Laal Kaptaan Movie Review : An ambitious but hollow western
Navdeep Singh’s film lacks the urgency of a thrilling period adventure
Laal Kaptaan is the third feature film directed by Navdeep Singh. His previous works – Manorama Six Feet Under and NH10 – were brisk, enjoyable genre films with an eye for subtext and scope. This crucial balance between gravitas and fun is woefully amiss in Navdeep’s latest work, a galloping period western, weighed down by its broad historical sweep and dreary philosophising.
Set in the late 1700s, the film tracks the journey of a Naga Sadhu-turned-bounty hunter played by Saif Ali Khan. The actor looks a bit too lumbered on horseback, dropping assailants with a sword and dragging hogtied captives across the land. Over recurring flashbacks, we get the backstory of this Khan With No Name — all of which leads back to a villainous chieftain named Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij), and an ancient score that’s yet to be settled between the two.
Director: Navdeep Singh
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Manav Vij, Zoya Hussain
Navdeep designs his action scenes with glee. Coupled with Shankar Raman’s cinematography, Laal Kaptaan offers some of the best day-for-night combat scenes ever seen in a Hindi film. The action isn’t gory like NH10, with scars and blood marks being used for comic-booky purposes instead of making the gut wrench. The score (by Samira Kopikkar and Benedict Taylor) is affectionate western fare, all strings and horns and suddenly deployed bells.
The simplistic story – about one man’s journey for revenge – is enlivened by a host of eccentric characters. Deepak Dobriyal appears as a ‘tracker’ with a heightened sense of smell. For all his waggish bumbling about, he delivers the film’s wisest zinger, enlightening Saif in a throwaway line about the servitude of vengeance. Sonakshi Sinha has an intriguing cameo (as a courtesan with a tip-off), while Zoya Hussain suffers on in an underwritten part that can barely hide its conceit.
Laal Kaptaan revels in period exposition. The British victory in the Battle of Buxar – in whose aftermath this film is set – is ascribed to the scrambling state of Indian provinces, with each faction too self-centred to care for a nation at large. These are fascinating details, but they feel like inserts, bearing little significance to the hunt at hand. This lack of urgency seeps into Saif’s musings on the circularity of life and death (it was different in Sonchiriya, a film that worked up enough existential dread to justify its brooding characters).
The brutalities of the Wild West have been duteously captured on American film. The Indian frontier has an equally bloodied past, and it’s fascinating to see Hindi filmmakers engage with the landscape anew. After homegrown horror, perhaps the time has come for Indian westerns to return from the dead. Laal Kaptaan may not have hit gold, but the chase has begun.