dialogue sequence, he is seen executing a traitor within the gang. Its also fun to see him spit out names of his comrades like Sawant, Akbar, Bhima etc, which are the names of characters he was associated in the past – Akbar was Rishi kapoor’s name in Amar Akbar Anthony and Bhima being the character he himself played in Aaj ka Arjun, one of his more successful movies from the late eighties period where he had a welcome return to the mythical masala roots , as opposed to more comic book masala stuff he was doing – but also to a secular movie past where they tried to include all religions, even if stereotypical, into the movie’s fabric. Khudabaksh itself seems to be a callback to the iconic muslim characters that Bachchan himself has played, like Sikander, Iqbal, Badshah Khan and so on.

What about Aamir’s Firangi?,As I said already it’s a nod to Bachchan’s More lighter masala characters. Think of his son character from Desh Premee . In that film Bachchan put on blackface and sang gore nahin hum kale sahi, here Aamir puts on a blonde wig and impersonates a white man in the surayya song. His manner of speaking with broken English words and his self introduction seem to be inspired from the Arjun singh character from Namak Halaal

That’s not all, Adding one more dimension to the character, It’s also referencing the gallery of lovable rogues that Aamir has played from Jo jeeta wohi sikander to 3 idiots. His introduction scene is a mixture of his dus ka bees , dus ka bees act from Rangeela as well as his iconic Lagaan. This is a more physical, more over the top performance than anything he has given before. But I liked Aamir in his over the top mode mainly because of the kind of actor he is. Someone like Shahrukh Khan is by his nature a very physical performer, a very busy performer. So when he take the hammy route, it becomes intolerable to watch, on the other hand if he could hold his energy and his hamminess just a little bit he is able to deliver striking performances as in Swades or Chak De. Aamir is exactly the opposite. By nature , he is a very subdued, very subtle performer to an extent that his performance fails to register sometimes. He is very enjoyable here most of the times and sometimes I see him falling flat trying too hard, but he is still tolerable.

The main plot point of Aamir infiltrating Bachchan’s gang at the instigation of the British authorities can be attributed to Don. The film is also heavily inspired by the masala pastiche template of Sholay. Very serious scenes interspersed with more lowbrow humor. Aamir even does a chaplinseque nod as Asrani does in that film. You can see the symmetry in characters too. Bachchan- fatima duo standing in for is sanjeev kumar jaya bhaduri duo. Aamir is mixture of veeru and basanti, conning & fast talking gibberish. there it was dhanno the horse, here its nawab the ass. Gabbar and bandits morph into Clive and the east India company.

Post his accepting Aamir into his gang, there follows a rather in your face masala scene of Bachchan working the field on a barren land. The dialogue that follows between Him and Aamir about his obsession, is a fine nod to a similar scene in Sholay between Jai and veeru. These 2 hardened criminals have decided to give up a life of crime to settle down in the village and become farmers. Veeru has doubts whether they can adapt to the new life style, Jai convinces him with the immortal line, Burai ne bandook chalana sikhaya that , ab neki hal chalana sikhayegi. In thugs, Bachchan’s character was a farmer, before love for his country forced him to pick up weapons and become a rebel. His act is to keep the dream alive for himself and others of returning to farming and a peaceful life.

More tributes follow just before the interval point. Once Aamir betrays him to the british, both of them are locked in a duel reminiscent of the Bachchan –Dara singh duel at the end of Mard. There, a revelation of them being father and son changes the nature of the duel and they decided to join forces to fight the british. Here its more of a awakening of conscious in Aamir that changes the course of the duel, when he saves Bachchan from death. Bachchan decides to embark upon a suicide mission to destroy the british ship, handing over the protection of Zafira as well as the reigns of the film to Aamir. In an echo of the first scene with Bachchan saving the young Zafira, here Aamir saves her from the british and take her to safety, while Bachchan reminiscent of his most iconic scene in Agneepath rams his burning ship into the other destroying it and perhaps killing himself in the process . The famous aswa shweth rakth se latpat poetry recitation becomes sheesham ke ghode pe aayeg sawaari shaamt gunehgaron ki

Undoubtedly this first half of thugs is the most entertaining, most absorbing and most fun. Once Bachchan is presumed to be dead, the film goes dead for a time too. Post the interval, the film loses its momentum. The tributes disappear and it becomes more of a straightforward masala film, and without Bachchan’s character the film becomes off balance. Even more grating is the filmmakers obsession to Jack sparrow-fy Aamir’s character, where its repeatedly hinted that Aamir has no control of his nature and he himself is afraid when he would become bad again. That’s strict no-no for a masala hero. It’s a good tactic to turn the central avenging angel in a masala film into a female character, but here Fatima’s Zafira is so badly conceived and even more badly enacted that it leaves a big whole in the masala heart of the film. It also points out to the fact that we don’t have masala film heroines of the caliber of Rekha, Reena roy, etc anymore who can convincingly pull off the requirements of the masala universe

But once Bachchan returns to screen, all shackled and angry in his Kaalia mode the film springs back to life. The final forty minutes of the film again becomes a masala treat with nodes to Kranti, Shaan etc. the film also brings back the tradition of the climactic song sequence which was a must of very popular masala film, even though , here the song is not as rousing or spectacular as say the one in Kranti, it still makes an impact

So all said and done, there was lots to love in the film. I understand why a large part of the audience did not get it. Today’s audience are very removed from the masala film culture . Beyond that they look down upon them with derision as a lot of modern Indians do to a lot of the traditional aspects of Indian culture. In the end, the film turned out to be a satisfying, if not totally fulfilling, exercise, in creating a deserving tribute to the legacy of masala cinema and its leading stars.

(by MANK)