thar, a new Netflix release, belongs to a specific subversive genre. Long shots of lonely desert. A grisly murder, a severed ear. A tired cop, Surekha (Anil Kapoor), who will be retiring in a few months. And then a stranger enters the village, a city dweller named Siddharth (Harshvarrdhan Kapoor), an antique dealer in Delhi.
It is the year 1985, the place Munabao, a hamlet in Rajasthan. Deceitful men, ambiguous motives, a desolate landscape — this is a western that winks at noir or country snoops No country for old men.
Clock in at 109 minutes, thar is more atmosphere than action. There are two parallel murders: one of a family and the other of an individual. It alternates between the lives of Surekha and Siddharth: a beaten old guard who remained a sub-inspector all his life, and a reticent young man on a disturbing mission.
The film isn’t about who committed the main murder – we find out early on – but why. The reason is revealed in the climax. tharso primarily fills in the rest of the blanks – not through the plot, but through the characters. Surekha is pleasant company; the film conveys the tenor and tone of his life with sufficient finesse.
For a film that focuses on horrifying depravity, Thar is quite embarrassed at most of the violent scenes
He says in an early scene that the Dacoits in earlier times “were rebels from the so-called low castes; they were principled, unlike these people” – his junior Bhure (Satish Kaushik), who belongs to a marginalized caste, listens quietly. When Surekha enters the house of a young woman (Fatima Sana Shaikh), Bhure stays outside. Surekha has enough problems of his own – a still life, a slave life – and his wife has listened to them all; sometimes she dozes off in the middle and leaves her husband alone with his monologue.
These pieces feel intriguing and meaningful—but only to a point. because thar Filmmaker Raj Singh Chaudhary manages to throw in details but struggles to connect them. A subplot like Surekha’s also has a hidden pitfall: it’s realistic to the point of stagnation. Or at least so stagnant that it lacks a compelling arc or sustained socio-political engagement. The net result is a slow burn that culminates in, well, not much.
Then there’s Siddharth, a riddle within a riddle. Like many compelling characters, he is marked by an odd contradiction. He doesn’t talk that much; do his actions – or rather shout. One by one young men disappear from the village. Siddharth locked them in a run-down fortress and inflicted barbaric torture on them. Such schism leaves you craving character details, but Harshvarrdhan reveals nothing, causing first intrigue and then frustration.
Unlike other star kids, Harshvarrdhan isn’t known for chewing scenes, but instead for slow simmering. It was a style that looked refreshing in the earlier years, but in 2022 it feels like a shtick — a performance of a performance.
Worse, this approach backfires as Siddharth doesn’t look menacing or effective in gory scenes. His character is so sluggish that he ossifies the film, excluding possibilities and surprises. Instead of subtle tonal variations – a continuous line connecting Siddharth’s ‘normal’ and disjointed self – Harshvarrdhan plays him in two distinct modes that embody (not enhance) his perceived blandness.
For a film about terrible depravity thar is quite embarrassed during most violent scenes and deadens the blows with distracting background music. They are present in both types of torture – from Siddharth and Surekha – making the diluted effects a proprietary style. However, this is not the case when the victim is a woman. The violence then becomes more “agile”, more confident and disturbing, which makes you suspicious given the sharp change in tone.
What leaves no doubt, however, is its climax. It’s so stale and closed off and simple that it feels quite fitting that the filmmakers have run out of ideas. Towards the end, Surekha is where he was: contemplating an uncertain future, much like the sheriff in it No country for old men.
The only difference is that the poetic coda of Tommy Lee Jones’ character is a modern masterpiece. Here, the climatic shock (and Surekha’s parallel defeat) reminds you of a lazy pun: a “cop out.”
By arrangement with The Wire
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 15, 2022