Thar, on Netflix, is not your usual Bombay film. For one, it does not subscribe to the standard stupidity of having an item number with the end credits rolling out on your screen. It takes guts for filmmakers today to walk past that cursory banger that is bound to play at every wedding and make the music in a trending reel. For other, there’s an equal amount of gloss as there is substance, that kinda balance is hard to get in the Netflix catalogue. With Thar, there is also a dearth of familiarity in everything you are used to seeing as a casual viewer of “content”. Bombay cinema hasn’t confidently ventured into this genre, with the exception of Sonchiriya (2019). I would say the director (Raj Singh Chaudhary) has balls the size of king Solomon to attempt this as a debut film, but I will try to keep my chatter civil.
I also wouldn’t stay long on the genre conversation surrounding the film. There are cases being made on how Thar defies the neo-Western and extends to slasher or even makes it on a whole other parallel project conversation about the social and the moral fabric of the people in the country post-partition. It’s a bit like that Shakespeare quote on rose and the fragrance. Calling it an extension of a Western-vengeance thriller drama with a streak of immense violence is boring your reader with terms and information that doesn’t concern them. Just end the damn conversation with a term or two and move on, shall we?
Thar, then, exceeds the expectations it carries when it promises an Indian neo-Western set in Rajasthan in 1985. Located in Munabao village of Rajasthan in India, it fills you with the promise of stylistically shot, aesthetically pleasing visuals of a sleepy town, but you’re also in awe of most frames when you watch the interiors of Rajasthan shot like a no man's land, exactly what the writers (Raj Singh Chaudhary, Anurag Kashyap) are trying to convey with the screenplay. Cinematography by Shreya Dev Dube has to be acknowledged and appreciated, for finding that balance and maintaining it through the runtime of the film and not giving one cliche or dull moment. At 109 minutes, the film is crisp and rather fast-paced, there’s not a moment when you feel you can get to your phone and check out your ex spewing venom at you on socials. Aarti Bajaj has done a stellar job at keeping the attention in check.
Inspector Surekha Singh (Anil Kapoor) and his sidekick sub-inspector (Satish Kaushik) investigate mysterious and grotesque murders in town- one of a family that is robbed and brutally murdered and the other of a loner, a suspected opium dealer who peddles from Pakistan border to India via Rajasthan. The latter stands out for the brutality in the way the murder is committed and the duo is left puzzled by the loose ends; are these dacoits or is this someone new, a challenge for the police force in town as the narration tells us that they’re used to the business as usual of regular looting and drug trade by those who are known in town to spread havoc.
Their paths cross with antique dealer Siddharth (Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor) who is woefully quiet and mysterious for the most part. He quietly charms Kesar (Fatima Sana Shaikh) as he attempts to hire men for a job in the city, two among them are brothers and Kesar is married to one of the two — Panna (Jitendra Joshi). The film takes no time to establish that these men are far from honourable- Panna is a wife-beater and an abuser while his brother Dhanna (Sanjay Bishnoi) is cheating on his wife (Mukti Mohan) with a woman in another town. The reveals and the parallel tale of Kesar and Siddharth prompt you to wonder about his intentions towards her — is it the lust or is it her jewellery or are they partners in crime?
The film takes multiple parallel stories and weaves them all together with individual arcs of each character. The big finale ties most of the stray storylines including the ones you deem are unimportant — Anil Kapoor and his relationship with the wife in the film — a poignant slice of life depiction that carries no weight until you see what the filmmakers were trying to warn you against towards the end. Most of Thar is made up of a collection of these little moments that conjoin to make a thriller so violent that your heart is in your mouth, even if you are a fan of slashers and gore and have a stomach to digest these. These moments touch upon a variety of themes all enmeshed in a manner that they pass through easily, without making you stop to think, but at the same time, the subtlety is where the film shines.
The cast at large was brilliant and deserves to be talked about in detail. The women who are fleeting in their appearance and are central to the revenge plotline at large give out a mega performance each. Fatima Sana Shaikh shines through the film and wades through each emotion — from being enamoured by a stranger to immediately becoming subservient in her husband’s company to perceptively succumbing to both Siddharth and Kesar’s carnal needs. Mukti Mohan needs a whole film as a prequel because I’d love to see what she can do with her character, while delicately toying with her relationships with both the husband and the sister-in-law. Harsh Varrdhan moves through the film like a cold-blooded reptile, as though the grief is innate and embedded in his bones. It is equal part terrifying and sexy to watch him torture his victims for crimes we are not privy to until the fag end of the film. I can see why Netflix used the lines on his eyes to promote the trailer; you see a side to him that you can’t picture if you look at his previous roles in AK vs AK and Ray. Jitendra Joshi’s Panna will haunt me for a long-time. In him, I saw a villain that Bollywood promised me in the 90s but delivered only in 2022. Complete value for money in terms of a direct ratio of revenge to violence pay-off for a character and Joshi nailed his performance.
The highlight of the film, regardless of what anyone tells you, is Anil Kapoor. Is there anything he can’t do? As a co-producer, he nails getting the right team forward to work on the project, as an actor he steals every frame he is a part of, and as a narrator, his voice compels you to hang on to every word he is drilling in your head. In a manner of speaking, he is not too far from the audience, as a tour guide to the city where everything is about to set aflame and blaze one and all. I can’t seem to pinpoint anyone from his generation of lead actors who have aged this well and their films, each better than the last; that’s the kind of glow-up very few men in Bollywood have today and I am here for this.
Thar is also unlike the previous generation of Rajasthan tourism in cinema, especially the overdone quintessential Barjatyaesque representation of the state in the form of dancing couples as happily married illusions; however, there’s dal baati choorma, and tea with cigarettes. I would say small mercies for nailing the production right because Netflix is awfully lazy when it comes to that. With a film that talks less and shows more, Thar critically nails the mise-en-scène unlike any of the Indian predecessors in the genre.
Kashyap’s work in the film as a dialogue writer was one of the highlights for me and I can see a lot of memorable lines coming out from this to be etched as a part of contemporary Bombay cinematic history in making. The scene where the old man asks for a cigarette and match was easily my favourite takeaway from the film; the lines invigorated me, a tiny bit like dick-riding but only more comforting.
The one area where the film lacks is the final payoff, which seemed like a bit of a botched job. Something seemed amiss, especially in watching the final murder. One is aware that the lead has to take the fall for his actions and that the revenge will be cyclical, but do I want to believe it took one shot from a woman who is considered less than a human by half the town to make it happen? I don’t know. It also seemed a bit preposterous to hear the final narration, a little too wordy, a little too tiring. For a film that paced as well as Thar did and with the kind of plot lines they played in parallel as red-herring, it all seemed like a cover-up and an attempt to dumb down the stories of fate by the filmmaker. I am not sure about the intent here but the rest of the film was worth it to take this and live with it.
However, having said that, I don’t see a better contender for a perfect Summer thriller to enjoy from Netflix India catalogue. Grab that cup of chai and borrow some cigarettes from whoever you see smoking in the public, in a desert Thar away, this is business as usual for men.
The film is available for streaming on Netflix in India.
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