Shamshera Movie Review: A galloping period mess

 The film’s immense, spectacular scale is no replacement for its shoddy storytelling
Rating:(2 / 5)

In Shamshera, there is a fleeting instance where we see the film’s three lead characters in the same scene. There’s Shuddh Singh, an autocratic officer of the British Raj; there’s Balli, a footloose thief-turned-revolutionary; and there’s Shamshera, Balli’s dacoit father who died years ago but keeps reappearing in his visions. The last two characters, as we know, are played by Ranbir Kapoor, while Shuddh Singh is played by Sanjay Dutt, whom Ranbir portrayed in the biopic Sanju (2018). Meta enough, sure, but get this: Shuddh Singh is evil, Balli is moderate while Shamshera is calmly conscientious. It’s like watching Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego battle it out in the same scene.

Incidental meta-pleasures are also an indication that a film has failed to hook the viewer at a basic level. Shamshera, directed by Karan Malhotra, is a galloping epic. The film has horses and dacoits and mountains and valleys and forests and lakes. Its sheer sweep acquits Yash Raj Films of the clumsy productions of Samrat Prithviraj and Jayeshbhai Jordaar. Yet scale—immense, spectacular scale—is no replacement for storytelling. The plot of Shamshera is achingly conventional. In the age of the balls-out period blockbuster, it’s missing a few Rs.

In 1871, Shamshera, a dacoit leader, is captured by Shuddh Singh and forced to surrender. His tribesmen, who go by ‘Khameran’, were offered land and amnesty by the British crown; Instead, they are imprisoned and tortured in the walled city of Kaza. Shamshera attempts an escape but fails. He’s stoned to death by his own people, who allege cowardice. The sequence will remind you of Agneepath (2012), Karan’s debut film, another father-son story that kicks off with a dramatic public execution in the night effected by Sanjay Dutt.

Raised in captivity, Balli grows up detesting the Khameran. He wants to become an officer like Shuddh Singh, who’s now older and meaner. But then destiny calls, and Balli—like all Ranbir Kapoor characters—sets off on his journey. It’s here that Shamshera loses all its marbles and much of its plot. Take the business with Balli teaming with other Khameran and looting the rich. Or the business with a dancer named Sona (Vaani Kapoor) helping them along the way. None of these characters register as complex, individual beings. They don’t have to, but then Shamshera wants to draw emotion from the gang’s eventual fate. This becomes difficult when we hardly know them as people. Worse films have employed Saurabh Shukla as comic relief, but boy is he wasted in this one.

Ranbir has described Shamshera as a much-needed turnaround in his filmography. Yet what, exactly, has changed? Balli, like many of the actor’s previous characters, is a young lad who goes on a journey. He often sits, broods and ponders intensely, considering his purpose in life. The Shamshera character is more imposing and narratively fascinating, though it’s hardly much. It’s all the more underwhelming since much of the scenery is chewed up by Sanjay alone. The seasoned actor goes overboard with Shuddh Singh. He cackles at every minute but convinces at none.

There are visuals that stand out: water cascading from gigantic vats at Kaza prison; a mysterious, serpentine stepwell; Balli riding into a raging sandstorm and, logically enough, losing his horse. When Balli first encounters his father’s comrades, they’ve gone into hiding, working as priests, opium dealers, and manual scavengers—a suggestion of free tribespeople assimilating themselves in a rigid caste hierarchy, a different kind of jail. Shamshera has a few good ideas, but the uninspired, overlong screenplay is a mess.

Cinema Express