Film: Laal Kaptaan
Director: Navdeep Singh
Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Manav Vij,Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal, Sonakshi Sinha
Laal Kaptaan is a film about the cycle of life. Karma, Kaal, Revenge all find personifications in the characters of this Navdeep Singh directorial. Saif Ali Khan plays a Nagha Sadhu, the very epitome of ‘inteqaam’. He is out to avenge his father’s death from Rehmat Khan, played by Manav Vij.
A rather simple plot in those terms, the strength of the film lies in variations of the scale of its performances of its supporting characters. Deepak Dobriyal, like the hunter who sniffs his enemies and prey, shines in parts, while Manav Vij, who plays the leading antagonist, adds gravitas to moments on-screen and make the screenplay more believable than it could have been.
Set in the heartland of central India as the advent of East India Company began spreading its wings in kingdoms like Awadh, Bundelkhand and Bengal, the production design and the set-up of the period film are commendable. The makers made no efforts to overdo the design or the representation of the film. The sand dunes and the warm overtones of the land are kept as it is, without glamourising those who tread on it.
Saif Ali Khan as Gossain, is a delight to watch in a different avatar of Naga Sadhu, but as audience, one never actually believes him or the avenging desire of his heart. He usually skipped a beat where he was supposed to nail it, but the cinematography and the supporting cast helped in those places.
The way Laal Kaptaan has been shot is an important characteristic of the film if not a character of Kaal itself. The nostalgia of past in sepia overtones flash time and again, while Saif reminisces the reason for his revenge. The cycle of life repeating itself, and personal conflicts taking precedence of ambitions of professional gain all shown through the lens of an observer, keeps the narrative intriguing.
While the first half and the opening sequence of the film failed to make an impression, Laal Kaptaan’s second half was far more established, one, in terms of Saif being more comfortable in the skin of his character and setting and second, with the way Rehmat Khan’s state of mind is shown.
Sonakshi Sinha makes a guest appearance while Zoya Hussain plays a surrogate mother who cannot give away her child. Zoya completely belonged to the 18th-century setup of the film and nailed her parts even more with the way she spoke. Her Bundelkhandi dialect stands in stark contrast to Saif’s broken bits here and there, which was a plus point for her.
There are poetic moments induced with an imagery of a kind that is more than just beautiful on-screen, complimented by a rendition of voice-overs that comment on the cycle of life, its temporality and death.
Saif Ali Khan as Gossain, at one point, says in the film that ‘woh kal hi kya jo samay ke sath badal jaye’, in turn establishing that he himself is not just seeking revenge, but a higher cause of salvation by the principles with which he is leading his life.
With regards to the ideological debates surrounding Laal Kaptaan, the film bears a close resemblance to 2019’s early release, Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya. Laal Kaptaan in contrast to the latter film is more one-subject oriented and in the process of becoming obsessed with it, leaves out the possibilities of any improvisation and exploration of other factors of a human psyche in the situation it places its characters in. The demons of past don’t haunt enough, or the avenging desire is not as well established as it should have been, thus making the film constricted by the very problematic idea that intended to open it up and let it become something outside the director’s control. And, that perhaps was one of the biggest problems of the films.
In other respects, such as the music and pace, the film fared well, though in parts, especially the first half, the pace could definitely have been more worked upon.
In period dramas of this kind, there are expected moments of unchallenged masculinity with guns and weapons or the sole power of the biceps of the hero and anti-hero. There are definitive moments of such action in the film, but not of a kind that defined the period drama action cinema of a certain kind. There is a gradual change in the dynamics in that regard and space. It is not just about battling enemies with godlike skills and energy anymore but it is more about the demons in your own head; the battling ground has definitely shifted.
Laal Kaptaan is not as nuanced and complex like Sonchiriya. It does have its own unique flavour but the taste of which is surprisingly bland. There are moments of innovation and characters that stay with you, but the overall dynamic of the film failed to make the kind of mark it intended to.