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‘Shamshera’: An Underwhelming Film Held Together by Sanjay Dutt and a Few Angry Crows 

It is a Bollywood movie that is desperately trying to be like box-office busters from the south

Suparna Sharma Jul 23, 2022

A still from 'Shamshera,' starring Ranbir Kapoor. Photo: Yash Raj Films


Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Vaani Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Ronit Roy 

Direction: Karan Malhotra 

Rating: ★★

Playing in theatres 

Shamshera, directed by Karan Malhotra and starring Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and a very reliable flock of crows, is a big film by all definitions. A lot has gone into making it and clearly a lot is riding on it. 

Shamshera, which marks the return of Ranbir Kapoor to the big screen after four years, cost Yash Raj Films somewhere in the region of Rs 150 crore. No effort, money, time, blood, sweat or labor was spared to give it epic proportions and pretensions.  

A fictional city set in the British era was created, complete with special costumes, horses, weaponry and an evil man whose hapless victims needed rescuing. Many worthy writers were engaged to give flight to this idea.  

Shamshera’s story is written by Neelesh Misra and Khila Bisht; husband-wife duo Pawan and Ekta Pathak Malhotra wrote its screenplay; Piyush Mishra wrote the dialogue. And yet the film’s basic problem lies in its writing. 

Shamshera tells a simple story that is very badly plotted. A lot happens in the film, it’s packed with action, but it is all over the place. 

In places that require brevity, Shamshera is overwritten. And in places where a little more thought and detail could have given the film some spark and oomph, it’s underwritten.   

That’s probably because Shamshera has a big, unresolved existential issue. An identity crisis of sorts.  

Shamshera is a Bollywood film that is desperately trying to be like those box-office busters from the south.  

But, its fantasy story, epic setting and scale are the natural habitat of the likes of S.S. Rajamouli, S. Shankar, A.R. Murugadoss, even Pa. Ranjith, Vetrimaran and Mari Selvaraj, given the film’s caste concerns. Bollywood’s Chopras, Johars and Kapoors are not political enough to pull off a powerful film with a caste angle, nor do they have the temperament or interest to remain emotionally invested in a mythological world of superheroes and larger-than-life villains. Beyond box-office aspirations ignited by Baahubali and KGF, they have no interest in such stories. That’s why Shamshera can’t do without two Bollywood item numbers.  

Shamshera’s main problem is that it has a Bollywood aatma that’s bhatkoing in dusty, rocky, rugged landscapes trying to be what it is not. 

No surprises then that Shamshera is an underwhelming spectacle that has scale but no soul. 

The movie begins as all films set in the past begin these days: By dissing the Mughals.  

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A voiceover explains some stuff about a proud Rajputana tribe called Khameerans who have been victimized for decades by upper-caste Hindus. Treated as outcasts and called “keede, junglee,” they have no place they can call home. Thus, dacoity is their karma, and their dharam is to remain azaad, we are told. 

It’s 1871, and in British-ruled India, the Khameerans, led by long-haired Shamshera (Ranbir Kapoor), loot rich upper-caste traders to feed their families. The traders complain to the British and a deal is brokered by a cop, daroga Shudh Singh (Sanjay Dutt), whereby the Khameerans are promised independent land if Shamshera surrenders.  

He agrees, but the Britishers and Shudh Singh renege on their promise.  

The entire tribe is taken to a fort in the city of Kaza, where they are imprisoned and routinely tortured. They are told that they can buy their freedom in exchange for gold.  

Shamshera, feeling guilty, says a teary goodbye to his pregnant wife and sets off to find a way out. But 25 years later, the Khameerans are still there, slaves of Shudh Singh in Kaza. And Shamshera’s son carries a grudge against his daddy, and is keen to join the ranks of cops and officers. 

But Shudh Singh is a Khameeran hater and Balli is Shamshera’s son. He forms a gang with his daddy’s old pals and with the help of his love interest, Sona the dancer (Vaani Kapoor), leads dramatic dacoities to loot gold. 

But since the queen’s crown is touring the country, a special officer is dispatched to Kaza to capture Shamshera/Balli and put an end to all the looting and dacoity.  

Colonel Freddy Young wants to correct some historical wrongs, but Shudh Singh has other plans. 

Apparently, it took 300 workers two months to build the city and fort of Kaza. It’s an impressive, harsh-looking space in shades of beige and dust. Most of what happens in Shamshera, happens here.  

There are several dacoities by horse-riding Khameerans. Long torture scenes led by Shudh Singh. Some dull item numbers, some thrilling action and fight sequences. Crows hover and caw. And a lathi fight between the gora sahib and Balli gave me the feels of Lagaan

Somewhere towards the second half, Shudh Singh acquires a mean inner voice that sounds like Gollum (Precious) from Lord of the Rings. There’s some sex before shaadi, a child is born in the middle of a gunfight and saas-bahu have a moment in the midst of a battle. Through all this Sukhvinder Singh sings full-throttle, screaming “Shamshera,” “Hunkara” and “Parinda”, again and again and again. 

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Yet Shamshera is not aroused. It remains flat.  

It is the sort of film that deserves ‘A’ for effort, but ‘D’ for the outcome.  

Apart from its meh writing and identity crisis, Shamshera has many small-small problems, including Vaani Kapoor who is miscast as item-girl Sona.  

Ms Kapoor has no namak, no masti. She does all the dance steps efficiently, but she has no rhythm. And when she is not dancing, she dresses like any chic bohemian girl would – in boyfriend linen shirts with frayed ends. A bit odd in 1871.  

Despite all of this, two actors and some crows do their best to hold Shamshera together. 

Ranbir Kapoor works very hard at all his roles so that he can inhabit his characters with ease. And in almost every scene, he aims for perfection.  

In Shamshera, that effort shows because Ranbir’s greatest asset is his face, his expressive eyes, not his body. But Shamshera and Balli are high-energy action characters who ride horses, bound about, smash, fly and slay their enemy. This doesn’t just require agility, but also the ability to simultaneously project physical prowess and mental power. That’s what makes us believe in such characters and root for them. Ranbir somewhat manages to do that with Shamshera, but his Balli has no personality and at times feels like Jagga Jasoos.  

Sanjay Dutt’s menacing evil act, however, is never off the mark. 

Shamshera revolves around his choti-wala daroga who always wears a dramatic Tripundra (three-line tikal with a splash of red) on his forehead. Though Dutt’s Shubh Singh seems like a not-so-distant cousin of his Kancha Cheena in Karan Malhotra’s 2012 film, Agneepath, he grounds and owns the film with his gleeful villainy. 

As do the crows, most of whom, I assume, are computer generated.    

The film’s writers don’t explain the relationship of the birds with Shamshera and Balli, but merrily use them as deux ex machina. Every time the story is stuck and there’s no resolution in sight, crows caw, descend from the sky and take charge.  

These protective birds could have been a dramatic highlight of the film. But they remain a puzzling presence whose real purpose seems to be to rescue Shamshera’s writers and director, and not the film.