MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVEN'T WATCHED THUGS OF HINDOSTAN
Thugs Of Hindostan, which looks as if it's a desi Halloween party in Bandra where everyone is wearing Manish Malhotra's new Devdas-turned-daku fall-winter collection, probably added women to its script as an afterthought.
The film is guilty of many things—dialogues that sound like forwards in family WhatsApp groups and Katrina Kaif speaking her lines like they are Metro rail announcements—but nothing beats the script turning the women characters into cardboard '80s Bollywood staples. So, there's a heroine who needs saving from the villain and the tease.
Kaif, who plays Suraiya in the film, has a role smaller than her stock of expressions. And Fatima Sana Shaikh, who made a stunning debut as a wrestler in Aamir Khan's Dangal, is reduced to a role where she has only two expressions to explore—hurt, like she has spotted paneer in her noodles, or hurt, like she has been ghosted on Tinder. Shaikh does get to do some somersaults and shoot arrows, but also has to be constantly saved by the men in the film, basically making her character look like some sort of a pirate Barbie.
To really understand how shoddily the women characters are treated, let's look at what the men do in the film. Khan plays Firangi Malla, a conman who apparently charms his way into gaining people's trust and then betrays them for money. Around 10-15 minutes into the film, Khan appears on screen and from then, the first hour is entirely devoted to him. The script goes to great lengths to put Khan in a plethora of situations ranging from fights to dances to robberies to flesh out his character. He is a petty crook who is also trained in sword-fighting, a wily manipulator who is easily swayed by the sight of a sick child. Firangi is basically all the Kung Fu Panda characters stuffed into one human whose hair urgently needs washing.
In comparison, Amitabh Bachchan doesn't get that much screen time, and he only starts speaking properly more than an hour after the film has started (before that, his character mostly communicates through grunts). I didn't particularly mind that because he anyway sounds like that uncle in your WhatsApp group who'll send 'success is 99% perspiration' messages printed on poor late APJ Abdul Kalam's face. But at least Bachchan's character is revered and constantly spoken about throughout the film. Kaif and Shaikh put together have fewer dialogues than even Bachchan who flits in and out of the script.
While they had a perfect script for the purpose—a crook and a saint fighting with each other over allegiance to the British rulers—they had to throw in a woman to make their maleness more holistic for the Indian Hindi film audience.
Now, this would have been perfectly fine if the makers—producers Yash Raj Films and director Vijay Krishna Acharya—wanted to make Thugs a testosterone fest, some sort of a bromance between Khan and Bachchan. What is unfortunate is, while they had a perfect script for the purpose—a crook and a saint fighting with each other over allegiance to the British rulers—they had to throw in a woman to make their maleness more holistic for the Indian Hindi film audience.
So the script veers from saving the country to protecting Zaphira. That's not a paracetamol, that's the name of Shaikh's character in the film. The men also trade a bracelet to symbolise their responsibility of protecting the girl. Shaikh's character also looks at it wistfully to figure who's currently in charge of her—of course, this occurs to the sound of a weepy desi Titanic-type sound track and teary close-up shots, but that doesn't quite change the atrocious nature of this sub-plot.
Shaikh's Zaphira has an actual backstory— in contrast to the other characters. Zaphira witnessed the British killing her father, mother and brother when she was a child. She fled the kingdom—which was ruled by her father—after she was rescued by Khuda Baksh (Bachchan). Zaphira occasionally gets nightmares and talks about revenge. But all the script lets her do is turn unnecessary somersaults before shooting an arrow. During at least three fight sequences, she is saved from death by the men. While she is shown fighting alongside the men, there isn't one sequence which shows her covering for one of them or getting their back. Even when she plans her grand revenge, Khan's character Firangi changes tactics without her knowledge, which, of course, saves all their lives. The result—Zaphira, who was meant to be a warrior princess ends up becoming more of a couture Nirupa Roy.
Zaphira, who was meant to be a warrior princess ends up becoming more of a couture Nirupa Roy.
Kaif, whose character sketch was probably 'Chikni Chameli with a new wardrobe', doesn't get a single coherent line to utter in the film. In her defence, Kaif looks fabulous and has worked hard on the dance numbers. I kind of sprained my waist just by watching her twist herself like bubblegum and pack three steps in one beat in the Suraiya song. Again, while Kaif's character is shown helping the thugs get access to a show where they want to attack the British, she is bundled off after dancing to a very Lagaan-type 'we shall overcome' song.
Throughout the film, Bachchan looks like those men being force-fed laddoos while they are dying from acidity, in the Eno ads. I am amazed that the women in Thugs of Hindostan didn't end up looking that pissed, they had good reason to.
Every week, the writer will examine how women are treated in a work of popular culture.