This is an interesting time for Indian action cinema. It's clear we don’t have the personnel, behind or in front of the camera, to do realistic action. Nor do we have the sort of budgets or technical polish necessary to match effects-heavy Hollywood franchises. What we can offer, it seems, is action so batshit crazy it stands out. The best, and best-known, exponent of this is S.S. Rajamouli, with the two Baahubali films and the incredible success of RRR this year. But action sequences in the southern cinemas have been certifiably insane for over a decade now—and there’s a growing appetite for that outside India.
Hindi cinema hasn’t been as successful. In fact, the only Hindi film I can think of that has convincingly deranged action is Om Raut's Tanhaji (2020). The influence of Rajamouli on a number of Hindi films over the last seven years is evident. Yet, they lack the Telugu director’s finesse, but just as importantly, his visual imagination. RRR displays more inventiveness in its set-pieces than a year’s worth of Hindi action films. Execution is a hurdle, but to even play the game the spirit must be willing.
You can see Karan Malhotra's Shamshera strain for that bonkers sequence. It only manages it once: in the closing stages of a train robbery by the dacoit Balli (Ranbir Kapoor), who blows open a compartment, flies in, knocks out a group of British armymen, and leaves with the Queen’s crown. By then, it’s too late—whatever momentum the film had is lost. But it’s a glimmer of what might have been, a sustained half-minute of fantastical action.
Before Balli there was his father, Shamshera (also played by Kapoor), a dacoit in late-19th century Rajputana. He’s a charismatic figure, raiding the upper-caste oppressors of his people, the Khameran tribe. The psychotic Shudh Singh (Sanjay Dutt), a mercenary for the British, dupes Shamshera into leading his people into a fort, where they’re trapped and forced into slavery. Shamshera dies trying to find an escape, leaving behind his pregnant wife.
Balli grows up a prankster, moving through his prison home with the sort of grace and smoothness only Ranbir Kapoor can summon. Unaware of the legacy of his father, he wants to be a sepoy, like his captors. This is the best passage of the film, fleet-footed and engaging. It all comes together in the ‘Ji Huzoor’ number, Kapoor dancing with a bunch of raggedy kids in the dusty lanes of the fort, ending with a trick of collapsing chairs that brings to mind the slapstick delights of Barfi (2012) and Jagga Jasoos (2017).
Of course, Balli finds out about his father’s fate, escapes and, with the help of Doodh Singh (Saurabh Shukla), becomes a masked bandit. After this, it’s as if the film, having previously been running around in sandals, puts on snow boots. Trickster Ranbir is replaced by brooding revengeful Ranbir: a disastrous trade. Everything seems to wilt. Vaani Kapoor, a 21st century face in a 19th century setting, wanders in and out of the narrative as Balli’s high-born love. The film rushes the assembling of Balli’s ragtag army—neither actors nor characters are memorable enough to justify the traumatized reactions when they’re dispatched later.
Shamshera did surprise me with its forthrightness about caste oppression, unusual in any Hindi film, let alone a big studio production. The word jaat is mentioned several times in the animated prologue, and continues to echo through the film. Instead of reaching for a convenient villain in the British, the film makes its primary antagonists the upper-caste Indians who flatter the British and persecute their own countrymen. This makes the film feel more contemporary than it should: The dehumanizing language used for the Khameran people hasn’t changed much after a century. At one point, Balli visits a city of temples, where he finds his tribesmen in disguise, ghettoized, working as butchers and sewage workers. Even the villain’s name—Shudh—seeks to remind us of his views on caste purity. Compared to the politically inert RRR, it’s a more provocative imagining of Raj-era India.
Both Shudh Singh and Doodh Singh have a tendency to talk in verse, but rhyming doesn’t equal poetry. Malhotra seems to understand that these aren’t the sort of verses that’ll do well surrounded by silence, so he adds them to the soundtrack at full volume, like rumblings of indifferently phrased thunder. I preferred the neat rhymes in Kaale Naina, a song which indulges a weakness of mine: hero and villain dancing together. Balli using peacock feathers to evade capture is no more sensible than Kishore Kumar wearing a fake beard in Woh Ek Nigah Kya Mili. But it’s a silly, winning detail, even if the film soon begins to find this lightness unbearable.