The Ranbir Kapoor-starrer was billed as a blockbuster, but it pales in comparison with films like RRR and Baahubali. And for good reason!
Announced in 2018, Shamshera was supposed to be a recasting of Ranbir Kapoor away from his romantic-hero image.
The trailers promised as much: a rugged Shamshera, some thumping background music, and expansive shots that promised a blockbuster and the box-office bomb that it eventually turned out to be.
It added ghee to the blazing debate of Hindi cinema vs movies from South India. Here’s a quick look at where Shamshera went wrong while using the ‘epic movie from South India’ formula:
Indian films have long been accused of exposition: People explain — and sometimes overexplain — a plot point.
Some directors from South India seem to have found a better way to do this: They trust the audience to connect the dots.
Take RRR for example. You don’t need to be told via voiceover that the British are the baddies and Bheem and Ram are godlike heroes. Their own actions and words tell you that.
Even Baahubali: The Beginning film had no voiceover explaining who the lady stumbling around in the dark was. Instead, she killed two armed soldiers with the arrow sticking out of her back, and addressed the Almighty as an equal.
This is the first place where Shamshera goes wrong. It opens with an exposition that is interspersed with action, and it goes on for about 15 minutes till we get to the main story.
The exposition surfaces in other places as well: places where visuals could have easily carried the story forward.
Shamshera has good characters, and good actors playing them. Yet, neither Pir (played by Ronit Roy) nor Doodh Singh (played by Saurabh Shukla) became audience-favourites like ‘Kattappa’ from the Baahubali films.
Meanwhile, Sanjay Dutt initially makes a caricature out of Shuddh Singh. The menace of this antagonist comes out only too late. The RRR comparison becomes necessary again: Ray Stevenson may have been given a one-dimensional role in Governor Scott, but he oozes menace right from the beginning. No tomfoolery here. But this might be a note more for the director than the actor.
Another thing, Karan Malhotra might want to note is the on-screen depiction of Ranbir Kapoor. The original Shamshera looks fierce — almost lion-like — with his mane and whiskers. His son Balli is a pale shade of that, making it a little more difficult for the audience to relate to him.
Now, this may have been a conscious decision, so Balli may come across as someone carefree who has had responsibility thrust on his shoulders. But it simply doesn’t work!
South Indian films, over the past decade or so, seem to have perfected the use of flashbacks. The usual formula thus begins with a clueless protagonist, who learns about his purpose midway through the film and then exacts revenge.
Heck, SS Rajamouli had tweaked this even further, showing us key plot points in flashbacks just when we need them! Case in point: The massacre of Ram’s family in RRR was shown first, and later we learn how he had to kill his own father after promising him arms for the entire community.
Now, it’s not as if the makers of Shamshera didn’t know this template. The film’s plot on Wikipedia actually follows this formula!
Yet, the actual film shows the background first, and there is no flashback elsewhere. This worked in Hrithik Roshan’s debut film Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai, but that was more than two decades ago!
Wikipedia describes Chekhov’s gun — or Chekhov’s rifle — as a “dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed”.
It adds: “Elements should not appear to make ‘false promises’ by never coming into play.”
Shamshera gets this wrong on several counts. One example is the training Pir gives Balli, which seems to set up an epic escape, but it never comes to fruition.
Another is British officer Colonel Freddy Young, who we are introduced to in the second half of the film. He appears to be more evolved than the one-dimensional Governor Scott in RRR, but that never plays out in the film.
Heck, we even expect a rivalry between him and Shuddh Singh, who shoots at him when Balli holds him hostage! But even that possible subplot is side-lined.
Compare this to a film like RRR or the two Baahubali films, where we were rarely introduced to a character or a character trait that does not come into play later in the story.
Shamshera has good visuals and music, and also makes good use of slow motion in various places. But it also uses them in the wrong places as well.
One example of the use of music in the wrong place is the song “Tera Ye Ishq Mera Fitoor…”. It is no doubt a very hummable, likeable number, but it hits us right after the interval, sticking to the old Bollywood formula that was built on the belief that people might miss key plot points because they return late after the interval.
Compare this to — again — RRR and Baahubali, which jumped into the deep end of storytelling right after the interval. And RRR did an exceptionally good job with its songs, which took the story forward rather than becoming dancing expositions. (Yes, “Naatu Naatu” showed Jenny falling even more for Bheem, and acts as a way for him to confirm Malli’s presence in the castle.)
Meanwhile, Shamshera also uses slow motion in the wrong places. Thus, the suffering of the downtrodden seems unending to appear like bondage and sadistic pornography. The gratuitous violence does not help either.
On the other hand, films like RRR intersperse slow motion with actual speed to show action. Great examples are the slow-motion collision of the tiger and the wolf in the forest, and Bheem stopping a motorcycle with his bare hands towards the end of the film. Both shots were preceded and followed by action happening in real-time, giving the audience just enough to register the magnitude of what just happened before they are hit with more action and tension.
And finally, Shamshera presents problems that stare you in the face and dare you to call them out.
One example is the clearly fake baby — possibly a bundle of clothes — that Sona, played by Vaani Kapoor, holds towards the end of the film. At times it looks so twisted that the “baby” seems to have had its neck snapped!
Another scene at the end also got my goat. As Balli’s tribesmen break down the door of the castle in the background, and he lies among dead British soldiers in the foreground, check out the wincing soldier who is supposed to be dead but is clearly bracing for the door to land with a thud on the ground.
Compare this to the horrified reaction of one of the many soldiers being thrown by the Kalakeya leader at Amarendra Baahubali towards the end of the first film. It adds immensely to the situation, while Shamshera’s blooper breaks the spell that the scene was building up to.
The makers of Shamshera might have had the right intentions, but people do not judge a work of art by the intent behind it.
For a film to become an epic, it should tell a story that adheres to that principle in every single way!
Mere expansive shots need to be replaced with establishing scenes. Hard-hitting action needs to give way to set pieces that take the story forward. Characters need to have depth, and songs need to add to the narration.
That’s how even the greatest films get away with bad CGI.