Ranbir Kapoor didn’t make the most promising start to his career with “Saawariya.” But between 2008 and 2013, the man gave commercial and/or critical hits after hits after hits in the form of “Wake Up Sid,” “Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Ki Ghazab Kahani,” “Rocket Singh,” “Raajneeti,” “Rockstar,” “Barfi!”, and “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.” This stint made him one of the most bankable stars in the industry and a fan favorite for taking on relatable roles. Things got rocky with “Besharam,” “Roy,” “Bombay Velvet,” and “Jagga Jasoos.” But he still managed to garner some acclaim with “Tamasha,” “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” (financially, only), and “Sanju.” Then he fell off the map, probably for personal reasons. Now, he has returned to the big screen after four long years with “Shamshera,” and the comeback is dismal.
“Shamshera” isn’t just a comeback for Ranbir but also for co-writer (along with Ekta Pathak Malhotra, story writers Neelesh Misra and Khila Bisht, and dialogue writer Piyush Mishra) and director Karan Malhotra after seven years. The story is set in the 1800s and is centered around a warrior tribe (Khameran) that was evicted from their land by the Mughals and then oppressed by the British and an upper-caste “daroga” (inspector), Shuddh Singh (Sanjay Dutt). But a savior of sorts rises amongst them, who goes by the name Shamshera (Ranbir Kapoor). He brings the British to their knees. So, in an attempt to subdue him and the Khamerans, Shuddh offers him an obviously bad deal under the pretext of giving them true freedom. Shamshera falls for it and leads the Khamerans into a bleak future. 25 years later, Shamshera’s son, Balli (also Ranbir), is born with a chip on his shoulder and aspirations of becoming a soldier in Shuddh’s squad.
Well, to be honest, there are very few positives to talk about. The first thing that’s commendable about “Shamshera” is that the film takes on the topic of casteism. It illustrates how, during times of oppression, Indians will find other ways of oppressing their own because of the existence of the caste system. And what do people, who are considered to be of a lower caste, have to do in order to survive, while those who claim to be of the upper caste continue to enjoy life’s greatest pleasures. Malhotra and his team don’t do anything significant with this, though. They literally forget about it for major chunks of the runtime, thereby making the eventual and predictable victory seem contrived. The second thing is the VFX. It’s decent for the most part. The third and final thing is the attempt to make the film feel epic. From Malhotra to cinematographer Anay Goswami to editor Shivkumar V. Panicker to production designer Sumit Basu, everyone tries their hand at maximalism. Does it work? Not really.
“Shamshera” has such blatant technical errors that they outweigh the aforementioned positives by a huge margin. The one that’s the most irksome is the frame rate. Scenes start at 24 frames-per-second or 30 frames-per-second. The next moment, it seems like someone has turned on motion-smoothing on the device. And when the scene goes into a slow-motion mode, everything moves in a jarring fashion, instead of looking visually pleasing, like scenes in slow-motion should. The horse-riding scenes are abysmal. The horse’s motion, the rider’s motion, and the speed at which the background is whipping behind them are not in sync. The CGI crows and eagle are literal (but unintentional) jump scares. The way they’re composited into the shots with live-action elements is horrifying. The action sequences are so bloody unappealing. They tell no story or reveal anything about the character. They just start, and then they end, leaving you wondering what the purpose of that bit was. On top of that, there’s Ranbir’s fake beard, which is distracting as hell.
One can say that these are minor issues, and you should be focusing on the plot. Well, what’s the plot, if not “Agneepath” 2.0, with truckloads of repetitive exposition and songs? And “Agneepath” is way better than “Shamshera.” In that film, you get to empathize with and map the rise of Vijay Dinanath Chauhan (Hrithik Roshan). In this film, at one moment, you see Balli as the most childish person in Kaza, and seconds later, he’s motivated enough to take part in the revolution. Showing his growth via all the looting he does could have been interesting. But Malhotra turns that phase into a montage set to “Hunkara” because he prioritizes crafting “fun” (but not really fun) sequences over showing the maturing of his lead character. It seems like the writers decided how they were going to begin the film and how they were going to echo that in the ending. Between these two points, anything goes, including a sultry song with contemporary choreography. FYI, the movie is set in the 1800s.
Anyway, all sense of period-accuracy goes out of the window as soon as you hear Vaani Kapoor’s South Delhi accent and whatever Ranbir Kapoor is doing. So, I’m not going to deduct any points for that in this fictional story set against the backdrop of British rule in India. What I’m going to criticize, though, is the acting. As mentioned earlier, Ranbir has been through some rough patches. But he never gave a bad performance. In “Shamshera,” you can see him struggling, trying to ripple his muscles, do a lot of his stunts (or maybe he didn’t do his stunts, and that’s a really good stunt double), and pose as a larger-than-life hero. Unfortunately, none of it lands. Not a single dialogue, not a single emotion, not a single scene featuring him feels convincing. And that’s a bigger letdown than the over-the-top performances delivered by Sanjay Dutt, Vaani Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Ronit Roy, and the rest of the supporting cast whose names YRF hasn’t even listed on IMDb (at the time of writing this review, at least).
In conclusion, “Shamshera” is not a movie that I can recommend. There is certainly an interesting idea, somewhere in the story and the script, about a tribe of lower caste people rising up against their upper caste oppressors and then their British oppressors. But Karan Malhotra doesn’t bring enough style or substance to turn that story of revenge and revolution into an enthralling viewing experience that’s on par with recent, big-scale Indian films like “RRR,” or “KGF Chapter 2.” Instead, he delivers a bloated, exposition-heavy, flashback-heavy, poorly acted film that has moments of half-decent action. It’s obvious that a movie like this isn’t made in a vacuum. However, every element packed into its excruciating 2-hour-39-minute runtime, ranging from Ranbir’s beard to the VFX, will make you ask, why didn’t anyone say “no” to save it from being such a disaster?