Movie Review: Thugs of Hindostan (2018)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Despite its novelty as a rare Bollywood seafaring epic, Thugs of Hindostan is done in by  predictable character development and a familiar plot focused too heavily on its male protagonists.

The film begins promisingly enough, with Ronit Roy playing the leader of the last Indian kingdom to resist takeover by the British East India Company in 1795. After instructing his young daughter Zafira (played by fierce little Deshna Dugad) on the importance of protecting her homeland, King Mirza plans to attack the Brits at dawn, but the Company’s merciless lead officer Clive (Lloyd Owen) attacks first. Only Zafira escapes with the help of the royal family’s devoted bodyguard, Kattappa…er, Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan).

Fast-forwarding eleven years introduces the swaggering trickster Firangi (Aamir Khan). Firangi’s name means “foreigner,” explaining his willingness to pit Indians against Indians and Brits against Indians, all in the name of making a buck. He has no allegiance to the burgeoning resistance movement threatening the Company, making him the perfect spy to gather information on behalf of Clive’s second-in-command, Officer Powell (Gavin Marshall, who coordinated the circus acts for Dhoom 3, which also starred Khan and was directed by Thugs director Vijay Krishna Acharya).

The rebel leader “Azaad” (“Free”) is really Khudabaksh, assisted by grown up Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who’s become a deadly fighter. The name Azaad is confusing, because it’s hard to tell when the rebel army shouts the word if they’re cheering for the man specifically or the concept of freedom, generally. This is significant because the first character we see in the movie is Zafira as a girl. Thugs should be her revenge saga, but Khudabaksh appears to get all the credit for attacking the Brits — unless the masses really are cheering for freedom and not just for him. Either way, crown princess Zafira winds up playing second fiddle to her bodyguard.

As is the case for many Hindi films, the challenge in Thugs is weighing the needs of the story against the needs of the stars. The stars’ needs clearly trump the narrative in this case. Without Khan or Bachchan — and perhaps with an actress with a longer resume than Shaikh’s — Zafira would be the main character. But one feels a calculus governing the whole plot, and that’s ensuring that the biggest stars get the most screentime. For example, Khan must be onscreen for three-fourths of the movie (I’m estimating), Bachchan for less (but he gets more dramatic entrances), etc. That limits the scope of what other characters are able to do and diminishes their importance.

That calculus is responsible for the absurdly lazy incorporation of Katrina Kaif’s dancer character Suraiyya into the plot. She’s summoned out of the ether as the screenplay demands, with no attempt to make her feel like a person who exists when she’s not onscreen. She’s a character designed for item numbers, nothing more. It’s a shame because Kaif is captivating in her brief dialogue scenes, and there had to have been some way to further utilize the grace and athleticism she displays in the songs “Suraiyya” and “Manzoor-e-Khuda”.

Shaikh is likewise underutilized, despite having the most compelling emotional arc. She and Kaif share a nice moment in which their characters discuss the dangers of revolutionary action (after telling Khan’s chatterbox character to shut up). The film’s high point is a touching scene in which Zafira mourns her family, and Khudabaksh sings her to sleep as he did when she was a girl. The film is lessened for putting Zafira’s thirst for vengeance second to the question of whether Khan’s Captain Jack Sparrow-lite character will finally become a good person (of course he will).

One point in Thugs of Hindostan‘s favor is that they cast British actors who don’t sound ridiculous speaking Hindi, which is not common practice in Bollywood. There are good supporting performances by Roy, Sharat Saxena, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Firangi’s psychic sidekick. Ila Arun has the only other female role of note, giving a funny turn as Jaitumbi, a potion-maker with a crush on the much-younger Firangi.

Thugs of Hindostan has one of the biggest budgets of all time for a Bollywood film, and it gets quite a lot of value for the money. Battle scenes are fun and clever, set against stunning backdrops. The leather armor worn by Zafira and Khudabashk is gorgeous, designed by Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma. Dance numbers are grand in scale.

High production values coupled with decent story pacing are enough to maintain interest while watching Thugs of Hindostan, even if its narrative deficiencies make it ultimately forgettable.


20 thoughts on “Movie Review: Thugs of Hindostan (2018)

  1. Thank You

    Thank you for your review, which appears to be generate the same level of curiosity about the film as my viewpoint about the film’s trailer. The film’s trailer was not compelliing to me, so I was not enthused about watching this film and was awaiting critical reviews before making a decision to expend time and money to watch this film.

    More so, since that trailer was synchronous with another ‘big-screen’-type trailer, i.e., Kedarnath, that did generate some personal curiousity.

    The Pirates of the Caribbean movie set was not particularly interesting to me (although J. Depp’s dialogue delivery in the first one was distinct) and it seems that this film, i.e., “Thugs …” is probably less entertaining than that set and more on par with [yawn] K. Winslet’s Titanic, [shudder] R. Crowe’s “Master and Commander … ” or [extra-shudder] K. Costner’s Waterworld.

    I’m not averse to aquatic-themed films. I am looking forward to the new Aquaman and particularly enjoyed Seu Jorge’s Portuguese covers of the works of David Bowie on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

    Kedarnath, on the other hand, appears to have a compelling tale, i.e., Mother Nature attacks a holy town. This movie reminds me of the medieval-time Lisbon earthquake that increased skepticism about faith (why would God attack churchgoers of a rigorous faith on a holy day in God’s house?) and possibly encouraging a cultural of greater scientific tolerance (early-onset seismology?).

    It seems that the producers of “Thugs …” forgot to flog a dead horse (“These Olde Timey Britishers are Evil”) in a creative way (they did have a recent-era benchmark on this theme in K. Sharma’s Firangi, and they had to be willfully blind to Firangi’s existence for an obvious reason), much like Hollywood continues to flog its own favorite deceased equine in a similar fashion (“Nazi’s are Evil”; a recent examply being the particularly boring 2010’s H. Mirren’s The Debt).

    Insofar as flogging dead horses is concerned, I live in the hope that related commercial disappointments experienced by both the ‘woods force them to eventually learn to improve their creativity, as there is plenty of literature in their native tongues on their favorite respective flogged horses. There’s Colin Forbes’ The Leader And The Damned for Hollywood to flog, Nirmal Verma’s cross-over “Dedh Inch Upar’ to flog by both Hollywood and Bollywood and plenty of whipping material in Sadat Hasan Manto’s short stories for the latter group of producers. The last one’s recent prominence via an N. Siddiqui starring bio-pic and a 2018 production of Toba Tek Singh by Zee – I haven’t found an English subtitled version for this Zee production yet – .makes it almost inexcusable of a so-called big money Indian production house to come up with “Thugs …”, especially since the history of the thugs is compelling enough to act as a sufficient muse (Evil Olde Timey Britishers pretending to be noble by removing a local horror, with possible thematic elements like “is the enemy of my enemy really my friend”, “the modern era popular Western angst about supposed cultural appropriation of the T word”, etc.)

    I apologize for having meandered again, so I’ll stop.


    1. Kathy

      “Kedarnath, on the other hand, appears to have a compelling tale, i.e., Mother Nature attacks a holy town. This movie reminds me of the medieval-time Lisbon earthquake that increased skepticism about faith (why would God attack churchgoers of a rigorous faith on a holy day in God’s house?) and possibly encouraging a cultural of greater scientific tolerance (early-onset seismology?).” — interesting perspective on Kedarnath, Thank You. I hope you’re right, as that truly would be something unique in Bollywood.

    2. Thank You

      I apologize for the grammatical error in my first sentence, where I typed “generate” instead of “generating.”

      Also, for the sake of the financial health of Bollywood I hope that, in addition to Kedarnath, Zero does well, for what’s left of this year.

      S.R. Khan’s last one – Jab Harry Met Sejal – was devoid of a script, to put it mildly, in spite of its leading actors trying to make turkey salad out of this turkey [I plead guilty to paying homage to the Danson/Rosselini headlined Cousins, from way back in the day]. A. Rai’s last three had excellent stories and screenplays, so maybe the charisma of S.R. Khan and the yarn-spinning skill of A.L. Rai creates something worthwhile.

      Race 3, on hindsight, exists to make “Thugs …” look good, in my view, so S.R. Khan, S. Khan and A. Khan have answered “not much” to the question, “what have you done for me lately?”

      2019 has not much to offer in terms of interesting stories, other than a couple of war films – V. Kaushal’s Uri and A. Kumar’s Kesari. Both K. Ranaut’s Manikarnika and H. Roshan’s Super 30 seem underwhelming, but K. Ranaut’s subsequent collaboration with R.Rao shows some commercial promise.


        1. Thank You

          In Re: “You’ve made my day”, that was my articulated exclamation in nobody’s vicinity when I saw your rating and unambiguously positive opinion for Dil Chahta Hai, a few months ago. I’m flattered to note that I inadvertently ended up providing a comparable level of satisfaction. Ergo, thank you for your kind words.

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  3. Toni Bishop

    This review is spot on. I second you on all the character issues. (Where on earth is Katrina Kaif’s character in the immediate aftermath of the climactic dance? Did she just amble off somewhere?) Frankly I thought the supporting cast superior to either Khan or Bachchan. For both of these two characters, there is too much speechifying and an insufficient pay off. There’s no real central relationship either; all get short shrift. I thought the run time dragged, and it’s weighed down by tone problems. It seems like it wanted to be both humorous and also a statement piece, a hard combo to pull off. On the other hand, it was an interesting movie visually, and I liked the premise a great deal. (As an aside — while I realize the history is fuzzy by design, and among the source material is the 1837 novel Confessions of a Thug, I was puzzled by the time frame. Think the John Clive of the movie is supposed to be Robert Clive, off by about 40 years? Why not set the story earlier? I do like this revisionist version where Clive gets his comeuppence though.) Overall, it just wasn’t quite the movie I was hoping for, alas.

    1. Kathy

      Same here, Toni. I think the movie was rewritten several times, so that may explain the time shifts and historical diversions. Then again, maybe the filmmakers felt other things too precedence over historical accuracy. 😉

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  5. Chetan

    I digress on the movie you reviewed; but if you get a chance watch Tumbbad.
    Arguably, one of the best Hindi movies to come out of Bollywood in the last decade or so.

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  9. quotepoet

    Great review, very informative! Haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have a question if you could please answer. Who plays Aamir love interest in the movie? Is it Katrina or Fatima? Or is there no love interest?

    1. Kathy

      Thanks, quotepoet. So, Aamir doesn’t really have a love interest in Thugs. He and Katrina discuss that they’ve been romantic in the past, but nothing happens in the present. He and Fatima have a little “will they? won’t they?” vibe, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

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