A Sloppy Pastiche of South Indian Spectacle Films and Amitabh’s Many Roles

Balli (Ranbir Kapoor), a young directionless man, was born a slave. His father, Shamshera (also Kapoor), a renowned rebel, lived and died for his people. Belonging to a marginalized tribe, Khameran, subjugated for centuries by the ‘upper caste’ villagers and Britishers, Shamshera fought back with brute force. A contractual deceit, however, imprisoned the whole tribe in a fort. He tried to escape – then planned to free others – through a secret tunnel. But he was caught and hung; his people his branded him a selfish runaway (a bhagoda), stoning him to death.

Twenty-five years later, in 1896, Balli must face his bloody past to attain an impossible dream: freedom.

Shamshera‘s design is evident right from the start. It’s a mix of two different styles: the Baahubali method, marked by scale and spectacle, and Amitabh Bachchan’s masala films, where a man, motivated by his wounded past, fights for his dignity. The strains of the latter are present in small, yet unmistakable, touches.

In an early scene, a few young Khamerans call Balli, “Bhagode ki aulad” (similar to Deewar‘s “tera baap chor hai”). The evil cop, Shudh Singh (Sanjay Dutt), refers to Khameerans as “Gandi naali ke keede” (Laawaris). The father-son double role is vintage Bachchan (adalat, Aakhree Raasta, Mahaan, and so on). Filmmaker Karan Malhotra in fact owes his debut to Bachchan, directing a remake of agneepath.

By melding two nonsense approaches, Malhotra hopes to create his own style. It’s indeed evident that Shamshera is a thing of its own: one that, let alone dignifying Rajamouli or Bachchan’s oeuvre, is so tirelessly mediocre that it doesn’t even come near the originals. The main problem here – which I’ve repeated so many times (so much so that my hair has gone grey) – is the same old: ‘zeroth draft’ screenwriting, comprising such poor conceptions that they shouldn’t have carried to the first draft.

Malhotra believes that big stakes make a good story (sure, no disagreements). But what do you make of a film that only cares for big stakes – almost at the cost of their execution? Or, worse, a story that unfolds like Tiger Shroff in front of the camera, likening moviemaking to gravity – something that happens on its own, not too different from a ball rolling down an incline. Shamshera has so many plot holes that covering them all would result in a different film It’s also a muddled piece – flitting from one set-piece to the other – hoping, again, that they’ll somehow make sense.

Take, for instance, the premise: Shamshera has been dead for 25 years, and Khameerans can’t dare think of independence. Huge stakes: a colonial power, a closed fort, the death penalty. The only answer is a hero with superhuman strength, intellect, and guile. But Balli is an incompetent buffoon who doesn’t even identify with his people, wanting to be a cop instead, so that the initial segment can be milked for ‘laughs’ and a song, making his escape from him almost impossible.

But he does escape – diving headlong into the water and finding a secret tunnel in his first attempt – unlike his much smarter and courageous father who failed despite multiple tries. His character progression is so drastic, so switch-like, that its only possible explanation is the following: ‘mainstream Bollywood’. The film often fails the common sense test, such as if Shamshera had tried using the tunnel, then why did the Brits not block it?

Stuff like this – brain-dead, silly, absurd – recurs throughout. The film’s getting too heavy? In comes a young attractive woman, Sona (Vaani Kapoor), a local dancer, who somehow you know Balli. No idea how – she’s free; he’s a slave – but let’s not get caught up in such trivial things as plot coherence. He likes her and flirts with her; she kind of likes him and does not not flirt with him (which is to say it’s a typical I-like-you-but-umm-not-so-much-till-you-pursue-and-wear-me-down Bollywood love).

Running out of ideas in the second half, where Balli’s men are supposed to loot the wealthy businessmen? In comes Sona, who dances and seduces (why would she do that for someone she doesn’t even love?), while Balli’s men do the job. When Balli escapes, he’s clueless about his next step of action, so he – very conveniently – collides into an old ally of his father (Saurabh Shukla – the only actor with an enjoyable presence).

parts of Shamshera look so dated and disconnected from its essence that it elicits the feeling of being trapped in a shopping mall of bad films. In one such bit, the romance between Balli and Sona segues into a dream song (think ‘Sooraj Hua Madham’ that failed high school). When a character dies, the movie resorts to stale flashbacks, almost screaming, “He was important! Here’s all the evidence! Now feel bad!” A kinetic set-piece in the second half drops all pretense, becoming a full-blown Dhoom-type heist, where Balli steals the Queen’s crown. In trying to be everything for everybody, Shamshera is nothing for nobody.

And it keeps lunging from worse to worst to are-you-kidding-me? Some things are so sloppy that I wonder whether they even merit a mention. Vaani’s character, for example, has no depth; she’s present, there’s no other way to put it, only for the ‘sleaze factor’. One plot point is so legit baffling that there’s no term for it (I’ll try: ‘Deus ex childbearing’). Dutt’s Shudh Singh flips the oldest page in the villainy book: a man so deranged and evil that he’s funny. He’s of course neither funny nor intimidating, and the actor doesn’t just seem miscast, he’s insufferable. You can rely on Ranbir to lift even the most pedestrian material but – barring the first 10 minutes, where he plays Shamshera, a rare display of entertaining filmmaking – he does not have the scene-chewing theaters befitting a role like his dele.

The movie doesn’t even keep its bare minimum promise of a visual dazzle. The monochromatic palette doesn’t look bleak as much as dull. There’s no dearth of animal imagery here – crows, eagles, present in different fearful forms – but they look so obviously CG-ed that they leave no impact. Ditto many ‘atmospheric’ scenes or violent set-pieces. Getting inspired by Rajamouli’s brand of cinema is one thing, confusing spectacle for substance is quite the other.

You’ve to wonder what it would take for Bollywood to come on track (which means ‘standard mediocre’ as opposed to ‘exceptional mediocre’). Shamshera had everything: big stars, a big production house, a big budget and even a relaxed runtime (158 minutes). But in a South Delhi multiplex, where I watched it, an audience member left the theater even before the movie got over. Right outside, I overheard snatches of a conversation that contained the words “runtime” and, horror of horrors, “South Indian films”. Once upon a time, Bollywood had takers; now, it has undertakers.

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