By Rachit Raj

The art of story-telling is essentially an act of deceit. The story-teller tries to sell fiction to its readers/viewers in a way that they emote through the narrative as if it were a real story. Every creative decision is merely an elaboration of how this act of lying can be sold as a convincing truth to the masses. In that sense, Laal Kaptaan is a colossal failure of selling a lie to the audience.

Director Navdeep Singh and writer Deepak Venkatesha build a rustic, dark world in 18th century Rajasthan and give us a protagonist in Gossain (Saif Ali Khan) who fits the unreliable, edgy terrain on which the movie is set. The movie is mounted as a Western, finding that American genre in the period of British rule long before the First War of Independence in 1857.

Cinematographer Shanker Raman carefully captures the dusty world Singh sets the story in. Pebbles and dust become characters and for a moment you feel you are being transported to the enigmatic world of Socnchiriya, a film that used the rocky terrain of the Chambal valley both as a character and a metaphor for the psychological complexities of its characters.

Laal Kaptaan is mounted, shot and presented to us as a potentially acclaimed indie movie starring a new and improved Saif Ali Khan and a bunch of fantastic actors, all giving it a feel of one of those movies that lands on our screen after going through a series of film festivals. Alas, it is all a big, crumbling lie that comes off a few minutes into the movie.

The narrative of the movie is so shallow and its characters so uninteresting that the serious tone it adopts becomes more self-deprecating with each passing scene. Khan is excellent as the vengeful Naga Sadhu in what will sadly be a forgotten performance in a dismal movie. Manav Vij is appropriately cold-blooded as an old-school antagonist who is never shown to have a positive side to his personality. Deepak Dobriyal tries to induce some ill-timed laughs in the narrative in a character that seems to be some kin of Firangi Mallah from Thugs of Hindostan.

In an attempt to sell their story as a slow-burning tale of revenge (as if emulating The Revenant in our history), the film turns into a slow, painful affair which seems to be convinced of achieving a form of philosophical depth that never comes through on screen. The only idea that comes through is that unlike his previous NH10, which was aware of its genre and the language best suited for it, Navdeep Singh loses his recent outing the minute he starts to somehow amalgamate philosophy and revenge in his narrative. If only there was a William Shakespeare around to help him find that perfect balance.

It is a shame that Laal Kaptaan fails in spite of being helmed by talented artists both on and off screen. Sadly, the film lacks the kind of story that could keep the audience invested for its overlong 155 minutes. The film could have been a watchable affair had it been at least an hour shorter. Maybe then Khan’s performance alone would have made it worth a watch. However, at over two-and-a-half hours, there is nothing that keeps this movie afloat. Not even its desperate attempt to pass off as a distant relative to Sonchiriya and Tumbbad.