There is a Piyush Mishra hiding inside this big, bad, loud and messy Bollywood blockbuster, that one thought one had left a couple of decades behind. The one where the hero single-handedly brought the British Empire to heel, along with some very bad police officers, romanced and danced, and like here, even gave birth to a younger, more screen-friendly version of himself.
That Piyush Mishra (credited as the dialogue writer) surfaces in the form of Saurabh Shukla, who puts in impressive words that Shamshera is trying less-impressively to do over its excruciating 150-minute length – which is to emphasise that Shamshera (Ranbir Kapoor) and later his son Billa (Ranbir Kapoor) are literally braveheart lions, who walked the earth, unconquered and so on.
That Piyush Mishra also seems to exist somewhere in the film’s half-hearted exploration of caste politics, and how for those dubbed the lowest of the low – the “Khamiran tribe” in this case – the system was far more oppressive than what the British brought along.
One has the sneaking suspicion that the story actually has a kind view of its Englishman (there is really only one who is meant to stand in for his entire race), if only for his honour, integrity, and his “love for Hindustan”. The bird that seems to have adopted the Khamiran tribe as its own is no graceful, beautiful creature, but the little-regarded, almost-despised crow.
However, subtlety is not something that this Rs 150 crore Yash Raj film, bringing Ranbir to the big screen after a long four years, and walking in the looming shadow of RRR, has any use for. Against sets that are almost comically fake, of rugged hills, desert forts and ragged existence, everything is dramatic and exaggerated – interspersed with songs and music that are equally loud.
Ranbir is efficiently good as Shamshera, a leader of a tribe first treated as outcastes and later betrayed and kept enslaved in a fort. His end comes quickly, after he is caught in a bid to climb a hill and then stoned to death.
Ranbir has more fun as Balli, Shamshera’s son, who gets a short joyous interlude when he doesn’t know the truth about his father, and gets to show both his dancing feet and his fighting chops (as taught by Shamshera’s loyal comrade played by Ronit Roy). Till he does find out, and encounters Shamshera’s nemesis and now his, Daroga Shuddh Singh (Sanjay Dutt, who has been doing this maniacal, sadistic act since Khalnayak).
Vaani Kapoor is Sona, the oasis of this desert, who dances her way into everyone’s hearts every time she is called to perform – which is quite often, to forgettable music. Sona and Balli always have a thing going, which is one less matter this film has to concern itself with as it goes about pitting Balli against the English Colonel and Shuddh Singh, again and again.
And again. In a curiously scripted and paced story, the film seems to be heading towards the climax, only to pull away and subside, and repeat the pattern once more.
Some of those periods when the film subsides, such as when Balli and his team of stragglers, including Shukla and a handful of other notable characters, decide to “disappear” to get the Colonel and Daroga off their backs, Shamshera again suggests it could have been so much better. The pain on the faces of the men, who are seeing their dream of freedom snatched away and fear returning to their old, forgettable lives (of which at least one involves entering sewers to clean them), looks like real pain.
However, compared to that pain, this is the kind of film that lingers more on the chunk of wood struck deep into Balli’s back.
With little to do except dance and give birth, loudly and painfully and in the most traumatic of circumstances, and to later hold that infant through a fight that rages around her, Vaani Kapoor is the only thing minimalistic about Shamshera.
From her draped linen wraps to her no make-up make-up, to her un-sand-filled hair, it’s hard to tell whether Sona belongs to 1896 (as intended) or 2022 (as perhaps also intended).
Shamshera movie cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Vaani Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Ronit Roy
Shamshera movie director: Karan Malhotra
Shamshera movie rating: 2.5 stars