An entire era of Hollywood has been defined by the Western, with movies like “The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)”, “Rio Bravo (1959)”, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)”, and more. Post the release of “Heaven’s Gate (1980),” although the genre witnessed a significant decline, the Coen Brothers, Taylor Sheridan, Clint Eastwood, and Quentin Tarantino helped it metamorphose into the Neo-Western. Bollywood’s story is a little different. It’s true that there have been some “classic” Westerns in the form of “Khote Sikkay (1974)”, “Sholay (1975)”, “Pratiggya (1975)”, etc. But the genre didn’t quite recover after “China Gate (1998)”. Now, films like “Paan Singh Tomar (2010)” and “Sonchiriya (2019)” have shown the way towards growing the Neo-Western genre in our backyard. And “Thar (2022)” is a much-needed step in that direction.
Written and directed by Raj Singh Chaudhary, with dialogues by Anurag Kashyap, “Thar” opens in 1985 in Munabao, Rajasthan, with the brutal murder of a man named Suwa (Akkshay Gunaawat). The scene then shifts to the night before Babita’s (Anushka Sharma) wedding, where her family is shot up by a dacoit named Hanif Khan (Rahul Singh), and the things she needed to pay as dowry are stolen. This brings Inspector Surekha (Anil Kapoor) and his right-hand man, Bhure (Satish Kaushik), into the picture. While they investigate the murder and the looting, a mysterious man from the city, Siddharth (Harshvardhan Kapoor), arrives looking for three men to help him with his antique business. He starts making ripples by being around in the town and interacting with a married woman, Chetna (Fatima Sana Shaikh). But things start to get particularly dark when two of the three men Siddharth is looking to employ, Panna (Jitendra Joshi) and Kanwar (Sanjay Dadhich), come back from their trip to Kolkata.
The most noticeable thing about “Thar” is the way director Raj Singh Chaudhary, composer Ajay Jayanthi, cinematographer Shreya Dev Dube, production designer Wasiq Khan, art director Disha Dey, and costume designer Priyanka Agarwal establish the barrenness of Munabao. It’s a kind of barrenness that isn’t limited to the landscape, but to the people inhabiting that place. But there’s a deep rot underneath this dry exterior that is exemplified by the rotting corpse of a buffalo (which initially looks asleep, and then the reality becomes apparent) and exposed by Surekha and Siddharth’s actions. This rot has many faces, though. One is that of drugs; the second is that of casteism; the third is that of classism; the fourth is that of sexism; and the fifth (and probably final) one is that of violence. However, the clever thing about Raj’s writing is that most of them are red herrings to keep the audience from looking at the obvious plot twist. And since the conclusion comments on the futility of vengeance, the convoluted road leading up to it seems worthwhile.
If that’s not enough to classify “Thar” as a Neo-Western, well, it features a lot of the tropes associated with the genre. There are shoot-outs. There are dacoits and horses. There is an element of mystery. There is a beautiful woman with a tragic past and present. There’s a MacGuffin. There’s revenge. The lines between the protagonist and antagonist are blurred. That said, there are three elements that feel uncharacteristic and give the movie an oddball flavor. Siddharth looks, feels, and acts like the Man with No Name, down to the clinking sound of his boots. But he’s a horror movie monster of sorts. Surekha is a weathered police officer who should be striving to bookend his career with one last case. However, he’s a guy who hasn’t done enough to make a career, is excited by the prospect of shoot-outs, and almost buckles when he faces the music. And then there’s the dark undercurrent of humor that makes a mockery of the deaths (a burning body is match-cut with food being cooked over fire), the sex, and, of course, the machoism.
Coming to the performances, everyone from Fatima Sana Shaikh to Satish Kaushik, Jitendra Joshi (bless his vocal cords), Sanjay Bishnoi (bless his vocal cords too), Sanjay Dadhich (bless his vocal cords as well), Mukti Mohan, and the rest of the supporting cast deliver in spades. The way they immerse themselves into their characters, no matter how long they get to be on-screen, is truly commendable. But this is a Harshvardhan Kapoor and Anil Kapoor show, and they know it. As mentioned before, Harshvardhan is a monster, and everything from his physique to his glare to the way he speaks feels intimidating. However, by the end, you start to understand that even that’s a teaser of what’s underneath his steely exterior. It’s a fairly restrained performance (which is the operative word in “Thar”) and hence, fitting for the movie. Anil Kapoor is still showing that he has more to offer to this entertainment industry by shifting seamlessly between beats of action, contemplation, defeat, and an attempt at hope. Also, the man should narrate more movies, especially Westerns. He’s too perfect for it!
In conclusion, there are some questionable story beats, framing choices, and weird editing centered around the women in “Thar,” but since they are spoiler-y in nature, I can’t quite get into that. At the same time, since they’re very “in your face,” it’s tough not to point it out. Other than that, “Thar” is a brooding and bloody Neo-Western that’s probably not for everybody but should be watched by all. Debut director Raj Singh Chaudhary doesn’t just emulate what’s trendy about the genre, but gives it a very authentic Indian touch by incorporating themes of caste, class, sexism, and the violence that’s synonymous with men. In fact, there’s so much to unpack in this 1 hour 49 minute-long movie, in terms of the expansiveness of its geography and the complexity of its characters, that it could’ve even benefited from the episodic treatment. So, yes, to more of this and less of whatever mainstream Hindi entertainment is producing.