Making a film without a moral centre is tough. The only Hindi director who does it successfully is Sriram Raghavan. In his Badlapur, the pendulum of audience sympathy swings slowly, inexplicably away from Varun Dhawan towards Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who starts the film by killing a mother and child. It takes a high degree of skill to manage that, which is why most films, even extremely dark ones, find it easier to have at least one character function as a kind of North Star for the audience.
Thar has a moral centre in Anil Kapoor’s police inspector Surekha Singh, who's investigating a spate of killings. But really, it feels like there’s no centre at all. Raj Singh Chaudhary’s film goes in all directions, bouncing between revisionist Western, neonoir and (unconvincing) action film. The pieces seem to belong together—dacoits, drugs, border issues, misogyny, caste prejudice—but they’re never assembled right. It’s a great setting, a lot of the detailing has promise (like the central character being an antiques hunter, hiring cheap labour from villages that probably made the artefacts in the first place), but it won’t cohere.
Taciturn city boy Siddharth (Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor, Anil's son) rolls into the Rajasthani village of Munabao, on the border with Pakistan. Soon, he’s kidnapped daily-wager Panna and two of his friends, holding them in an abandoned fort. There he visits upon them sickening, slow violence. We see skin ripped off, large nails driven through feet, ears sliced, fingers broken. We don’t find out why till much later, an excruciating wait for any viewer who doesn’t confuse torture porn with provocative art.
Siddharth's reasons turn out exactly as I guessed they might. Yet it's the placement of the reveal towards the end of the film that's the real puzzler. If the idea is to generate sympathy for Siddharth, who spends seven-eighths of the film a sadistic cypher, shouldn't it come earlier? Or are we supposed to suspend judgment in anticipation of an explanation? Or does the film not care what we think about him? He’s polite, the ladies like him, he’s compared to a Hollywood star. He also ends up chasing a child off a ledge. Like the film, Siddharth just doesn’t add up.
A lot of that is down to the actor. Normally, a role in which Kapoor has to largely remain silent and show little emotion would seem a good fit. But there’s an art to being stoic on screen; just look at any Jaideep Ahlawat performance to see what a stone face can convey. Kapoor should be scary as hell by the end, but instead he looks like one good hug could cure his problems.
I liked some of the supporting turns, especially Jitendra Joshi as a truly menacing Panna and Shubham Kumar as a randy local. And it’s a pleasure to see Anil Kapoor and Satish Kaushik banter and hold up the film. There’s a world-weariness to their characters, and a touching concern for each other, which made me wish the film was about these old-timers seeing out their lives in this dead-end village. Kaushik gets the film’s best line, when he offhandedly remarks that he likes being a cop because the uniform hides his caste. There’s an echo of this later on, when he hesitates to share a smoke with an old man, and is reassured, “Cigarette ki koi jaati-paati nahi hai (cigarettes don’t have a caste)”.
The path tread by Thar has been traversed more successfully by neonoirs like Manorama Six Feet Under and Raat Akeli Hai, which are smarter and funnier while being a lot less obviously transgressive. For everything that goes right in Chaudhary’s film (a clever score by Ajay Jayanthi), there’s something that falls through (the two chase sequences are unable to establish any sense of spatial integrity). This is a film that can invent a superb throwaway detail of labourers playing cards on the back of a moving open jeep, but isn’t able to make a dacoit who’s significant enough to take a major character’s life seem like anything but filler to keep the Surekha storyline going. In the end, Thar is a nasty bit of work, exacting an emotional toll from the viewer that’s never repaid.
Thar is streaming on Netflix.