REVIEW / BOLLYWOOD ACTION ADVENTURE
THUGS OF HINDOSTAN (PG13)
165 minutes/Now showing/4.5 stars
The story: Set in the late 1700s, a band of thugs lead by Khudabaksh Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan) aspires to free Hindostan (the Indian subcontinent) from the clutches of British colonisers. A double-crossing trickster Firangi (Aamir Khan) is sent in by the British, in an attempt to dismantle the rebel movement.
When two Bollywood titans come together on screen for the first time, there is a high chance one could overshadow the other - especially when Amitabh Bachchan is a living legend with five decades worth of films to his name and Aamir Khan is a critically-acclaimed actor who makes films that smash box-office records.
But in Thugs of Hindostan, it is the best of both worlds coming together in an on-screen pairing that is the soul of a film jam-packed with high-octane action sequences, elaborate dance numbers and plenty of thrills.
Bachchan's steadfast and stoic Azaad and Khan's wiley and colourful Firangi are the perfect foil for each other as characters on opposite ends of the moral spectrum.
Khan, who is a chameleon of an actor, seems to relish his role as the anti-hero, whose intentions are never quite clear. He plays it with panache and verve, with the cheeky glint never leaving his kohl-rimmed eyes.
His actions are the main catalyst for the plot, and importantly, in keeping the audience hooked because no one is privy to his endgame.
Meanwhile, Bachchan's commanding presence is undeniable as he gets the best action sequences, sword fights and pithy one-liners. His stunt double did such a good job that it was almost believable that the 76-year-old was jumping from ship to ship in fight scenes or wielding a sword effortlessly.
Khan and Bachchan hold their own, in an artful dance on screen captured in plenty of scenes with just the two of them. But ultimately they find common ground in the greater goal of freedom for the Indian subcontinent from their oppressors.
The film is directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya, who is best known for his work on the action-adventure Dhoom series, hence Khan is reunited with Dhoom 3 (2013) co-star Katrina Kaif, who plays the courtesan Suraiyya.
But while she is stunning on screen, and her skills as a dancer are unmatched in Bollywood films, she is reduced to that of "item song" girl yet again. Here she dances at the pleasure of the British soldiers to overly intricate, almost distracting routines choreographed by famed choreographer Prabhu Deva.
Thankfully, the other central female character Zafira, played by up-and-coming actress Fatima Sana Shaikh, has plenty of agency as a fierce warrior who razes enemies with her bow and arrow.
Like the Bachchan-Khan pairing, she also adds heart to the film, with a compelling story arc that climaxes in spectacular fashion.
Considering the director's track record for mainly vacuous "masala" films that are meant to be entertaining and not much else, the screenplay is also surprisingly fleshed out.
It gives Shaikh, who was last seen in Dangal (2016) alongside Khan, shades of complexity. She gets to be fierce, but also vulnerable, especially in a touching scene where her father-figure Azaad cradles her in his arms as he sings her a lullaby.
With that many action sequences playing out at sea and rebellious thugs fighting against the East India Company, the comparisons to Hollywood's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are inevitable.
But Thugs Of Hindostan is its own film and Bollywood at its finest.
It is perhaps best captured in the song and dance sequence for the song Vashmalle (meaning to "make merry"), which takes place in Azaad's secret hideout.
It is the perfect confluence of two of the greatest actors in Bollywood coming together in a pure, rapturous Bollywood set piece that is celebratory and life-affirming - like a properly entertaining Bollywood film should be.