The thriller “Thar” is a reminder that Sergio Leone’s Westerns can be adapted to any setting, and that nepotism isn’t just a Hollywood thing.
“Thar” is a plodding desert borderland tale of drugs, murder and revenge, decorated with gunplay, gruesome torture and sex. There are horses, sure. But in this 1985 story they’re supplanted mostly by jeeps and motorbikes. The desert setting is the one separating India from Pakistan that gives the film its title.
And we have to label this a “Western” because the police procedural touches in this “case” are a shrugged-off afterthought.
It opens with a furtive night of illicit sex between a young woman about to be married off and the lover she’ll be leaving behind in remote Munabao, passion interrupted when her family is robbed and slaughtered.
No, she can’t identify the attackers.
Then a goatherd is killed outside of Munabao, a town so dry even the weeds have trouble staying alive. But Suva wasn’t just murdered. An ear was sliced off and he was gutted and left hanging from a tree.
“Someone was sending a message,” the grizzled narrator/police inspector Surekha (Anil Kapoor) mutters (in Hindi, or dubbed into English).
Surekha is about to retire from this sleepy, low-crime posting. But now he and his plump lower-caste lieutenant (Satish Kaushik) have real crimes and government officials who want the perpetrators identified “and everybody killed” to “close the book” on this case.
Just local “dacoits,” Indian bandits settling a score? Drug dealers from across the border in Pakistan? A local feud? And who is this nearly-silent stranger ( Harshvardhan Kapoor, son of Anil), asking around about men he wants to hire for “a job” moving “antiques?” He’s spending a little too much time questioning the wife (Fatima Sana Shaikh) of one of the men he wants, the locals think, seeing as how that husband is out of town.
Somebody “knows” something about some of this, or all of it. But nobody talks.
“A different breed of vulture is circling our Munabao.”
Director and co-writer Raj Singh Chaudhary parks his archetypes in a desert setting, and takes his sweet time pointing this picture towards the obvious conclusions he knows we’ll draw. He doesn’t develop the blind alleys for the slow-footed cops to pursue. We spend little time with the drug lord (Rahul Singh) and the armed horsemen who might be responsible for all this.
No, let’s only focus on the mysterious stranger, his motives and actions. Not that the cops zero in on the guy nobody knows.
The sadistic violence that breaks out from time to time is practically on another timeline. His sidekick may call Detective Inspector Surekha a “genius,” but there’s precious little here to back that up. He has hunches but barely bothers to collect evidence. He leaps to conclusions while missing the obvious.
Kapoor, a chiseled icon of Indian cinema, plays this guy with a glib growl, a ready-to-retire cop “excited” about his job, at long last, blithely ignoring the body count piling up on his watch. Give him Raybans and he could be David Caruso, a cop just waiting for the next opportunity to drop a tasty one-liner, although there aren’t many of those.
His son’s character, Siddharth, is so thinly sketched-in as to barely amount to an archetype. We see his actions, but nothing about the character gives away emotion and begs for our investment in him. The script is much more concerned with filling the third act with his motivations for doing what he’s doing. That doesn’t help Kapoor the younger show us anything other than his smoldering good looks.
The few jeep chases and shootouts are almost on a par with action pictures from anywhere. The gunplay isn’t that convincing and the pacing even in the most exciting moments is leisurely.
And the inclusion of sex scenes show more Western influence on Indian cinema, at least on movies made for Netflix.
But “Thar” never quite gets up the head of steam that a generic thriller whose ending is pre-ordained needs to pass muster. When we know where it’s going, extra effort has to be made to distract us until that moment we get there.
People are disappearing and dying gruesome deaths and there’s zero urgency in the heroes, the villains, the bystanders and officialdom) to do much about it.
And the occasional attempt at creating an iconic Leone-style Western image never overcomes the “shot quick” and “filmed digitally” handicaps that keep the striking settings of “Thar” from taking on the sheen of a “Once Upon a Time in India.”
Rating: TV-MA, torture, gun violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Harshvardhan Kapoor, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jitendra Joshi and Satish Kaushik
Credits: Directed by Raj Singh Chaudhary, scripted by Raj Singh Chaudhary and Anurag Kashyap. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:48