Director Navdeep Singh loves westerns. He’s also a fan of Indian colonial history. With Laal Kaptaan, the filmmaker has found a way to merge his passions.
Set in the aftermath of the Battle of Buxar, sometime in the late 18th century, the film follows a Naga Sadhu on his path of vengeance.
Saif Ali Khan plays this ascetic turned gun-for-hire, sporting giant dreadlocks and a shabby military redcoat.
Navdeep says he is drawn to the ‘footnotes of history’. He recalls reading about Begum Samru and the Battle of Buxar when he came across something fascinating.
The Naga Sadhus, he found out, had joined the Nawabs of Awadh in their fight against the British.
“Slowly through research, I discovered it was a militarily and politically active time in our past. There were multiple principalities fighting for power. In parallel, my co-writer Deepak Venkatesha and I were working on a revenge story. So we decided to blend the two ideas.”
The dialogues of Laal Kaptaan are penned by Sudip Sharma, who also co-wrote Sonchiriya.
Both films echo the American sub-genre of ‘revisionist westerns’ — morally complex works that reverse the macho brutality of classic westerns.
The style is often traced back to legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, and the Clint Eastwood-directed films Unforgiven and Dances With Wolves.
“Beyond its tropes and clichés, the western, for me, is about the end of an era,” Navdeep says.
“It’s about civilization and the law coming in, and an old way of life dying out. In our context, the end of the 18th century marked the end of the old India. We suddenly had this shock exposure to western culture and imperialism. So it’s that classic theme of man versus nature.”
To get Saif on board, Navdeep did his research about the Nawabs of Pataudi. “Saif’s family history stems from the same period our film is set in. So he instantly connected to the world. He is also a fan of the western and wanted to play a ‘badass’ character.”
Laal Kaptaan was shot across Rajasthan to represent the erstwhile Bundelkhand territory. A wide range of period weaponry was sourced for Saif’s unhinged mercenary. “We researched a lot about vintage firearms and their loading mechanisms. This was before rifles were invented. We have used different kinds of muskets, matchlocks, and flintlocks. The Afghans in North India used a specialised muzzle-loading gun called Jezail, which we procured for the film.”
Zoya Hussain, who made her Bollywood debut in Mukkabaaz, plays the female lead in Laal Kaptaan. Her character is that of a widow on the run from her past. “Each character in the film is either hunting or being hunted,” Zoya says. “I portray a woman who is on the edge of survival. It’s hard to trust what she says or does. She is someone who is trying to flee her identity, so there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.”
On the difficulty of shooting in harsh exteriors, Zoya notes, “As actors, we rarely get an opportunity to interact with raw environments. Navdeep has depicted the period landscape in a fresh light. We shot in deep jungles, mountains, rivers, and plateaus. The visual design of the film is really stunning. It was a challenging but deeply satisfying journey for me.”
The second trailer of Laal Kaptaan, titled The Chase, had introduced us to a mysterious ‘tracker’. Played by Deepak Dobriyal, this character with a heightened sense of smell, roams around with two hounds — namely ‘sukhiram’ and ‘dukhiram’. “My character is a vagrant whose family are his dogs,” Deepak says. “He is the original detective, a man who can trace down targets using his olfactory skills.”
Although he didn’t have a historical reference for the role, Deepak based his performance on the folk tales of Rajasthan. “I heard many stories about ‘trackers’ — jungle-dwellers who assisted royal men on hunting expeditions. They could simply look in one direction and tell you where to spot an animal. Our folk history is rich with such characters. For an actor, it’s always enriching to discover these stories and imbibe them in our performance.”