Anil Kapoor’s understated charisma and innate appeal keep the film going even when his writing enters shallow waters.
There is a scene in Tar when Surekha Singh, played by Anil Kapoor, leaves his house for an investigation. Surekha is a police inspector in a seemingly peaceful border town. “Don’t try to be a super cop…Come back alive, okay?” says his wife Pranati (Nivedita Bhattacharya). “I’ve been hearing this for 25 years now. ‘Come back alive. Come back alive. It is probably this effort to come back alive that has prevented me from getting a promotion so far,” retorts Surekha. “A promotion that kills you is useless,” she replies.
This conversation sums up Surekha’s uneventful existence so far. The kind that could describe vast swaths of humanity – skating, somewhat dissatisfied but not enough to snap out of its inertia to take risks, stay safe and, therefore, stay alive. Pranati is the yin to her yang, content with merely surviving and the minor rewards, such as respect and fear from the community, that her husband’s mundane career brings.
The couple and their son live in Munabao in Rajasthan, close to Pakistan.
Not much happens in Munabao until a handsome stranger (Harshvarrdhan Kapoor) enters the scene in 1985. The arrival of this enigmatic stranger coincides with some heinous crimes that may or may not be related, which obviously makes him a person of interest to the local police. His air of mystery, his reticence, and the monetary gains he offers make him a person of interest to the locals.
Tar deals with the secrets and horrors that lurk beneath the surface of the seeming monotony of a small town – criminal networks that thrive because law enforcement doesn’t bother to dig deep unless they have to in response to overtly disruptive activity, the terrible crimes that seemingly ordinary people are capable of, the sexual permissiveness that rages beneath the facade of ghoongats, social institutions and conservatism, and desperate women. Above all, it is about the price that revenge extracts from all parties involved.
Director Raj Singh Chaudhary uses the austere beauty of his locations and the careful camerawork of Shreya Dev Dube along with the evocative music of Shashwat Sachdev (who is credited for the fiery title track) and Ajay Jayanthi to create an atmosphere of intrigue across the burning sands of the Thar. This giant beast lying motionless in the sun, an image that runs like a continuous thread throughout the narrative, appears a bit too arranged and overstudied in an effort to symbolize Munabao’s decaying and quietly rotting society. Abundant compensation comes, however, in the form of the rest of Tarthe brooding and picturesque visual landscape of .
Kapoor Senior’s quiet charisma anchors the narrative and the awareness that weighs upon him of the volcanic unrest simmering beneath the appearance of inactivity in Munabao.
In this and many other respects, Tar is not a conventional Hindi film. What makes it even rarer is the repeated reference to casteism, coming from an industry that for a few decades now has widely claimed that the caste system does not exist.
It is also unusual to see a Hindi film in which Pakistan, cross-border activity and even crime are crucial elements but are not used to shout slogans about the “duchman desh“or to demonize it”Teddy”. Tar speaks of the enemy within and without. And even if it’s not written in black and white, given the geographical location, there’s a lot to read in the film’s stated stance on the all-consuming nature of revenge and the price it extracts from those who seek it.
Tar is clearly an ode to the spaghetti western genre. To leave us in no doubt on this subject, a tribute to Sholay is thrown into a conversation.
The director, Chaudhary, had already directed the 2021 films Shaadisthanwhich, to quote my review, was “a goofy thesis on feminism”. Tar is so mature in comparison that it’s hard to accept the fact that the same individual ran it. Chaudhary wrote the screenplay (additional screenplay by Yogesh Dabuwalla and Anthony Catino) while the dialogues are by Anurag Kashyap. Women are far from being at the forefront of Tarbut they are not marginal either, and they are certainly far from the caricature that the main actress of Shaadisthan been.
With so many things holding together, Tar is nevertheless disappointed by his inability to give substance, and therefore relativity, to the perpetrator of the crimes Surekha must solve. In order to maintain the suspense, the writing team reveals so little about this person so late that it’s impossible to feel invested in their motives and pain.
As the plot progresses, this limitation holds Tar back to fully experience its potential and captivating atmospheres.
Although he is the producer with Harshvarrdhan, Kapoor Senior does not monopolize the screen, which is commendable. Young Kapoor, her son, has a naturally sweet personality but isn’t challenged to do anything beyond being deadpan throughout the film and appearing likeable.
Of the supporting cast, Satish Kaushik is endearing as Surekha’s physically unfit and lower-caste colleague, and Mukti Mohan makes an impression in a small role as the feisty wife.
The cast has many impressive talents, but none are as arresting as Anil Kapoor, whose innate appeal seems to be growing year by year. Like the weather-beaten officer who is far smarter than his rank suggests, he keeps Tar go even when his writing penetrates shallow waters.
Anil Kapoor is reason enough to watch this well-crafted thriller.
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
Thar is streaming on Netflix
Anna MM Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specializes in the intersection of cinema with feminist concerns and other sociopolitical concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial