The year is 1857, and at the time of the East India Company’s rule, Raunakpur is among the few remaining freeholds. Its ruler Mirzasaab (Ronit Roy) is preparing for an all-out battle with the Company, and its representative, John Clive (Lloyd Owen). His trusted general Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan) has been deputed with Raunakpur's prince to gather allies.
A surprise night visit with Clive, however, puts paid to those plans. With his son held hostage by Clive, Mirza hands over control of Raunakpur to the British. But the prince is killed anyway, as is Mirza, and his wife. The only surviving member of the royal clan is the Princess Safira, who is rescued at the eleventh hour from the clutches of Clive by Khudabaksh.
Eleven years later, we're introduced to a thug Firangi Mallah (Aamir Khan). A glib talker, Firangi's eccentricity is not to be taken for a lack of seriousness, however. For he is ruthless when it comes to the question of profit, and not above double-crossing his own comrades when it comes to earning a pretty penny.
Poster for Thugs of Hindostan. Image courtesy Twitter
Cut to a whole other type of ‘thug’: Khudabaksh, who now fights the British with a grown-up Safira (Fatima Sana Shaikh) by his side. A snazzy action sequence on a ship gives ample opportunity for the duo to display their wizardry with sword and bow-and-arrow, their cunning and discipline, and the devotion of their band of followers.
The contrasts between Firangi Mallah (who has to introduce himself) and Khudabaksh (who is spoken of by others due to his deeds) is drawn very clearly in these opening scenes.
The British decide that they can't let Khudabaksh persist in his challenge to the East India Company, and seek the services of a true villain in bringing him down. Enter: Firangi Mallah, who it turns out, has another grand passion apart from money — the dancer/courtesan Surayya (Katrina Kaif). The first few scenes in which we're introduced to Surayya are mildly uncomfortable as the camera dwells on her waist and bust and pout. If we meet the other characters through their actions, with Surayya, it is her physical beauty and that alone, which is the focus. However, she gets to to display some quickness of wit as well, in her interactions with Firangi. That's before she must launch into the actual reason for her presence: an energetic dance number. It is during this dance that Firangi meets the British officer who wants to co-opt him into the fight against Khudabaksh et al.
And so the stage is set for Firangi to meet Khudabaksh.
Which he does in spectacular fashion, during a skirmish set on a ship.
When the trailer of Thugs of Hindostan released, there were comparisons aplenty to Pirates of the Caribbean. Perhaps Firangi is modelled on Jack Sparrow, but there are also traces of the other quirky characters Aamir Khan has played in the past. No matter though, he is still a hoot. And the action sequences in this first half are an incredible amount of fun to watch. The stunt choreography is slick, even if it has definite touches of Bollywood (by which this reviewer means some hyper-dramatised moments). At no point in the first hour-plus of the film do you feel your attention flagging.
There's something about the way Firangi and Khudabaksh relate to each other that's oddly reminiscent of the Shah Rukh Khan-Amrish Puri equation from Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The younger man trying hard to impress, the unbending older man seeking a spark of something within this protégé. Khudabaksh seems to see something in Firangi that hitherto no one has: a spark.
Through symbol, imagery and through words, Firangi is depicted as Khudabaksh's 'heir apparent’. Their characters are a study in contrasts: one ever-ready to yield, the other completely unyielding; one for whom everything has a price but no value, while for the other, some things — like freedom, integrity, loyalty — are so valuable that there can be no price put on them, ever. Amid their battle with the British, there’s also a battle of wills between Firangi and Khudabaksh. Whose character will prove to be stronger, who will influence whom, is part of the crux of Thugs’ first half.
The conclusion of this battle of wills is perhaps of the foregone variety, but the way it plays out is satisfying.
In one scene, we see Khudabaksh tilling a barren land over several years, in the hope that one day, the same ground will yield a harvest. The land is a metaphor for Firangi, and it proves to be a fertile spot after all, for Khudabaksh's hopes to take seed.
Amitabh Bachchan plays warrior patriarch with ease, and Fatima Sana Shaikh is competent enough in the role of Safira. She performs the action sequences perfectly, but falters in the emotional ones. Aamir Khan shifts between being funny and menacing in a most engaging manner. One moment, he could be jesting, the other, a change in expression shows the danger that lies just below the surface.
There's plenty of opportunity for Firangi to show this menacing side as the skirmishes with the English (and their chief, Clive) pick up in scale and intensity. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for poor Katrina Kaif, who is brought in for her second oddly athletic dance number of the film at a late point in the proceedings. She writhes and contorts in sequinned hotpants as the plot builds towards its climax.
It is the setting up of this climax that Thugs of Hindostan totters a bit. There's an unveiling that's a little too filmi (even for this wholly commercial entertainer). This, however, is forgiven in the rip-roaring, all muskets blazing finale sequence of the film. The showdown is appropriately high-stakes, and caps off an enjoyable caper.
Thugs of Hindostan is Bollywood having a blast (quite literally, in some moments!). If its no-holds-barred adoption of the commercial Hindi entertainer's elements can be a flaw at times, for the most part, it works in the film's favour. A mild Pirates of the Caribbean hangover aside, this is prime Diwali blockbuster material — a story of relationships, betrayal, adventure and courage, of underdogs and their unlikely triumphs.