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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Why is Thugs of Hindostan Bollywood's biggest flop? Patchy history certainly doesn’t help

A battle of charisma between Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan is also at play

Amitabh Bachchan in Thugs of Hindostan
Amitabh Bachchan in Thugs of Hindostan

Yash Raj Films's Thugs of Hindostan (TOH) hit theatres during Diwali – the Indian festival of lights is synonymous with the bursting of firecrackers, but TOH has turned out to be nothing but a fizzling, wet bomb. Light is not shining brightly on the big-budget movie, and even the fact that it is the first time superstars Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan have come together for a film in three decades will not be able to save it.

The initial hype about the unique pairing, and Khan's reputation for focusing on quality over quantity, as well as the Diwali release, meant that there was a big-bang at the box office on Thursday, the opening day. But the next day's collections brought everyone back to reality: according to Bollywood business analyst Taran Adarsh, collections dipped by 44.33 per cent on the Friday, meaning the takings were nearly half that of the first day. This is one of the biggest slumps in Bollywood's history. "All that glitters is NOT gold ... holds true for #TOH," Adarsh wrote on Twitter.

This meagre revenue pales in comparison to the millions spent – roughly US$690 million (Dh2.51 billion) - with the film shot extensively in Malta and India, and lots of VFX effects to create the period film. The makers spared no effort, and the project grew bigger and bigger by the day. And therein lies the problem.

A historical film - but through a foggy lens

The seed of the project was 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows, which documented the Thuggee cult, a crime gang in India that thrived for around 600 years, and coincided with England's aspirations to set up base in the subcontinent through the trade channel with East India Company.

In the early 1800s, the country was a cluster of royalties - big and small rulers, each figuring out their own way of survival - and these Thuggees were bunches of thieves operating under one signature style. They overpowered their victims by catching them by surprise and strangulating them before taking off with the loot.

The Thugs - who are thought to have killed hundreds of thousands of people in their time - were suppressed by the British rulers of India during the 1830s (and were effectively eradicated by the 1870s).

Their crimes were gruesome and far-reaching, but this movie certainly paints a 2D, almost rosy picture of them. Among the most prominent leaders of the cult was Syed Aamir Ali, also known as Firangee. He was a master of deception. Enter Aamir Khan in the film adaptation.

To make his character - and by extension Khan? - more likeable, the script writers have deviated so much from reality. To make it clear he is a thug with a conscience it is pointed out that he is actually a mercenary and does not believe in killing: this almost certainly would not have been true.

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The only connection to the real history of the man can be seen in two scenes. In the first, he deceives a wealthy procession of people before signaling to his accomplices to strangle his victims. Then there is another moment at the end where he tricks prison staff with opium-filled sweets, a ploy that was often used by the Thuggees.

Khan and Bachchan - a collision of charisma

Khan has a penchant for taking centre stage in every film he's involved in, so much so that people know that when he is named as the producer or director, he is likely to be everything rolled into one by proxy. But then the casting coup with getting Bachchan meant he had to share that limelight.

The compromise by the filmmakers seemed to be to allow Khan exposure for his acting skills as a deceptive man, while Bachchan got crispy one-liners and brilliant, VFX-powered action scenes.

TOH is more than three hours long, and there are a couple of well-choreographed dance numbers by Katrina Kaif, and sincere efforts by action director Lee Whittaker, music directors Ajay-Atul, production designer Sumit Basu and director of photography Manush Nandan. But even these valiant turns cannot mask the fact that there is a wafer-thin and flimsy plot behind the whole thing.

Instead of an interesting historical epic, TOH turns out to be your standard revenge drama, with just a touch of history and a bucketload of 'inspirations' from Pirates of The Caribbean, Bahubali and Lagaan all rolled into one. Lines are blurred badly between Khan's bunch of Thugs and Bachchan's freedom fighters.

Yash Raj Films released a series of short clips to explain the making of the film: one part focuses on the meticulous efforts to build two ships to minute detail. They then admit they forgot to check if the boats would be sailworthy: so there is then a big sigh of relief when the ships do manage to set sail in Malta's sea.

There is also a tinge of sadness when director Vijay Acharya says the script demands they destroy the fruit of their labour - one of the ships.

But it turns out that at the box office in India, viewers have not been deceived by the star power and the potential historical interest: Thugs of Hindostan has sunk, and with very little trace.