The film is set in 1871 — the year the British colonial government passed the Criminal Tribes Act — and tells the fictional and fantastical tale of the betrayal and subjugation of a warrior tribe/band of dacoits based in Rajasthan (although the film is mostly shot in the picturesque cold desert of Ladakh’s Nubra Valley) by the British government, and the making of a Messiah who frees them from the shackles of slavery.

Shamshera is the leader of this tribe who unknowingly leads his clan into the trap of the British. But ironically, it is a fellow Indian working for the British, the conniving, sadistic, megalomaniac daroga Shudh Singh, who betrays and eventually kills Shamshera after he fails to escape from the confinement (a scene that might remind one of the prison escape scene from The Dark Knight Rises). It is then upon his son Balli to free his people and avenge his death.

It is the story of a hero betrayed. It is the story of the rise of his son to fulfill his father’s destiny and free his people. It is the story of the Lion King. Or that of a majority of Bollywood films made in the late ’80s. But then, stories (in this case written by Neelesh Misra and Khila Bisht) are mostly always the same; it is the narration that makes all the difference. And in Shamshera, director Karan Malhotra, who along with his wife Ekta Pathak Malhotra has also written the screenplay, does a decent job out of it.

A large part of the credit for the cinematic experience that is Shamshera, goes to production designer Sumit Basu and cinematographer Anay Goswamy. The robust dialogues by Piyush Mishra, replete with gems like ‘humne toh raat ka sahara liya thha, yeh toh suraj pot gaya sabke chehre pe’ and the very tagline of the film, ‘karm se dakait, dharm se azaad’ really add to the film’s mass entertainer gene. The music by Mithoon is superlative and Sukhwinder Singh’s vocals remind one of his Dil Se days. 

But this is a Ranbir Kapoor film. The actor who has spent about 15 years in the industry, for the first time attempts a larger-than-life role and plays the quintessential Bollywood hero, and he does it twice over – as Shamshera and again as Balli. And he does it with perfection, imbuing each with individual nuances and distinct body language. He is known for being a superlative actor but here he proves his range. This also is a Sanjay Dutt film. He is the right amount of ‘over-the-top’ as Shudh Singh. He has become a pro khalnayak over the years, but this particular character probably makes the best use of him. Another actor who deserves a special mention is Saurabh Shukla. There is Ronit Roy as well who is brilliant as always. Irawati Harshe as Balli’s mother is intense, but then she is always intense. Vaani Kapoor, who has almost become a permanent cast member for YRF movies, plays Balli’s not-so-interesting love interest. Also, it seems zero thought had gone into creating her wardrobe.  

Credits: Yash Raj Films

Although the excessive use of CGI, the exorbitant budget, magnificent set pieces, and the scale and mounting of the film give out a Baahubali/RRR vibe, it is a Western movie, along the lines of a Sholay (if Italians can have Spaghetti westerns, we can definitely have Khichdi westerns. But with beefy Ranbir looking absolutely droolicious, this is more of a Biryani western. Fine. Let’s not objectify men. Let’s just stick to calling it a Bollywood Western.) 

Shamshera has all the ingredients of a Bollywood mass entertainer but everything is amped up. This is Bollywood 2.0. And the best part? It tackles casteism, a topic that Bollywood avoids like the plague, within the scope of an out-and-out commercial, mass entertainer without ever becoming preachy. In fact, the story is not told from the perspective of an upper-caste savior. Also, it is a relief to finally see a larger-than-life villain who is not Muslim with horrible table manners or a British asking for chaar guna lagan, but an upper-caste Hindu replete with a tilak and a choti.

Credits: Yash Raj Films

But Shamshera is not a flawless film. It is far from it. Unpopular opinion…but so was RRR. In fact, at its best, it was a rather expensive Hindutva nationalism project. But anything that South Indian cinema does today is considered the gold standard. And with the anti-Bollywood sentiment at an all-time high, movies are increasingly being viewed through the lens of trending hashtags and prejudices. We are eager to put on our willing-suspension-of-disbelief glasses while watching magnificently choreographed but absolutely absurd tiger scene of RRR but when it comes to a few magic-realism-induced birds (I had more problems with the CGI-driven train) in a Bollywood film, that too a YRF movie, we are rattled; we vehemently renounce the lack of logic. But yes, Shamshera has serious plot holes, convenient resolutions, and some pretty bad CGI.

In our heads, we want Bollywood to stick to small-town local stories while we hail the big-budget spectacles of South cinema. Bollywood today is tasked to churn out ‘content’ and relatable cinema (relatable to who? What if a Dil Dhadakne Do is more relatable to me than a Pati Patni Aur Woh? Why should cinema always be relatable even? What if like Blanche Dubois, I don’t want reality, I want magic…especially when it is on screen) while South cinema is cashing in on what used to be Bollywood’s formula for mass entertainers — melodrama, over-the-top storylines, visual spectacles, glorious dances, gory and heavily stylized fight scenes, and of course a dash of misogyny.

But South cinema is ‘woke’. Or maybe anything that comes with a subtitle is supposed to be great cinema.  

Note: 

I don’t know why a character named Shamshera, which means a sword, is made to wield an axe. Even Khal Drogo, had gotten a better deal. However, it is not historically inaccurate as Rajputs were known to use battle axes, especially in the Mughal period and these find mention in Ain-i-Akbari written during Emperor Akbar’s reign.  

Also, did you know that Ranbir’s uncle, Shammi Kapoor, with whom he had shared screen space in Rockstar, was actually Shamsher Raj Kapoor? 

(Featured Image Credits: Yash Raj Films)