Laal Kaptaan is set in the late 1800s, around 25 years after the Battles of Plassey and Buxar. The British East India Company has begun to cement its position in India. British army men, Afghan warriors, bounty hunters, Marathas, and other tribes are roaming the land. Among them is a Naga sadhu seeking vengeance.
The sadhu, referred to as gosai, makes his way through the arid landscape of Bundelkhand, with only his horses for company. He is a lone ranger working his way from one bounty to another, collecting his payment in gold pieces. But all the while, the true purpose of his life is never out of his sights. His target is Rehmat Khan (a grunting Manav Vij), an unscrupulous and heartless opportunist.
Black and white scenes take us back in time, to the fate of a young boy, his father, and their connection with a hanging tree. Over the course of the 153 minutes of this film, more is revealed about that boy's story, and his connection with Saif Ali Khan's Naga sadhu.
Somewhere else, not far away, a tracker (played by Deepak Dobriyal), with two pet dogs for company, goes from one assignment to another. He sniffs out his target, delivers them to the client, and collects payment in gold pieces.
While the gosai is grim, resolute, and quick with a sword and spear, the tracker's playful character reminds us that this is historical fiction. Dobriyal is also having a good time, and his character has the last laugh when all around him are killing or being killed.
Another player in the story is a widow (Zoya Hussain), whose arrival sets off a chain reaction of inexplicable violence. Sonakshi Sinha makes a cameo appearance in a scene that, like many others, contributes little to the overall experience or story. Simone Singh makes an impact as Rehmat Khan's anxious wife.
Saif slips into the skin of the sadhu " weapons, dreadlocks, ash-smeared face and all, throwing his body into the part. But his character, like others too, is missing a layer. In spite of the length and unhurried storytelling (screenplay by Navdeep Singh and Deepak Venkatesha), the script inadequately develops characters, glossing over the roots of their angst and anger.
The costumes (Maxima Basu), production design, locations, and cinematography by Shanker Raman (the black and white night scene with elements of red, featuring an ambush by a group of fur-clad Afghans is clearly a hat-tip to Akira Kurosawa) are notable.
Singh, the director, had all the pieces to craft an effectual Indian western: the terrain, the long-suffering sadhu, an age of flux, elements of magic realism, and touches of Shakespearean tragedy. But Laal Kaptaan falters on an over-written script and visually over-told story.