• Release Date: 18/10/2019
  • Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Manav Vij, Deepak Dobriyal, Zoya Hussain
  • Director: Navdeep Singh

Ever since I saw the first poster of Laal Kaptaan, I was pumped for this film. The fact that Navdeep Singh (Manorama Six Feet Under, NH10) was directing it made it that much more interesting for me. Singh is a crafty genius who remade the iconic Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) and turned it into an earthly Indian film with the same panache and grit that made its original an enduring classic. His NH10 was a deeply affecting and potent thriller than can be called a horror film too owing to its content and treatment. Saif Ali Khan is in the lead role here and was a good choice for me as he not only looked the part but can be a terrific actor when given the right characters (Omkara, Ek Haseena Thi). Thus, for me, Laal Kaptaan was easily one of the most anticipated films of the year.

The film starts 25 years after the Battle of Buxar. Gossain (Saif Ali Khan) is introduced as a Naga Sadhu wearing the red uniform of a British soldier who is keen on earning the rewards that come with killing and handing over known dacoits. Atleast that’s how he starts off, but within a few minutes, we learn that in actuality he is looking for information of a man called Rehmat Khan (Manav Vij). Rehmat had wronged Gossain in some way that is not made clear but through neatly placed flashbacks we see that Rehmat was the cause of the death of a young boy who vowed to take revenge on him before dying on the gallows evidently in the Battle of Buxar. Gossain’s unabashed hatred for Rehmat makes it abundantly clear that he must have had a violent history with the man but we are not told what it is.

In the present time, Rehmat Khan is the master of a province under the Maratha Rulers. He loots the tax collected for a Maratha King from a province and makes his way to defect to Avadh meeting and forging a bond with the British on the way. But before he can do that, he slaughters everyone in the province from where he had collected the taxes so that he couldn’t be followed by his Maratha Lords. With him, he carries his infant son who can neither be consoled by Rehmat’s wife nor fed by her, pointing to a questionable birth. The Marathas are also hot on his heels and they hire a tracker to help them trace the man.

Gossain, on the other hand, recovers from a serious injury with the help of a woman (Zoya Hussain) who belongs to the same province that Rehmat Khan had slain. The woman begs Gossain to take her with him as he sets out to search for Rehmat and in return offers to help him find Rehmat. Thus begins a cat and mouse game between Rehmat, Gossain and the Marathas who are after their stolen cache of gold. The biggest questions that propel the narrative are — who is Gossain? Why he wants to kill Rehmat? Will he be able to kill him in the end? Who was the kid that Rehmat had wronged so many years back and how is Gossain related to him?

I loved this film for a plethora of reasons. Saif Ali Khan is terrific in the titular role. Not only does he prove how good he can be if he is utilized properly, but he also slips under the skin of Gossain in heart and spirit. He is menacing in his rendering of the man and there isn’t a single frame where he takes a false step. He shares a wonderful chemistry with Zoya Hussain’s character. It is in the scenes that he shares with her that we get to see a different facet of the man. However, his best moments are the ones in which he is expressing his angst and hatred for Rehmat Khan particularly the ones in which he is doing it to his face. You can actually feel the pain of the man and that makes it all that much more worthwhile. Saif brings a kind of physicality to the role that is hard to miss and is pitch-perfect for the rendition.

The next best thing about the film is its setting and visuals. I was enamored by the authentic feel and breathtaking visual splendor that it brings to the screen. Everything about the film feels visually authentic and well done. Be it the forts, the vistas or the action sequences. Shanker Raman’s camera captures it all in its vitality and organic gusto. However, the film does suffer from under editing. No matter how brilliant the visual rendering of the film might have been, it does overstay its welcome from time to time. The camera willfully lingers on the faces and vistas in certain sequences for too long to get an emotional response from the audience which should have been cut short at the editing table.

I really enjoyed the final twist that the film throws at us. I was waiting the whole time to find out why Gossain wanted to kill Rehmat and the final answer that the film gives us was satisfying enough. I am glad that the makers were brave enough to walk the path that they did. It will invariably divide the audiences but for me, the ending worked perfectly. I also loved how the director peeled off layer after layer from the back-story using the precise placement of flashbacks in the present timeline of the story. The action and violence of the film felt real and physical. Saif Ali Khan really did a fantastic job with the action that was entrusted to him and with the kind of physicality that he brings to the character, the action becomes one of the highlights of the film.

Coming to my qualms with the film — the runtime of the film was one of my primary issues. It should have been atleast 30 minutes shorter. With a tighter screenplay, the story would have had a lot more punch and been more affecting. Manav Vij is a proficient antagonist here but I felt that he should have been a lot more menacing to match the stellar act of Saif Ali Khan as Gossain. It wasn’t as much a flaw on his part as it was on part of the director. Zoya Hussain is fantastic in her act but the lingo she uses throughout is tough to wrap your heads around. It would have helped to have some subtitles for these parts. There are also certain characters and portions that the film could have easily done away with in the middle of the story. Maybe a few re-writes would have solved these problems.    

Laal Kaptaan is a film that will not impress the ones looking for cheap thrills and popcorn entertainment. However, for all those who walk into a cinema to appreciate what the art of cinema can do for them and are open to the language of cinema even if it doesn’t provide instantaneous gratifications, Laal Kaptaan has enough to satisfy and marvel at.    

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)  


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