Oh yes, Shamshera is a terrible film but does that explain the curious case of its abandonment by the parent studio? After investing considerable money and time, casting several big names, and waiting for the pandemic to recede for a theatrical release, the studio let go of the film without caring about its promotions. Ranbir Kapoor has returned to the screen after a long time. Given his stature as a film star, Shamshera is too dull for a re-entry point. After watching the film, the passive abandonment won’t seem surprising at all.
Shamshera, played by Ranbir Kapoor, is a tribal dacoit and the leader of his group. For the freedom of his people from tyranny, he is made to surrender to the British Empire by Shuddh Singh, played by Sanjay Dutt. But the empire locks the entire tribe in a fortress and thwarts them into slavery. Shuddh Singh is at the center of this deceit, and the clients are the upper castes who have paid the empire to get rid of the tribal group, Khumeeran. Shamshera has to repurchase the freedom of his people, for which he has to pay a more significant sum to the empire than the upper castes. However, his entrapment makes the task impossible. While attempting an escape, Shamshera is caught and killed. His tribesmen brand him a traitor for trying to escape. He leaves behind a legacy and a son Balli who looks exactly like him because the same actor plays them both, Ranbir Kapoor.
In this great Bollywood story, the lookalike son comes back to avenge his father, secure what he aimed for, and romance with the second big actor signed by the studio whose sole purpose is to look gorgeous, appear in songs, and go into labor in the precise moment of danger. This is a story you wouldn’t even choose to narrate to your children for entertainment. This is a story that has tired all of us. If you write this story as a content writer, you will spend more time reworking the suggestions by your senior than you spent on writing it. But as they say, there are only seven stories in the world and infinite ways to tell them. Is Shamshera a unique way per se to tell a story that has been told numerous times? I am afraid not.
Even juvenile mentions sound relevant in an era of politically ignorant mainstream Hindi films. Hence, the characterizations seem only fair regarding colonialists and upper castes working hand in hand to enslave the tribals. The idea itself is relevant when you consider who our protagonist is. The savior doesn’t come from the outside but is one of the same people he is trying to save. The folklore around him is the only reality, so not only does he stand out in the history of the community but also in their present. He looks different, thinks differently, and talks differently. He is one of them and yet so alien. The dependency of the tribals on this hero has reached such an extent that they are lifeless bodies needing a rescue that doesn’t warrant any effort from their end. Therefore, the hero not only has to rescue his people into freedom but also has the responsibility of igniting a revolutionary fire in them. They need to be wakened up from their sensorial slumber and mental slavery.
For any hero story, you are required to exploit simplistic emotions. All positive characters oscillate between hopelessness and anger. All negative characters oscillate between greed and cruelty. Violence takes the easy-to-render-onscreen form of physical torture and manifests unlivable circumstances for characters to exaggerate the stakes. Subjecting your characters to unlivable conditions and intensified pain is an easy way to claim the audience’s sympathy and justify the hero’s cause, but all such claims are ephemeral only.
Exaggeration makes everything cosmetic, and you start to feel nothing for characters and their cause. Cruelty itself is exhausting even when there are obvious vested interests. The security officers cannot keep being loud, rude, and torturous to the enslaved subjects in a monotonous way for 25 years. The antagonist cannot laugh menacingly (or comically) for 25 years. You could not have a well-built figure if all you had to eat for 25 years was some rice and gruel at the mercy of your oppressors. The logic of screenplay mechanics has to be taken into account because films like Shamshera invest more resources in building a foundational story than they do in creating spectacles. This is what differentiates Shamshera from Rajamouli’s RRR, which was also about two savior figures working for the cause of their tribes against an imperialistic force. In RRR, the film was built around spectacular set pieces. In Shamshera, spectacles are built into the film. And the spectacles are not only tiresome but aesthetically outdated.
The Rajamouli scale’s emergence and commitment to commercial filmmaking rendered Shamshera obsolete. The emergence of anti-caste narratives, primarily in Tamil Cinema, rendered Shamshera politically irrelevant and juvenile. The film’s visual appeal and politics explain why the studio stopped investing more resources in it than they already did. Shamshera was a sunk cost, and the studio made the economically wise decision of not treading by sunk cost fallacy.
The film is full of bloopers and socioeconomic illogic. But the primary surprise isn’t why the film wasn’t promoted in the name of Ranbir Kapoor. The primary surprise is the laziness with which it is made. Human societies do not function in a state of stagnancy. There is constant evolution or devolution. Twenty-five years of confinement in a fortress is bound to create an independent microeconomy of its own. As previously mentioned, cruelty is exhausting and not favorable to greater interests either. The same greed and corruption of oppressors are bound to make the situation more complex than a binary powerplay of tyrants and the enslaved. Again, the logic is marginalized for a simple narrative, but the simple narrative is tiring to the senses and not at all pleasing.
I will end this with a question: Has Ranbir Kapoor become a bad actor, or was he always one?