Film Review: Veer

Once upon a time in India: Quasi-historical epic of a tribal leader who takes on the British and a treacherous Indian king in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a grand and expansive blend of <i>Braveheart</i>, <i>Lawrence of Arabia</i> and the Tarzan l

A title card at the start of the Hindi historical actioner Veer tells us that all the characters and situations we're about to see are fictional. That turns out to be the understatement of the century. Loosely based on the existence of the Pindari, who by most historical accounts were mercenary desert plunderers—subcontinental Vikings-for-hire—and on the fact of the hated British rule, it's a rousing Bollywood melodrama with a relentless pace and epic sweep. The titular warrior Veer had no real-life counterpart, there was no great battle for the "kingdom" (actually city) of Mandavgarh (now called Mandu), which had been abandoned by the 17th century, and the chronology is completely bonkers: Leaving aside that the Pindari were mostly routed by 1818 and not fighting the Brits in 1862 and 1875 as shown here, the film is told in flashback from 1920—but with most of the flashbacks taking place from the late 1920s on!

OK, so it's as historical as 300, or even less so. But Veer, a longtime dream project of Bollywood superstar Salman Khan—who's credited with the story and plays the title role—is equally entertaining, moving like the desert wind for great portions of a nearly two-and-three-quarter-hour running time that's bursting with birth, death, life, love, honor, betrayal, London and India. Wildly but satisfyingly melodramatic, it's hokum of the highest order, punctuated with the most rousing musical sequences of the last several Indian imports.

Director Anil Sharma—a veteran journeyman who scored a homeland hit with Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), about the 1947 partition of India—and his action director, Tinu Verma, use a restless, roaming camera and inventive angles to propel the story, even as it shifts from desert battlefields to the real-life University College of London to gladiatorial combat and a climactic clash at a mountaintop fort. Stateside Bollywood fans more accustomed to modern-day musical romances or stylish crime thrillers will be pleasantly surprised to find a period piece that's more “Xena: Warrior Princess” than A Passage to India.

Not that there's any smirk or irony: Veer takes its melodrama straight, no chaser. From the stirring opening desert battle scene of horses, swords and cannon fire—in which the prince of Mandavgarh (Jackie Shroff) betrays his allies, the noble-barbarian Pindari, by leading them to a massacre by the British after they've served his purpose—the black turbans and white turbans couldn't be clearer. A Pindari chieftain, Prithvi (Mithun Chakraborty), who'd sliced off the betrayer's right hand, raises his son Veer in a Leonides-like sequence. The adult Veer leads daring horseback raids on moving trains, and dances with his tribesman in a big, brawny, Gene Kelly-esque musical number with fire wheels, sword-juggling, wireworks acrobatics and a whirling dervish of color.

Prithvi, however, still plans his revenge on the prince, now king, and sends Veer and his happy-rogue brother Punya (Sohail Khan, Salman's real-life younger sibling) to college in London to learn the ways of the crafty British devils. There, Veer falls in love with Yashodhara Singh (newcomer Zarine Khan), who he later discovers is the daughter of the quisling king. But true love will have to wait until after Veer and Punya, back in India, infiltrate the king's court, and lead events to a climactic battle.

The musical numbers are each gorgeous and inventive, with the second, R&B-inflected song staged as a swirling burst of ballerina chorus lines in rainbow-colored gowns, and the third a rhythmic, tribal-drum and mandolin fantasia with an intoxicating, 360-degree low-angle swoon of a shot. And underneath all this heroic adventure, it's still clear that for all the time elapsed and all the ties between India and the U.K. today, that whole colonialism thing? Very much not forgotten, and possibly not forgiven.