Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Deepak Dobriyal
Director: Navdeep Singh
Avast, dusty terrain, long-shots of two eagles in the sky, and a lone ranger gallops forward with his spoils of war - the body of a dead man. He is covered in mud: a sign of the prolonged combat that must have ensued. He walks up to the village Thakur, plonks the body before him, and demands his reward. Let’s just say the rewards - four gold coins - were not easy to scoop out of the greedy Thakur’s coffer. Some persuasion and a little bit of threat later, he gets what he wants. But his victory doesn’t make him happy. He is simultaneously guilty for committing a crime and hopeful that it was just a stepping stone to take him closer to what he is actually hunting.
Saif Ali Khan plays the role of Gosain, a Naga Sadhu, an assassin to be precise, in Navdeep Singh’s ambitious Laal Kaptaan. And the actor sinks his teeth into the character from the first scene. Gosain is established as a man with conflicting morals. He doesn’t really want to kill, and certainly not the innocent, but he knows that it is sometimes just the means to an end. He is driven by revenge; almost a slave to it. And until he can nab his actual target, he will take up whatever odd jobs that come his way, like killing wanted dakus for hefty rewards.
Navdeep Singh, frankly, paints a very realistic picture of 18th-century India. The East India Company is slowly spreading its tentacles into the nation, sneakily tempting potential threats (read kingdoms) with whatever may work - money, arms, the promise of a kingdom. Laal Kaptaan, however, simply uses this as a backdrop, focussing entirely on the journey of one man, Gosain, and Saif Ali Khan’s able shoulders. It should have worked, for Saif is near-flawless. But it somehow doesn’t. Despite you sitting in front of the screen and wanting it to work.
While the screenplay captures your attention, the storytelling seems stretched out, and unnecessarily so. Fortunately, the film has no songs. Thank god!
Some brilliant performances lend their support: Deepak Dobriyal as a mad-hatter tracker who finds his targets with his elevated sense of smell, Simone Singh as the Begum of the antagonist who knows she has no power or control but continues the futile attempt to control anyway, Zoya Hussain as a mother whose conscience allows her to betray and pawn anyone to save her child, Neeraj Kabi as the very impetus that sets Saif on his blood journey.
The weakest link, though a promising actor himself, was Manav Vij as Rehmat Khan. As the antagonist, he has as much of a back story as Saif, and almost as much screen time too. Yet, he spends half of it grunting like an animal, hammering in the idea that he is bad, so we ought to be scared of him. It doesn’t work that way.
Saif's get-up, heavily inspired by that of Jack Sparrow from Pirates Of The Caribbean, comes across as unnecessary. It would have worked even if he appeared like a regular Naga Sadhu, instead of a hybrid. And we've already seen Aamir Khan as a sasta Johnny Depp just last year. Saif's red coat, however, ripped off a British soldier's body, has been justified, and therefore, makes sense.
It needs to be said here that the fact that someone like Saif Ali Khan is even picking films like Laal Kaptaan, is commendable. He did it with Akshat Verma’s Kaalakaandi, too, though neither the 2017 film nor the present one, has box office-shattering capabilities. It's a compromise an A-lister like him makes, and we're glad.
But Laal Kaptaan's biggest flaw is that it is too heavily dependent on Saif, but doesn't offer the necessary support for him to pull it through. Ultimately, it remains a film that had all the right ingredients but is still under-cooked. Just a little bit more - of something, anything - would have worked. But, alas.