Reportedly the biggest-budgeted and most widely released Bollywood production ever, “Thugs of Hindostan” is an exuberantly excessive masala of swashbuckling heroics, broader-than-broad comedy, propulsively choreographed action, and raucously caffeinated song-and-dance sequences. Writer-director Vijay Krishna Acharya, a creative force behind the popular “Dhoom” movies, has borrowed freely from Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” even to the point of having Indian superstar Aamir Khan often come across as a smudged carbon of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow while playing a similarly unreliable rogue. But for all its recycled elements and predictable narrative stratagems, this diverting Diwali-timed extravaganza stands on its own merits as a lightly satisfying popcorn epic — provided, of course, you have a taste for such over-the-top amusement.
During the darkly majestic opening scenes — set in 1795, when the Indian subcontinent was known as Hindostan — Acharya provides the impetus for a tale of rebellion, revenge, and redemption as members of a royal clan are killed by British troops representing ruthless colonists of the East India Company. The sole survivor of the slaughter, a young girl named Zafira, is rescued and spirited away to safety by Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan), a faithful family friend and fearsomely efficient swordsman.
Flash forward 11 years, and we find Khudabaksh and Zafira (played as an adult by Fatima Sana Shaikh) leading pirate-like freedom fighters on sporadic assaults against the Brit forces commanded by John Clive (Lloyd Owen), the man behind the murders of Zafira’s parents and brother. To neutralize this threat, second-in-command Capt. James Powell (Gavin Marshall, effectively channeling a ’60s-era Harry Andrews) hires freelance hustler and self-described “simple informant” Firangi (Khan) to infiltrate the band of “thugs” and facilitate their capture.
Firangi, a kohl-eyed, curly-haired scamp who conceals his con artistry with ingratiating snappy patter, is an utterly amoral opportunist who rarely settles for a double-cross when a triple-cross would be more profitable, and whose concept of loyalty could most generously be described as situational. (“I value our friendship,” he tells an acquaintance who’s still stinging after Firangi’s last betrayal. “Not much, but I do value it.”) Khan’s spirited performance, which occasionally suggests Giancarlo Giannini simultaneously portraying Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx, is itself a sly con job: Even when Firangi appears to have changed his stripes, the audience can never be entirely sure just where his true loyalties lie. Indeed, Khan strongly hints that Firangi himself can’t predict what he’ll do, and for whom he’ll do it, from moment to moment. The character’s unpredictable behavior and long-con scheming indicates that, in addition to seeking inspiration from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, Acharya may have watched “The Sting” a few times in preparation for this film.
Evidencing a formidable vitality that belies his age, 76-year-old Amitabh Bachchan (with, no doubt, some assistance from stunt doubles) cuts a bold yet dignified swath through the proceedings, providing just enough gravitas and moral authority to help anchor “Thugs of Hindostan” in something resembling seriousness whenever it threatens to spin entirely out of control. Mind you, there are times — i.e., whenever co-star Katrina Kaif swirls, shimmies and accelerates during her wowza dance numbers as Suraiyya, a sexy entertainer who gets a rise out of Firangi — when being out of control is not such a bad thing. But the father-son bond that develops between Bachchan’s Khudabaksh and Khan’s Firangi turns out to be the most compelling relationship in the entire movie. Truth to tell, it’s far more captivating than the nascent romantic attraction between Firangi and Zafira. Although Shaikh displays impressive physicality while doing her fair share of derring-do, she’s repeatedly hampered by the script when she attempts to make Zafira seem more like a three-dimensional character than a useful plot device.
Acharya pushes it up to 11 throughout extended clashes on land and sea, in burning buildings and royal palaces. (Yes, it’s worth the ticket mark-up to see all the action on an IMAX screen.) Rest assured, he sporadically falls back on the visual cliché of slo-mo photography as embellishment for mano-a-mano clashes and army-versus-army smackdowns. But “Thugs of Hindostan” seldom slows down for very long. Although it clocks in 164 minutes, it feels much brisker than that. Much brisker, really, than some of the movies that inspired Acharya before he set sail with this one.