Audacious idea, outlandish execution
Director: Nikhil Advani
Actors: Irrfan, Arjun Rampal
By Mayank Shekhar
Dawood belongs to Bollywood. The only video of the don that most have seen is dated early ‘90s, him sitting in the stands of the cricket stadium in Sharjah. His mythology has been kept alive primarily through half a dozen gangster flicks: Milan Luthria’s Once Upon A Time In Mumbai, the sequel of which will be out soon; Shootout At Lokhandwala, the prequel to which, Shootout At Wadala, released recently; then there was Ram Gopal Varma’s cool Company and the other one he produced called D…. This one is called D-Day.
It lets you into the ‘White House’ mansion at Clifton, a gated neighbourhood in Karachi as the villain sits among his minions; dabaos biryani; activates his sleeper cell to detonate a bomb in Hyderabad; calls himself a businessman; barks at the chief of Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), his hosts; wears rose-tinted glasses, literally. Voyeurism, one of this picture’s purposes, gets fully served.
For once, the don isn’t a glorified lord of the street or benevolent king of an international syndicate. He is what he is supposed to be: a despicable criminal, under the protection of the Pakistani state. Hiding like a coward inside a house frustrates him no end. He wants to hang out at a party in a hotel to celebrate his son’s wedding. The ISI would rather not have him there. He doesn’t listen. The hotel becomes the perfect venue then for four Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) agents to nab and abduct the nation’s most wanted gangster and drag him back to India.
The movie opens with this cracker sequence of the planned abduction. Some of the portions leading up to this event are equally exhilarating. In its sheer chutzpah and cheek, this is the most audacious mainstream idea we’ve come across lately. In the West, filmmakers have cinematically bumped off the hated American President George W Bush even while he was serving in office (Death Of A President). No harm done. It’s creative catharsis of sorts. It’s hard to even imagine something like that in India, where everyone, a dreaded don included, can be a holy cow, who appears on screen with his name changed.
Secret service agents hoping to pull off a stunt of this magnitude in any foreign land, let alone Pakistan, would have to be great actors first. The ones playing them in this film–in order of merit, Irrfan, Aakash Dahiya, Huma Qureshi, Arjun Rampal— are in top form. There is a back-story for each of these characters, which are too insufficient and weak for empathy. A lot of the times they appear wholly unnecessary. Right at the centre of the plot is Rishi Kapoor, portly man with thick moustache, a character that obviously needs no introduction. Here’s a hungry actor though, who pretty much romanced his way from youth down to his middle-age, now finally testing the real range of his talent (Luck By Chance, Do Dooni Chaar, Aurangzeb, Agneepath…). He plays Iqbal, quite obviously modelled on Dawood Ibrahim.
The first time we probably saw Dawood on screen as roughly how he probably looks, albeit in a snapshot, was in Anurag Kashyap’s docu-drama on the 1993 Bombay blasts, Black Friday (2004). The film was originally supposed to be directed by Ram Gopal Varma. As prelude to the blasts, Varma had wanted to introduce the film with the mastermind Dawood, after the ’92 Bombay riots, holding a bunch of bangles (signifying spinelessness) sent to him by women from his neighbourhood in Dongri. If it went that way, Black Friday would’ve been a very different kind of film. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Either way, it’s a call that the filmmakers here similarly needed to take more sincerely as well.
If this movie starred Salman Khan, Irrfan said in an interview to CNN IBN’s Rajeev Masand, then it wouldn’t have been what it was promising to be. He probably meant it would have been more like the romantic espionage pot-boiler Ek Tha Tiger, which as a masala entertainer was tonally consistent throughout. The director Nikhil Advani, in his previous productions, has worked with Salman (Salaam-e-Ishq), Shah Rukh Khan (Kal Ho Na Ho), Akshay Kumar (Patiala House, Chandni Chowk To China). He made a wonderfully warm children’s animation film Delhi Safari last year. This is his grittiest movie by far, perfect for his personal repertoire.
He looks in total control initially. The songs somewhat get weaved in organically as the narrative remains within the realm of a realistic procedural picture. Minor comparisons to Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart—both manhunts set in Pakistan—may not be fully out of place. At some point however, as melodrama takes over and things inevitably veer towards what Bollywood reviewers call the “curse of the second half” (and this film could’ve done without a second half altogether), you wonder why this wasn’t a desi “Rambo” to begin with. Bringing up the hilarious Pakistani B-grade masterpiece International Gorilay (1990), where two “mai ke lal” go looking to kill Salman Rushdie, the deadliest gun-toting terrorist in the world, would be extremely unfair, of course.
Yet, bullets piercing through the body start resembling minor wounds. Gun-shots get as common as shootouts in crowded streets and market places. Vehicles of all kinds are easily accessible and devices the size of Diwali chocolate bombs can blow up half a building. We are talking about serious spies who stick together, and never change their locations. One of them goes back to the same brothel where he knows everyone is looking for him. All four return to the same room in a crowded hotel, desperate to get caught, I suppose. The ISI chief on the other hand takes national policy decisions on a whim. The last I saw him in the film, he was dancing around Indo-Pak border, if I am not mistaken: “Halt,” he yelled, having come running too close to India! The filmmakers seem as overwhelmed by a poorly thought out plan as the Indian government might be if they were to ever execute this.
Spies inhabit a shadowy world. They plot long-term moves, stay under cover for a living, and quietly run for their life when necessary, which is quite often. Any exposure equals death. Soon as their plot to abduct the don fails, these fellows just don’t know what to do or where to go. Neither does the film, sadly.