Friday 9 November 2018

"Thugs of Hindostan" (Guardian 09/11/18)

Thugs of Hindostan ***
Dir: Vijay Krishna Acharya. With: Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Shaikh. 164 mins. Cert: 12A

Boosted by Baahubali, commercial Indian cinema has big things planned before the year’s out, among them Tamil superstar Rajinikanth’s return in 2.0 and Shah Rukh Khan reducing himself to a visual effect in Christmas release Zero. This, however, is the biggest of all: a 164-minute period swashbuckler that deploys Bollywood’s grandest ever budget and megastars Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to stage a pirate uprising against the East India Company. (As if it weren’t big enough, it’s also playing widely in IMAX.) As early use of Benny Hill-style fast-motion and some close-to-the-knuckle flirting between Khan and dancing girl Katrina Kaif insinuate, it is also – not unlike Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean – big, daft pantomime, and might be enjoyed as such with a school’s-out mindset and the right bag of snacks.

You’ll need to make peace with the fact plot matters less than the prospect of major stars running rings around one another. The first half floats the question of who might best lead the rebellion: grizzled salt Khudabaksh (Bachchan, still a mighty screen presence at 75, despite understandable slowness in the action scenes) or Khan’s smirking, kohl-eyed triple agent Firangi, who trots into view on an ass, having seemingly been styled after Bob Dylan’s Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Although a third option presents herself in trainee warrior princess Zafira (Dangal’s Fatima Sana Shaikh, dourly tomboyish here), the outcome is unusually boysy for modern Bollywood: it’s a sizeable pity that Kaif, genuinely dazzling in her two musical numbers, should wind up with less screen time than the donkey.

If it diverts to some degree, it’s largely because writer-director Vijay Krishna Acharya is far more interested in the pirate life than those Disney knockabouts. We get tactical sea battles, plenty of cove action, swordfights choreographed like dance numbers, even a fiery 19th century South Asian equivalent of a Norse burial; it’s a film with money to burn, and it unabashedly torches each rupee before your eyes. Granted, it gets less irreverent as it goes on, and in terms of historical exactitude, it surely places alongside those Bank Holiday staples Titanic and Muppet Treasure Island. Yet it has that rare and unmistakable look of an event movie that was huge fun to assemble; whether you’re watching in Hindi, Tamil or Telugu – or reliant on English subtitles – much of that enjoyment does translate. 

Thugs of Hindostan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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