Cast: Anil Kapoor, Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor, Fatima Sana Sheikh, Satish Kaushik
Director: Raj Singh Chaudhary
Rating: Two and a half stars (Out of 5)
As the film opens, the voice of Anil Kapoor holds forth on how the flow of the wind leaves its mark on the desert sand and on how villages are wiped out by history only to be revived by people uprooted from elsewhere. He even refers to 1947 and the Partition of India, raising visions of a sweeping saga of human struggle against the ravages of time.
What Thar, written and directed by Raj Singh Chaudhary and produced by Anil Kapoor Film and Communication Network, turns out to be eventually is a rather tame tale of retribution that pans out in a dry, barren landscape, about the only aspect of the film that has our sustained attention.
The scorched landscape, captured evocatively by Shreya Dev Dube's camera, overshadows the narrative that unfolds in its grim expanse. Criminals, opium smugglers, an antique trader, a pair of policemen and women in their domestic cages people the story, but none of them is as captivating as the eponymous desert itself.
Thar, streaming on Netflix, is set in 1985. The Rajasthan border village of Munabao, which would be a mere speck on the map but for the fact that it is a conduit for the smuggling of drugs, is a place where men have no jobs, the women exist only to warm the beds of their feckless male partners, patriarchy suppresses any possibility of change, and the police force, represented by a jaded Inspector Surekha Singh (Anil Kapoor) has precious little to do besides providing security to visiting politicians.
The tide begins to turn when the inspector stumbles upon an opportunity to prove his worth as a law enforcer. Three murders rock the village. These killings take place in the first five minutes of the film. A man is shot off the branch of a tree and tortured until life ebbs out of him. We do not see the face of the perpetrator.
In the next sequence, an about-to-be-married girl makes out with her lover under the cover of darkness. Hiding in a field, she isn't very far from home. She can hear the gunshots that kill her parents. As she rushes back to see what has happened, she catches a glimpse of the fleeing gang of gunmen.
Surekha and his associate, Bhurelal (Satish Kaushik), who is as listless as the job he does, decide to investigate the murders and find the killers - and the connection between the two crimes. But is there any? A mysterious young man Siddharth (Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor) arrives in the village looking for a guy named Panna (Jitendra Joshi). He has paid jobs for a few workers, he says.
Panna hasn't been home for months, so Siddharth finds out where he lives. His childless wife Chetna (Fatima Sana Shaikh), informs his that her husband will be back any day. Siddharth decides to wait. He obviously cannot do without Panna.
Chetna is a woman who cares two hoots about village gossip about her. When Panna returns with his friend Kanwar (Sanjay Dadhich), the two men are hired by Siddharth right away. The duo is driven to a deserted fort on a hillock. What transpires there is beyond Panna and Kanwar's wildest imagination.
Another absent villager Dhanna (Sanjay Bishnoi) makes his way back to the village a little later. He, too, agrees to work for Siddharth only to quickly regret the decision. Siddharth isn't what he seems to be and he goes about executing a gruesome plan with a blank, deadpan expression.
The setting acquires a life of its own but the characters merely go through the motions. The air of menace and suspense that Thar seeks to create does not materialise because nothing that unfolds on the screen, no matter how shocking it is, evokes lasting emotion, which for a dark, supposedly disturbing thriller is bad news.
You do want to care about the spunky Chetna, whose husband has been away for months. You want to be invested in the shadowy Siddharth's motives. You also do want to know why three 'innocent' villagers have been slain. And you are definitely itching for more background information about the ageing inspector who sees in the sudden wave of violence in Munabao a chance to go out in a blaze of glory, a destiny that his wife (Nivedita Bhattacharya) believes he isn't cut out for.
A few scenes down the line, the film begins to resemble the location - sensory on the surface but drab under it notwithstanding the unsettling nature of the violence that is unleashed. Thar leaves many promising elements out in the sun and allows them to wither away to its own overall detriment.
The women in the story - the hardened Chetna, her blithe neighbour and young mother Gauri (Mukti Mohan) and Babita, the girl who leaves home on the pretext of visiting a temple and goes instead to meet her lover - deserved far more than what the screenplay is willing to give them.
Another chunky subplot goes abegging because the script opts to gloss over it. Bhurelal, a lower caste man who believes it is his police uniform that shields him from social discrimination, dismisses his boss's suggestion that he put his cooking skills to use and open a i. Nobody will touch the laal maans that I make.
Neither the gender dynamics at work in the village nor the ensconced caste divisions are explored beyond a point because the focus here is squarely on the characters played by the father and son duo of Anil Kapoor and Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor. Both Surekha Singh and Siddharth are nearing the end of their tether and both have a job on their hands. Kapoor Sr. delivers a restrained performance, and Kapoor Jr. finds himself tackling a role that appears to right up his narrow alley. He is hardly tested.
Fatima Sana Shaikh, sultry and smouldering by turns, has to make do with scenes that do not let her go far enough. Satish Kaushik conveys with consummate ease the frustrations and sense of resignation of a man who has learnt to survive in a discriminatory environment.
Visually, i is an immersive film. If it does not dissolve into nothingness, it is principally because of the visual depth and range that the cinematographer imparts to the frames and the subdued but striking colour palette that she creates. Dube lends the film a distinctive veneer that often serves to disguise the unbearable lightness of the proceedings.
Thar, a film with dialogues by Anurag Kashyap, has a few sharp edges, but it promises much more than it actually delivers. Vengeance, says a character, is a double-edged sword. In Thar, it has the feel of a mirage. It is bloody all right, but is far too pale to knock us out of our wits.