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‘Thar’ movie review: Anil Kapoor shines, but Netflix slow-burn thriller offers little else

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Promising to be a quaint ride through the desert, director Raj Singh Chaudhary keeps seeking style and soul from the same gear… but eventually, the artifice crumbles

Promising to be a quaint ride through the desert, director Raj Singh Chaudhary keeps seeking style and soul from the same gear… but eventually, the artifice crumbles

In the dead of the night, a curious, old villager asks for a cigarette from an overweight, lower-caste head constable on duty. When the policeman, played by the good old Satish Kaushik, drags his feet, the old man says smokers don’t believe in casteism. This is one of the rare honest moments in this otherwise self-aware dark thriller. Promising to be a quaint ride through the desert and the arid areas of the human heart, director Raj Singh Chaudhary keeps seeking style and soul from the same gear. Eventually, the artifice crumbles, and the vintage vehicle of a film gets stuck and wears us out.

Set in 1985, Munabao, a sleepy village in the Thar desert on the India-Pakistan border comes to life when a dead body is found hanging from a tree. Police Inspector Surekha Singh (Anil Kapoor), who is tired of leading an uneventful, safe life, finds some purpose at the fag end of his career. Even as he begins the investigation, two more lives are snuffed out by a shower of bullets. The needle of suspicion points at two outsiders; is it the opium trader (Rahul Singh) from across the border. or is it the job of a quiet antique buyer from the city (Harshvardhan Kapoor)? Or are they two separate incidents?

As the lid opens, we discover the picturesque, traditional village holds secrets to a macabre crime and somebody is out there to avenge it. Writer-director Raj Singh Chaudhary reminds us that revenge is the raging fire that consumes the one seeking it and that a vengeful person gradually becomes the mirror image of those he wanted to return the favour. Anurag Kashyap’s insightful dialogues arouse interest, and Shreya Dev Dube’s immersive cinematography sustains it, but the uneven storytelling disappoints after the build-up.

An ode to Westerns (there is more than a hat tip to  Sholay, and the sprawling restaurant in the middle of the desert is a reference to the cliché that abound Hollywood films of the genre), the colour scheme and production design resemble an advertisement of an off-roader with which the film shares its title, and is often used by the police. Even the metaphors are so much in your face as if all we have is 30 seconds to process. The dim lighting doesn’t necessarily mean a realistic approach; it could very well be a trope to hide the limitations in storytelling and performances. The outsider-insider symbolism is interesting, but is not woven well into the plot.

The cinematic gaze is also not in sync with the people whose story the film promises to narrate. Anil Kapoor looks smarter than the number of stars that the weather-beaten Surekha Singh carries on his shoulders. The women behind the veils, played by Sana Fatima Sheikh and Mukti Mohan, also seem to have been para-dropped into the wilderness; it seems the makers were more curious about the cleavage and scenes of unbridled desire for intimacy than the characters they have written.

One would have coped with this freedom of expression as part of the genre’s sensibilities had Chaudhary had something revelatory up his sleeve, but the screenplay soon gets reduced to a dense torture manual. By the time the big reveal dawns on us, our emotions have already evaporated into the desert wind, and we stop caring for the characters.

In the crucial middle portion, the director holds his cards so close to the chest that Harshvardhan is left with little material to work with; unlike his father Anil, he cannot make the silences talk, yet.

However, the senior Kapoor can still wade through shallow waters and imbue life in dry situations. Like wine, he is getting better with age. In fact, it is the conversations between Kapoor and Kaushik over food that keep you spirited in Thar.

Thar is currently streaming on Netflix



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